Written for the Fairfield University Alumni Relations Lenten Reflections series...
This familiar parable has grown with me, willing to be unwrapped, layer by layer, patiently biding its time through the liturgical year for my fitful attention. It caught me as it catches us all, with a powerful first impression of the all-forgiving God. I recall well how the story of the merciful and loving father comforted and healed my gawky fifth-grade self, tormented by an endless list of tiny but aching sins. I longed for that final run into his outstretched arms.
As I grew older, with the biting self-realization of the late teen years, I found more of the tensions in the story, slowly seeing that the wasted inheritance was not money, but family, social capital, and self-knowledge. And I understood well the lure of the not-this, anything-but-this; it was not hard to see the glamour of escape, an escape from my lumpen family, from my dull self, from my vague sense of potential unrealized.
Take the money. Run.
Many years' worth of homilies would pass before I would really hear the parable's completion, ending, as it does, with the surprising rebuke of the steadfast daughter. Ah. I saw it as "parable" now, upending the prison of my first thoughts, alternately pious and rebellious, my early conflation of fidelity and goodness. I got it.
But there's more. Set in the context of our Lenten walk with Christ toward Jerusalem, we are called not only to repent, but to take on the God in whose image we are made. The parable turns again. Now we are not only the spendthrift daughter and the faithful son, now we are called to be merciful parents ourselves.
Now we take on the role of the capacious mother, the one whose extravagant gifts are not merely the steadfast love and care we give to our sons' youth but also the demanding insistence that their wanderings cannot separate us; that their inheritance has never been, and can never be, forfeited.
Now we are called to be a new kind of father, to rebuke our righteous daughters, those who planned well, those who have their papers in order, those whose basements are stocked with bottled water and canned tuna and granola bars. When they turn to us in indignation ("you never gave me even a young goat!"), we remind them that they are our daughters; that the truth is not about their own plenty, but about God's, even when their granaries seem to hold all they will ever need.
If we let ourselves join this parable, we see not only the classic story of sibling rivalry, but the dignity that being created, God's very own, has conferred on us. And we can become once more the prodigal, starving and outcast, we can "come to ourselves," and turn home. There we will be greeted with the face of infinite mercy, an embrace that heals all ... and ushered straight into the kitchen. Dinner is almost ready, so go wash up, she's been cooking all day.