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.