Luke 15: 1-3. 11-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. USCCB approved http://www.usccb.org/bible/approved-translations
The genius of this parable is that most of us have lived it in one or more of the roles. For me, I was the “prodigal son” as early as junior high, when I once dallied with friends and missed the first bus home from an away basketball game. My lateness caused my father not only to worry, but to have to stand around the school and wait for hours.
I finally got off a later bus and saw Dad wearing the tuxedo he’d planned to wear to his company Christmas party that night. His face was red when he scolded me, “Where were you? The other bus got back hours ago.” I didn’t have a good answer.
The next morning, I sheepishly apologized to my parents. I asked if they still loved me. The response was as lavish as the one in the parable. “Of course, we love you. You’re our daughter. You made a mistake, but we will always love you.” The event blew over and my brief time of “being grounded” ended, but I remembered that response decades later.
This was not the first or last time in my life when I screwed up and needed forgiveness. But families and communities of people are complicated, and so I have also played the other roles in this parable as well–the dutiful older child who feels she deserves better, the parent who runs out to embrace the lost one.
As you consider the three roles within the parable—the free-wheeling younger child, the responsible older one, and the parent whose generosity is boundless—which role most draws you into the stories of your own life.
—Mary Anne Reese is an attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated from Xavier University’s theology program and belongs to St. Robert Bellarmine Parish.. She is also a published poet.
Dear God, I know that when I am off on a frolic of my own, you are always waiting for me to return. Help me to come to my senses, to stand up, and to admit my mistakes. Help me to trust that, when you catch sight of me on the road, you will run toward me with compassion, embrace me, kiss me, and welcome me home once more. Amen.
—Mary Anne Reese