Today is the feast of St Luke, a perfect time to meditate on the next step in our journey which takes place in the circle of love. The gospel of Luke is called the gospel of mercy because it contains parables not found in the other synoptic Gospels. They illustrate the tender mercy of God, with the most famous of these narratives being the parable of the prodigal son. This parable is central in Dives in misericordia – the encyclical of John Paul II dedicated to the Eternal Father – as his first words show: “It is God who is rich in mercy whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father: it is His very Son who, in himself, has manifested him and made him known to us.” All the main elements of the human condition in relation to salvation history are contained in this parable: the son leaves his father’s house, squanders his inheritance, then suffers degradation and conviction as a result – all subjects of our recent meditations on our return trip back to the Father. But all this pales in light of the character of the son’s father as described in Luke’s gospel.
First, the father of the prodigal son was constantly watching for his son’s return: “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20). The father did not even let his son reveal all the misery in his heart. How many times must the son have rehearsed what he would say to his father, to take him back, but during the actual encounter became engulfed in the happiness of his father’s heart: “His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began” (Lk 15: 21-24).
We are invited to celebrate our own return by imitating the young man in this gospel story. The essence of the parable is to convince us that true repentance lies not just in the minimum request of the son, but his full restoration back into the father’s household. The son was only seeking some of the bread given daily to his father’s servants; instead he was brought back into full communion with the father as the returning son. Our Heavenly Father waits for each one of us.