The story is over, the prodigal son has returned. But an important and unique aspect of the story exists, which was elaborated on by John Paul II in his encyclical dedicated to God the Father, Dives in misericordia. Understanding this aspect makes our return journey to our Father all the more desirable; frankly, it makes it easier. Obviously, the return of the prodigal son was not a matter of punitive payback or discipline. Neither was it used as a ‘teachable moment’ to put the son in his place as reckless and condemn him to a lock-down. Instead, the father had in mind for his son the restoration of his lost dignity.
In the chapter Particular Concentration on Human Dignity in the above-referenced encyclical, John Paul II explained: “This exact picture of the prodigal son’s state of mind enables us to understand exactly what the mercy of God consists in. There is no doubt that in this simple but penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father. The conduct of the father in the parable and his whole behavior, which manifests his internal attitude, enables us to rediscover the individual threads of the Old Testament vision of mercy in a synthesis which is totally new, full of simplicity and depth. The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son. This fidelity is expressed in the parable not only by his immediate readiness to welcome him home when he returns after having squandered his inheritance; it is expressed even more fully by that joy, that merrymaking for the squanderer after his return” (Dives in misericordia).
“The father’s fidelity to himself – a trait already known by the Old Testament term hesed – is at the same time expressed in a manner particularly charged with affection. We read, in fact, that when the father saw the prodigal son returning home, ‘he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him’ (Lk 15:20). He certainly does this under the influence of a deep affection, and this also explains his generosity towards his son . . . Notice, the father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son’s humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved. Indeed, it has been, in a way, found again. The father’s words to the elder son reveal this: ‘It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found’ (Lk 15:32)” (Dives in misericordia).
“What took place in the relationship between the father and the son in Christ’s parable is not to be evaluated ‘from the outside.’ Our prejudices about mercy are mostly the result of appraising them only from the outside. At times it happens that by following this method of evaluation we see in mercy above all a relationship of inequality between the one offering it and the one receiving it. And, in consequence, we are quick to deduce that mercy belittles the receiver, that it offends the dignity of man. The parable of the prodigal son shows that the reality is different: the relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him. This common experience makes the prodigal son begin to see himself and his actions in their full truth (this vision in truth is a genuine form of humility); on the other hand, for this very reason he becomes a particular good for his father: the father sees so clearly the good which has been achieved thanks to a mysterious radiation of truth and love, that he seems to forget all the evil which the son had committed” (ibid.).