Vatican City — Jesus does not seek to reward good Christians with prizes or to punish bad ones but to help members of both groups recognize each other as brothers and sisters who experience God’s mercy in different ways, Pope Francis said at his general audience Wednesday.
Reflecting on the Gospel story of the prodigal son -- in which a father welcomes home a son who had gone away, spending his inheritance foolishly -- the pontiff said the parable teaches us God never gives up on us and always waits to welcome us home.
“This teaching of Jesus is important,” the pope told crowds gathered on a drizzly day in St. Peter’s Square. “Our condition as children of God is the fruit of the love and the heart of the father.”
“It does not depend on our merits or our actions, and therefore no one can take it away from us, not even the Devil!” said Francis. “No one can take away this dignity.”
“This word of Jesus encourages us to never despair,” said the pontiff.
“In whatever situation of life, I must never forget that I will never cease to be a child of God, a child of a father who loves me and awaits my return,” he said. “Even in the ugliest situations of life, God waits for me, God wants to hug me.”
Francis began his remarks Wednesday by reflecting on the wording of the parable in Luke’s Gospel, which states that the father saw the son walking home while he was “still a long way off.”
“The father went out onto his terrace continually to look at the street and to see if his son had returned,” said the pope. “How beautiful is the tenderness of the father! The father’s mercy is overflowing, unconditional, and manifests even before the son speaks.”
Francis also reflected on how the Gospel describes the father’s older son, who had remained at home and was faithful to the father and helped him care for their property. The Gospel shows the older son angry at the father’s welcoming home of the younger son, upset that the father has not rewarded the older son for his fidelity.
“Poor father!” exclaimed the pontiff. “One son had gone away and the other was never truly close to him!”
“The suffering of the father is like the suffering of God, the suffering of Jesus, when we distance ourselves from God or we go far away or we are close but without being close,” said the pope.
“The older son also has need of mercy,” said Francis. “The just, those that believe themselves just, also have need of mercy.”
“This son represents us when we ask if it is worth the pain to work so hard if we don’t receive anything in exchange,” he continued. “Jesus reminds us that you do not stay in the house of the father to receive compensation, but because you have the dignity of jointly responsible children.”
“We are not speaking of swapping with God, but of being disciples of Jesus, who gave himself on the cross,” said the pope.
Francis said that where the younger son expected castigation for his leaving, the older son expected recompense for his staying.
“The two brothers did not speak amongst themselves, living different stories, but they both reason according to a logic foreign to Jesus,” said the pontiff. “If you do well, you receive a prize, if you do bad you are punished. This is not the logic of Jesus, it is not it!”
“The father has recovered the lost son and now can give him back to his brother!” exhorted the pope. “Without the younger son, the older son also stops being a brother. The greatest joy for the father is seeing that his sons again know themselves as brothers.
“The sons can decide to unite themselves to the joy of the father or to refuse,” said Francis. “They must determine their own desires and the vision they have of life.”
“The parable concludes leaving the ending in suspense: We do not know what the older son has decided to do,” he continued.
“This is a stimulus for us,” said the pope. “This Gospel teaches us that all need to enter into the house of the father and to participate in his joy, in the feast of mercy and fraternity. Brothers and sisters, let us open our hearts, to be merciful like the father!”