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."
He certainly does this under the influence of a deep affection, and this also explains his generosity towards his son, that generosity which so angers the elder son. Nevertheless, the causes of this emotion are to be sought at a deeper level. 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." In the same chapter fifteen of Luke's Gospel, we read the parable of the sheep that was found and then the parable of the coin that was found. Each time there is an emphasis on the same joy that is present in the case of the prodigal son. The father's fidelity to himself is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity. This explains above all his joyous emotion at the moment of the son's return home.
Going on, one can therefore say that the love for the son, the love that springs from the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be concerned about his son's dignity. This concern is the measure of his love, the love of which Saint Paul was to write: "Love is patient and kind.. .love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful...but rejoices in the right...hopes all things, endures all things" and "love never ends."
Mercy - as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son - has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin.
When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and "restored to value." The father first and foremost expresses to him his joy that he has been "found again" and that he has "returned to life. This joy indicates a good that has remained intact: even if he is a prodigal, a son does not cease to be truly his father's son; it also indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself.
Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 5-6
Reflection – This will be my last post from St. John Paul II on mercy – I really do recommend reading the rest of the encyclical, folks, as it is quite beautiful. In my opinion, the first two encyclicals of St. John Paul’s papacy are necessary to understand the rest of his papacy. This is the heart of the man, the core of his doctrine and his own presentation of the Gospel. In particular, we cannot understand his writings on human sexuality and the theology of the body without grounding them in the anthropology of Redemptor Hominis and the theology of Dives in Misericordia.
Indeed, why should we care what God says to us about morality and sexuality and humanity unless first he is holding before us the very pattern of fullness of human life in Jesus Christ, and unless he is doing so because of the richness of his mercy and love for us, his fatherly care and solicitude? Really, if that were not the case, why on earth would we bother with this God of ours and his rules?
It is never about the rules; it is always about the person, and the true dignity and value of the human person. The mercy of God comes to each human being, not to leave them exactly where they are living exactly as they choose to live—the father in the parable waited for the son, but he did not go live in the pig sty with him. The mercy of God comes to each of us to call us home, to call us to our true dignity as sons of God, a dignity only found as we are conformed to the pattern of sacrificial love and holiness of the Son Himself.
This is the joy of Easter, you know. Not that it’s finally spring, or that we have ended the time of fasting and can eat nice foods, or that the liturgy has lots of alleluias in it—all good things, mind you. The joy of Easter is that God is merciful, and in that mercy has raised us up with Christ to life, and that mercy is given freely and fully to the whole human race, and that wherever this mercy is received new life is given, sin is consumed in the fire of mercy, and the true dignity and beauty of each human person is restored and shines forth. And that is the joy of Easter, shining from the Cross and the empty tomb, reflected in the human person who enters into that joy.