Friday, November 6, 2009

How Would the Story End?

Pastor Charlie asks an interesting question. He wants to know how we think the Prodigal Son parable would end if Jesus had not stopped where he did. Would the older brother have come in to the party? Would the younger brother have come out and joined the father in begging his brother to come in?

The responses have been varied, but most of them have disappointed me. Most have viewed the older brother as a stubborn and jealous prig who would have sat outside and sulked. Many have doubted the sincerity of the younger brother, accusing him of coming home only because he was broke and hungry and intimating that he would have picked up and left again when his belly and his wallet were once more full.

I don't think Jesus told this story in order to demonize either son. I believe He told it to help us identify with both of the father's children. But more than that, I believe He told the story to show how the Father - God - relates to both sons. And I believe that Jesus fully intended a happy ending.

Let's play this out, almost as though we had a "director's cut" DVD of the story with "alternate endings."

Alternate ending #1 - The Father tells the older brother that "all I have is yours, but now we must celebrate because what was lost has been found." The elder brother, in a fit of pique, turns his back on the father and returns to the bunkhouse, where he sulks and plans ways to expose his younger brother as a fraud. Why would Jesus tell this story? Well, perhaps to show that there are many of us who have stayed "in the family" but have never come to understand the love of the Father. Perhaps Jesus is aiming at the pharisees who created rules and waited to point fingers at those who broke them.

Alternate ending #2 - Noticing that neither his brother nor his father is in the party, the younger brother looks out the window to see his father pleading with the older brother to come to the party. Seeing his chance to hog the attention at the party and relishing being, for once, the only brother on his father's good side, the young recently-prodigal son turns on his brother as he self-righteously slaps the backs of the party-goers and accepts still more well wishes from those ranch hands who are genuinely glad he is back. Why would Jesus tell this story? Perhaps he would be emphasizing that while some of us will go to heaven and enjoy the fruits of the Father's house, others - by their own choice - will not. Maybe Jesus was emphasizing that we are only responsible for own decisions, and if others who have known the Father's love for years choose not to respond, that is beyond our control. Or maybe Jesus was in fact pointing out that simply returning from the pig sty when you are hungry is not a real repentence, that the prodigal son has far to go before he really understands what it means to love as his father loves.

Alternate ending #3 - Hearing his father say "all that I have is yours, just as it always has been," the elder brother is brought to his knees, seeing in his father's eyes the depth of love that has always been available to him. Hearing the father say that the celebration has broken out because "what was lost has been found" reminds the brother of how he has come through his own kind of lostness; even if he never physically left the estate, he has wandered in his mind and in his desires, and his father has never stopped loving him even when he did not love his father. The older brother understands the need for celebration; indeed, he needs to celebrate maybe more than anybody else in the house (including his brother) does, and he runs in before his brother ever even notices that he was late to the party.

I think Jesus had something like ending #3 in mind. I think the point of the story is that the love of the Father is transforming, whether we are derelicts who have wasted what we were given on prostitutes and "riotous living" or we are the seemingly upright who jealously guard our position and trumpet our own righteousness. I think Jesus' point is that the Father, just like the woman with the lost coin and the shepherd with the lost sheep, rejoices over each of us and expects us to join in the celebration, just as we would rejoice with the woman and as the angels rejoice with the shepherd.

Yes, Jesus did not end the story. He left it hanging. And yes, that leaves us the freedom to imagine alternate endings.

But surely Jesus did not tell the story as a downer, a finger-pointer, an indictment. This is a parable about the loving father, the father who has different kinds of children who squander what they have been given in different ways, a father who keeps his eyes open at all times for any chance to run to his children.

Just as the father runs down the road to the younger son, he comes out to the older son. He leaves His own house to welcome in the penitent and leaves His own party to plead with the impenitent.

The alternate endings really apply to us. Many of us are older brothers, and we certainly can eschew the open door of our Father and return to sulk in our bunkhouses. Some of us are riotous livers who may only temporarily come to our senses when our bellies are empty and growling. By leaving the story unfinished, Jesus gives us the chance to end it badly.

But I don't think that is Jesus' intention for us, nor is it the point of his story. The story is about a party awaiting both brothers.

The story is about the Father throwing the party.

1 comment:

Charlie Johnson said...

Yep. Nailed it, Lyn. Once again, Jesus doesn't opt for the dualism of either/or, but, rather, the inclusivism of both/and. Grace is for the narcissist who revels in his own prodgality as well as for the moralist who trusts in his own goodness. I like your third ending: both repent-- and do so only because of their father's unfailing, unqualified, unconditional love.