The Fourth Sunday in Lent - By the Reverend James Ross Smith

Year C: Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:11-32

I like a happy ending. I always have. When reading books as a child, I didn’t like it when a favorite character died. I remember distinctly the first time that happened to me. I didn’t like it at all. I was surprised, outraged even. I wanted to change things around. I argued in my head with the long-dead author. I resisted tragedy.

There are lots of books with happy endings; some of them are good books, perhaps even great ones. But writers have to be careful—there aren’t many good books with happy endings in which the characters are entirely happy. There are always difficulties, always challenges. A book that ends with its heroine happy but unchanged is seldom a good book.

I started to think about all this earlier this week when I read, once again,  today’s well-known and much-loved gospel passage, the Parable of the Prodigal, or the Lost, Son.

Jesus doesn’t tell parables in order to reassure or comfort. In the parables, there is always a question, or a challenge. Often there is conflict. Sometimes bad things happen. Often, a parable’s ending has an open-ended quality, which makes us wonder—what is going to happen next? Does anything change? And often that last question is directed at ourselves—Jesus is asking us—what about you? What’s your life like? Are you content? Or not? What needs changing in your life?

It’s interesting: in this morning’s parable, Jesus could have given us a story with just two characters, the father and the younger son. If he’d done that, he could have wrapped things up with a pretty happy ending. The son would make a big mistake, lose track of himself, experience great difficulty, then “come to himself,” repent of his foolishness, and return home to be welcomed by his father. And then, of course, there would be a celebration. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He gives us three characters: the father, the lost son and the elder son. He gives us a triangle. And the elder son’s angry diatribe tells us that there is a lot of tension within this triangle—there’s a lot of regret, a lot of hurt, a lot of worry, and resentment and jealousy, and anger, and pain. If you stop and think about it, nobody in this story ends up unscathed, or unchanged. Everybody bears some scars and carries some burdens. There’s a party at the end of the parable. But we can’t be sure that there’s going to be an entirely happy ending. We are left to wonder: what happens next? What did the elder son do? Did he go in and join the party? What did the younger son do? What did his repentance look like? How did he change? Was he ever able to see his older brother clearly? Could there be reconciliation among these three men after all that had happened?

The open-ended quality of the parable serves Jesus’ main purpose very well[1]: chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke begins with the respectable Pharisees and scribes grumbling because Jesus is welcoming tax collectors and sinners. They don’t like that (15:2–3). And so, Jesus tells them three parables: first, the parable of the shepherd and his lost sheep—and the ninety-nine that didn’t get lost (15:3–7). Second, there is the parable of the woman with the ten silver coins: one coin was lost and then, happily, it was found (15:8–10). And, finally, there is the parable of the lost son (15:11–32). In each parable what was lost was finally found. In each parable there is rejoicing. With these parables, Jesus seems to be trying to lead the Pharisees, and us, to the same conclusion: why feel resentful when something lost has been found? Why feel resentful when somebody has “come to his senses,” has “come to himself” (15:17), has realized who he’s really meant to be? Isn’t that cause for rejoicing? Why be like Jonah who wanted to see those pagan Ninevites get their come-uppance even though they’d already repented?

But the open-ended complexity of the Parable of the Lost Son pushes us to keep on thinking—if I’m feeling like the elder son, what does it take to end my resentment and go into the party? If I’m identifying with the lost son, what will it take to help me see other peoples’ hurt and not just my own? If I’m feeling like the father, how do I accept that not everything can be fixed, at least not in the way that I would like, and not all on my own?

The sad beauty of this parable is that it forces us to see that there is no coming to ourselves, no repentance, no reconciliation, and no celebration without the gift of grace. We mess up and we cannot change the past. Each of us bears our scars and carries our burdens. But the joy that we feel when we come to ourselves, the joy that we feel when what has been lost has once more been found tells us that grace is real. God’s love is real. The father’s love is real: “But while [the lost son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (15:20). God rejoices when the lost have been found, even when others can’t.

The central story of the Christian faith, the story that we are preparing to celebrate at Easter, is the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. And in that story the Risen Lord comes to his frightened, guilty friends, but he doesn’t berate them. He comes to them feeling compassion. But, still, he bears the marks of his suffering. He can’t change the past. But he can keep his friends from getting stuck there. He heals them and he leads them into a future, a future filled with life, though not without its challenges. That is grace. And that is an ending that is much, much more than simply “happy.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 The Society of the Free Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York, New York.

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[1] Luke Timothy Johnson’s exegesis of this passage has been particularly helpful to me. See Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Vol. 3, Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., editor (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 234–242.