Why we need the parable of the prodigal son

Pope Francis (Getty)

At the conclusion of our meeting as Missionaries of Mercy with the Holy Father, we were given a gift, a small replica of one of the panels on the holy door of St Peter’s. There are 16 panels on the door; we were given the one depicting the Prodigal Son at the moment of his return, kneeling before the father who embraces him.

Which is both an obvious and, at the same time, puzzling choice. Obvious, because that parable is one that all preachers and pastors employ to illustrate the mercy of God towards the repentant sinner, so much so that even those who know little about Christianity have heard the basic story. But also puzzling, because it is just that, a parable, a fictional story.

It’s a tale of great power, told as it was by God himself, but nevertheless a story told to convey a message. Contrariwise, the holy door has several panels of Jesus actually showing mercy instead of telling parables about it. Indeed, there is a panel of the Crucifixion itself, mercy incarnate on the Cross, at the moment when Jesus promises paradise to the good thief. There is another panel where the risen Jesus, on the evening of Easter Sunday, gives his Apostles the authority to forgive sins. Either panel would be most fitting for priests – the moment of sacrifice on the Cross, made present at every Mass, or the moment of the institution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation – especially for those priests charged with promoting confessions.

The Missionaries of Mercy were convoked in Rome for days of encouragement in the mission entrusted to them by Pope Francis during the Jubilee of Mercy and extended at the conclusion of the jubilee year. When extending their mandate as confessors with universal faculties, the Holy Father wrote more generally (Misericordia et misera #11):

The Sacrament of Reconciliation must regain its central place in the Christian life. This requires priests capable of putting their lives at the service of the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), in such a way that no sincerely repentant sinner is prevented from drawing near to the love of the Father who awaits his return …

The image there is that of the father of the Prodigal Son. In his address to us on April 10, Pope Francis returned to that favoured image:

Those who feel abandoned and alone can experience that God is meeting them. The Parable of the Prodigal Son recounts that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son” (Luke 15,20). And he threw his arms around him. God is not idle to wait for the sinner: He runs to him, because the joy of seeing him come back is too great, and God has this passion to rejoice, to rejoice when He sees the sinner coming. It almost seems that God himself has a “restless heart” until He has found his son who had been lost.

All of which finds echoes in my own preaching and spiritual direction. In our work on campus in primary evangelisation, we use the Prodigal Son to speak about God’s merciful love, even before we speak specifically about Jesus who reconciles us to the Father.

Nevertheless, it still remains a question why it is that we are more inclined to turn to the parable rather than to the concrete examples of the Lord’s mercy – the life-saving mercy shown to the woman caught in adultery, the converting mercy shown to Peter in the silent look after his denials, the violent mercy visited upon Paul on the road to Damascus, the mercy of a good death granted to the crucified thief.

Is it because the drama of mercy requires, to be appreciated in its full depth, a frank appraisal of the reality of sin? We don’t like to dwell upon the evil wrought by actual sinners; it is easier to contemplate the dissolute living of the parable’s Prodigal. Also, his sins are grave, but somehow routine. Squandering money on gluttonous living with loose women is rather banal, quite unlike a wrenching betrayal.

Perhaps too we find congenial the parable’s father, that anonymous kind-hearted man who rushes to embrace us. How much harder it would be to put ourselves in the place of the adulterous women, facing Jesus; or, even worse, Peter having to meet the eyes of his friend. The Church protects the right to an anonymous Confession because she knows that penitents may prefer not to come before a priest face to face. If we are understandably reluctant to come with our sins before a priest acting in persona Christi, how much more frightening to come before Christ himself?

Preaching as a Missionary of Mercy myself this past two years, I have learned anew that God’s mercy comes to each soul as it can be best received. The Lord Jesus knew that better than any of us, of course. Which is why he gave us what we most readily respond to – the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the April 20th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here