“And they all lived happily ever after.”
A fairy tale ending is so satisfying - everybody gets what they deserve: good people are rewarded, mean people are punished or (occasionally) forgiven;
all the loose ends are tied up and we can go to sleep confident that all’s right with the world.
But not when Jesus tells us a story.
Today’s parable leaves me asking, “Then what?!”
The parable of the prodigal son is so well-known, and so beloved - and deservingly so - that I found myself a bit surprised in the last few weeks… reading it over and over and always more and more I found myself thinking,
“Then what?!” It’s not over!
And it’s a bit ironic, because it is the longest of Jesus’ parables, so it has actual plot development, multiple characters, and a wealth of detail which we don’t get in most of the parables. Yet for all that detail… it doesn’t really have an ending.
We are left with the father and the elder son standing outside - the son has registered his complaint; the father has responded - first addressing his son’s objection by reminding him “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours;” and then explaining his own actions: “your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
And then what? Then we’re left with a blank space, and a lot of questions.
Does the older brother finally melt, and let go of (what sounds to me like) years of sibling conflict?
Does he stay entrenched in his resentment?
Does he go to the party?
Does the younger brother seek to reconcile with his brother also?
Does he stay at home and get his life back on track?
Or does he run off again and chase another sparkly object?
Does he actually work like a hired hand?
And I can’t help wondering… have they been in this place before?
How many massive blunders has the father already forgiven?
How many times has the father welcomed him home?
Clearly, what the elder brother expects, what he would prefer, is for the father to tell his no-good younger son “you’ve had your inheritance - go away now, I can’t help you anymore.” But, of course, he doesn’t - he welcomes him back with open arms - he not only welcomes him, he runs out to him while he’s still far off, and meets him on the road.
How many more times will he welcome him?
When will he stop welcoming his prodigal son home?
At least for this one question - given what we know of these three characters - on this one question we can posit a reasonably certain response - Never.
He will never stop welcoming his wayward son home.
The father is every bit as prodigal as his younger son - he throws around love and forgiveness like there is a never-ending supply of the goods of grace. He is totally not a “sensible” man - any more than his son - but he does know the most important thing -
That there is no limit to grace.
There is absolutely no limit. It will never run out.
In the words of Graham Greene, “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the ... appalling ... strangeness of the mercy of God.”
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The elder son on the other hand… He is certain that his father’s goods will run out.
He’s the only seemingly “sensible” one in the story. He works hard day after day, he helps his father, he’s a dutiful and obedient son…
And yet - he keeps himself obstinately just out of the reach of grace.
He can’t see that his father already shares with him everything, just as freely as he gave an inheritance to his other son.
This son is certain that his father’s goods will run out, because the only goods he sees are the farm, and the cash, the robe and the ring, and the fatted calf that he wanted for a party with HIS friends!
We live in a world full of elder sons - people who will insist on tallying up the supply of grace; counting the cost of generosity; measuring the value of forgiveness…
People who will insist that health care is a privilege, not a right…
that we can’t provide all our young people a college education…
that we can’t feed the hungry…because it just costs too much.
And of course we must maintain the death penalty… and an ample nuclear arsenal…
because forgiveness is weakness.
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We heard from St. Paul this morning that “...in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”
Even God doesn’t count the cost...and yet...
“The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying,
‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus’ response to them is this parable, saying in
“Yes, that’s right. I do. Here’s why.”
Because God is not only unconcerned about the cost - God is more than happy even to throw a party to celebrate the occasion!
The father is more than ready to welcome the prodigal home... but the child needs to come home and say “I want to be here again - I want to be at home.”
We have a lovely accidental (providential) echo of
this right here in our liturgical life.
If you have ever come to confession in the chapel you will have realized that the chapel doors don’t really close firmly - so we have to secure the doors… which means we will come out to meet you - to welcome you, like the father in the parable, before you have even had a chance to utter a word; ready to say, “now there is rejoicing in heaven,” before you have even begun your confession.
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the elder son and father are standing outside -- then what?
“Then what?” may be the most important question about
Because Jesus didn’t tell those grumbling scribes and Pharisees - and he doesn’t tell us.
He left it to them - and to us - to fill in that blank space, to answer the questions, to supply the ending - and to LIVE the ending.
Will we forgive others as we would want to be forgiven?
Will we stay home? or chase some other shiny object?
Will we come home again?
Will we count the cost of grace?
Will we come to the party?