A few years ago Pope (emeritus) Benedict reflected on this parable as a measure of human (and therefore spiritual) maturity. I thought you might appreciate his reflection:
This passage of St Luke constitutes one of the peaks of spirituality and literature of all time. Indeed, what would our culture, art and more generally our civilisation be without this revelation of a God the Father so full of mercy?
It never fails to move us and every time we hear or read it, it can suggest to us ever new meanings. Above all, this Gospel text has the power of speaking to us of God, of enabling us to know his Face and, better still, his Heart.
After Jesus has told us of the merciful Father, things are no longer as they were before. We now know God; he is our Father who out of love created us to be free and endowed us with a conscience, who suffers when we get lost and rejoices when we return.
For this reason, our relationship with him is built up through events, just as it happens for every child with his parents: at first he depends on them, then he asserts his autonomy; and, in the end if he develops well he reaches a mature relationship based on gratitude and authentic love.
In these stages we can also identify moments along the person’s journey in their relationship with God. There can be a phase that resembles childhood: religion prompted by need, by dependence. As a person grows up and becomes emancipated, they wants to liberate themselves from this submission and become free and adult, able to organise themselves and make their own decisions, even thinking they can do without God. Precisely this stage is delicate and can lead to atheism, yet even this frequently conceals the need to discover God’s true Face. Fortunately for us, God never fails in his faithfulness and even if we distance ourselves and get lost he continues to follow us with his love, forgiving our errors and speaking to our conscience from within in order to call us back to him.
In this parable the sons behave in opposite ways: the younger son leaves home and sinks ever lower whereas the elder son stays at home, but he too has an immature relationship with the Father. In fact, when his brother comes back, the elder brother does not rejoice like the Father; on the contrary he becomes angry and refuses to enter the house.
The two sons represent two immature ways of relating to God: rebellion and childish obedience. Both these forms are surmounted through the experience of mercy. Only by experiencing forgiveness, by recognising one is loved with a freely given love a love greater than our wretchedness but also than our own merit do we at last enter into a truly mature and free relationship with God.
Neither son is condemned; the past is not referred to again; the Father reveals through all of his actions a future filled with hope.