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One of the most famous depictions of the parable of the prodigal son is the painting by Rembrandt. It is particularly notable for the artist’s use of light and the unusual focus on the father’s hands as they rest on his the back of his returning son.
Art critics have debated the meaning of those hands, often focusing on their shape, but Capuchin Father David Songy, president of Saint Luke Institute, suggests we look at something else: the father is not wearing any rings.
He recalls the story in Luke: “But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the nest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his nger and sandals on his feet.’” (Luke 15:22)
“A ring shows the dignity of the person, the status of the person. It is a sign of power and wealth. Yet, the father has no ring, which you would expect,” he points out.
“The lack of a ring tells us his richness comes not from his material wealth, but from his son,” Fr. Songy says, “just as God’s richness comes from us when we turn to him. The image shows us that the father’s love for his son is total. He has no richness except what he sees, and is, as a father.”
This is an important part of understanding true mercy. None of us deserves mercy, he says. We receive mercy from God and, touched by his compassion, we then become merciful to others.
“To arrive at a place of mercy, you need to have first experienced mercy,” he says.
He notes that the prodigal son would never have known mercy and the complete love that his father felt for him without having experienced the suffering that leaving his family had caused. The older son, who had not suffered, could not understand this and could not fully understand the depth of his father’s love.
Mercy is love shown to a sinner, Fr. Songy says, and we are called to show love when there are injustices. In today’s world, the focus tends to be solely on seeking justice, on calling someone to justice, but we can’t stop there.
It is not easy to forgive our enemies or those who betray us. Yet, forgiveness “creates a different kind of equality,” he says, “because you no longer are defined by what that person did to you. Once you understand God’s mercy to you, you are able to respond in mercy to others and to let go of the suffering you have experienced because of others’ actions.”
“Mercy produces equality and is the greatest justice. Equality from justice is limited to the objective, material world,” he notes. “Love and mercy take us further and gives people the opportunity to reclaim the dignity given to them by Jesus Christ.”
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