Today's gospel reading at Mass included the much-loved parable of the Prodigal Son. A young man, a second son, is disinclined to stick around on the family farm, so he asks his father for the share of the inheritance that would come to him. Dad agrees, and the young man takes the money and leaves, wasting it all away on "a life of dissipation." When the money is gone, and he finds himself on hard times, he finally comes to his senses and heads home. He knows he's lost his right to be treated as family again, but figures he would be better off as a hired hand back home than the life he's living now.
So, he heads home, and his father runs out and welcomes him with open arms, laughs, cries, lavishes him with new clothes and jewelry, kills the fatted calf and throws a big party, because "this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again! He was lost, and has been found!" This is the part of the story we usually think about, when we think about the prodigal son. It represents God's infinite loving mercy for us, no matter how badly we have behaved in the past, as soon as we come to our senses and turn back from our "life of dissipation."
But that's not where the story begins, nor where it ends.