Pope Francis is not the first person to suggest that the story we all know as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is not named well. He prefers to call it “The Parable of the Merciful Father,” because it really is about the mercy and forgiveness and love of the Father, not about the sons.
The parable inspired the logo for this Jubilee Year of Mercy. You can see in it that the Father is holding his son closely and tenderly, the way a shepherd holds his sheep. And the words say Misericordes Sicut Pater or “Merciful like the Father.”
Everyone knows the story. After talking with his father, the younger son takes his share of his inheritance, moves far away from home, squanders his money on loose living, gets hungry and decides to go back home. He imagines he is not worthy of the father, but maybe he can get a job as a servant. He has carefully prepared what he’ll say to his father when he arrives.
Meanwhile, the older son has fulfilled his father’s every wish, done whatever he was asked to do, has always remained loyal. But when the father throws a party for his errant brother, he becomes angry. He wants nothing to do with his father, his brother, any of it. He won’t even come into the house.
When I graduated from Notre Dame in 1976, Dom Helder Camara, then the archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, received an honorary doctorate. I was lucky enough to meet him, and I still have a picture of him and me on my desk.
In reflecting on this parable the archbishop wrote, “I pray incessantly for the conversion of the older brother. The younger brother has awakened from his life of sin. When will the older brother awaken from his life of virtue?” I have never forgotten those words, and I have returned to them often over the past 40 years.
Both sons are guilty of the same sin: They think they are responsible for their own salvation. The younger son thinks he is too bad to receive the mercy of God. And the older son thinks he is too good to need it.
Both sons mistreat their father. Neither wants to enter the house. Yet the father takes neither one to task. He asks neither one to repent. Instead he loves both sons and offers them his mercy.
- Being Mercy
- A Sinner Whose Sins Are Forgiven
- He Can’t Take His Eyes Off Us
- I Don’t Always Say Thank You
- Reflections on a Trip to the Holy Land, Part 1
- Reflections on a Trip to the Holy Land, Part 2
- Hearing the Confessions of the Confessors
- Getting It Right
- Way Beyond Merit
- Accepting Mercy from an Enemy
Remember how the father runs out the front door of his house to welcome his errant son. He does not let the boy finish his speech. Instead, he hugs and kisses him and offers him everything that he is.
Then he goes out the back door of his house to talk with his older son who refuses to come in. He pleads with him and invites him to be compassionate by offering him his mercy. The father says. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.”
When he says, “Everything I have is yours,” he does not mean the fattened calf, the ring, the robe, the slippers. What he means is that everything he is — mercy, compassion, love, tenderness, goodness, forgiveness — belongs to his sons as well.
The words the father speaks to his older son are the same words the Father speaks to us: “Everything I have is yours.” All the mercy, forgiveness, compassion, love, tenderness, goodness that is God is also ours. God gives us everything that he is.
We do not know the end of the story. We do know that the father loves his sons as each one needs to be loved. You can see why a more correct name would indeed be “The Parable of the Merciful Father.” My guess is that both sons eventually come into the house because the father’s mercy is so strong that they eventually give in.
We are just like those sons. Most us have known ourselves to be the younger son or the older son at different periods in our lives. Sometimes we are both sons, even in the same day! God will allow us to be one or the other or both if it will help us to know that it is his mercy that saves us.
This is not the place for an extensive discussion about faith versus good works. I do believe this. Our good works, by themselves, will not save us. We do not do good works to save ourselves. Rather, we do good works as a way of showing our unending gratitude to God who is so good and generous and merciful to us. Our sins, by themselves, will not disqualify us. Our sins pale in the light of God’s mercy. It is God’s mercy that overpowers both our good works and our sins — and saves us.
In his book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? the priest and theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar quotes the lesser known French author, Father Louis Lochet: “If someone asks us, ‘Will all men be saved?’ we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. This means as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of a proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.”
People often ask me, “What is the highlight of being a Missionary of Mercy?” There is no doubt that listening to the Holy Father, meeting him and being sent forth by him to serve as a Missionary of Mercy is something I will never forget. But this is not the highlight. The highlight is this: When I am in confession or in conversation with someone, God might work through me to help another person know that his mercy is what saves, his mercy is everything, his mercy is always there, and that nothing they have done or not done can make God rescind his mercy.
It is the Father’s mercy that saves us. In the end we are all saved by the relentless, inexhaustible, unconditional mercy of God.
Father Joe Corpora, CSC, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage campaign within Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis has appointed to serve this year as Missionaries of Mercy.