Whenever I read the story of the prodigal son, it always reminds me of a Lenten bible study I was in at Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln several years ago now. We had been getting together every Wednesday for midweek worship and following worship with a group bible study in the fellowship hall. It was already getting fairly late into Lent when we read the prodigal son story together, and I had started to notice that the conversations we were having kept going flat. People had naturally started to group themselves together at tables with like-minded people, and so the discussions generally seemed to go something like this:
“Well, this is what I think about this text.”
“Well, I agree! That’s what I think about this text too.”
But I like having engaging, thought-provoking conversations about scripture – shocker – and so I decided one week that I was going to try to shake things up by grabbing a seat at a table with people I was pretty sure I would totally disagree with. I ended up sitting next to a member we’ll call Bill. Bill was someone whom I respected, but who I knew had a perspective on the church and on life in general that was very different from my own. I was a progressive, 20-something young woman, fresh off a four year stint in Peace Corps, bursting with zeal for the gospel and with ideas for how our church could better serve the community. Bill was an elderly, retired, and very conservative veteran who was deeply mindful of the church’s bottom line and always looking to run as tight a ship as possible, especially when it came to the church’s finances. Both valid perspectives, but very different!
And as I had hoped, Bill and I had very different reactions to reading the story of the prodigal son. Bill was outraged about how the story ended. He kept saying, “That can’t be the end of the story. Where is the rest of it? How does it end?” He got that this was a story of redemption, but he didn’t really see much redemption in the story. Sure, the younger son came home and said he was sorry for what he had done, but his father barely even hears his apology and the story ends with a party. It doesn’t show us whether the younger son actually went on to truly repent of his actions. It doesn’t show us whether he somehow made restitution for his mistakes or even whether he changed his ways. And that drove Bill nuts. In fact, I’d say Bill reacted to this story more or less like the older brother. He was pretty annoyed by the idea that this irresponsible younger son just comes waltzing home and his father throws him a huge party without asking a single question about where he’s been or what he’s been doing or how in the world he managed to blow his entire inheritance that he was so keen on having.
But I, on the other hand, argued that that doesn’t really seem to be the point of the story, since Luke never does tell us what happens next. Instead, I said, this seems to be a story about the lost being found. In fact, in this very same chapter of Luke, Jesus tells two other parables about lost things being found. He tells the parable of the shepherd leaving 99 sheep to go after the one who gets lost, and he tells the parable of the woman who turns her house upside down looking for her lost coin. And in all three of these stories that Jesus tells, everyone celebrates when whatever or whoever was lost comes home.
Everyone, that is, except for the older brother. He is definitely not thrilled to see his younger brother. And that’s the part of the story that kind of bothered me. I mean, what a bad attitude! Sure, his brother had royally screwed up, yes, but he’s still his brother! Wasn’t he at least relieved to see that his brother was alive after who knows how many years he had been gone? Couldn’t he see that the consequences of his brother’s bad choices had already punished him pretty severely?
But the older brother doesn’t actually seem to care very much about the younger brother at all. He’s more angry about the party his father throws for him. He pouts because his father never threw him a party like that; he never gave him a calf or even a goat. And because of his anger and self-righteousness, he refuses to even go to the party. And, like the younger brother’s story, the older brother’s story seems to be left unfinished, too. His father leaves the house to come seek him out. And he pleads with him to come celebrate, to rejoice in the fact that their family has been made whole again. But the story ends before we find out how he responds.
Jesus never tells us the end of the story for either of the sons. And the more I read this text, the more I think that’s on purpose. Because, at the end of the day, this isn’t really the story of the prodigal son – or even the story of the prodigal sons. And it certainly isn’t the story of Day or Bill. Instead, this is the story of the loving father. Our loving father. This story is God’s story.
The father in this story has been insulted and abused and abandoned by his children. And yet the instant one of them so much as turns around, he is out the door and down the street, running after his wayward children in the most undignified manner imaginable. When his youngest son comes home penniless after squandering his inheritance, the father doesn’t even let him finish his apology. He immediately wraps his son in a huge hug and starts yelling out instructions to get the party started. And when the party is in full swing, he leaves the house and all his guests again to go after his older son, who is feeling left out and hurt.
Love is the overwhelming character of the father’s story. He loves his children without condition and without reservation. And he loves them not because of anything they did or didn’t do – he loves them simply because that’s who he is. It doesn’t matter what his children have done or failed to do, he simply longs for them to turn around and come home.
God longs for each of us to come home, too. God is waiting for us with arms wide open, with the grill pre-heated and the party guests all ready to celebrate. And I think that this is the other major reason why the story is left unfinished: the lack of an ending asks us how we will finish the story. Will we turn around and truly repent of the ways that we have turned our back on God and squandered the grace we have been given? Will we truly welcome all people as God’s children? And will we rejoice over each and every sheep who finds their way back the fold – whether they be conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, whether they be black, white, or brown, gay or straight, citizen or immigrant, young or old? And at the end of the day, will we recognize that no matter where we see ourselves in the story, we are all in profound need of the grace God so generously gives?
Can you hear the music and dancing? The party is waiting, my friends.