I am the younger of two brothers, and whenever a story begins, “There were two sons,” I know it’s going to be good. In the Bible especially, stories with two siblings typically involve an older, more dutiful one and a younger, more free-spirited one—think Mary and Martha or Jacob and Esau.
As his audience might expect, Jesus sticks to this trope.
“There was a man who had two sons,” he says. The younger one is eager to make it on his own and knows he can live large with his inheritance, so he asks his dad for that and goes on his way. Of course, this is probably devastating to his father, but he goes along with it knowing that he may never see his son again.
As with most people who opt for a lump sum payout, the younger son blows all of his money in no time. A famine hits, and without a steady stream of income or a nest egg to fall back on, he is in deep trouble. He gets a job feeding pigs, but there is no medical or dental, and he realizes that his father is probably hiring and that dear-old-dad pays pretty good. He decides to turn home.
When Jesus tells this story, he has already gained quite a following. He’s traveling all over Palestine and loads of people are following him. He’s an internet sensation—all the likes. But every now and then, he seems to go a little too far. He insults political leaders, his radical teachings are dividing families, and people are a little nervous about what he might say or do.
Most recently, Jesus has been seen dining with some unrespectable types. He’s having burgers with beggars, sex workers, and the entire cast of Jersey Shore. People are upset. They like the gist of his message, but now he’s causing a stir, and what he does reflects on those who follow him. It would not be surprising if some people had started to back away and slip out of the crowd to go home.
Some of the more well-established religious leaders are taking note too, and they are making their objections known to everyone around. When Jesus hears them, he tells three parables. We heard the third one already; the other two are about a lost sheep and a lost coin—the point being, as Jesus says that, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The parable about the lost son does not end when the younger son decides to return home, of course. We would love to believe that his decision to return home was a mark of a sincere change of heart and mind—that he knew what he had done and was ready to make up for all of the pain that he had caused.
That is not exactly what happens. Initially, the younger son merely makes a pragmatic choice for his own survival. He develops a strategy for securing a more comfortable lifestyle, knowing of his father’s generous nature. And sure enough, when he comes limping back home, his father spots him a long way off and sprints across the field to greet him and hug him and kiss him.
The younger son just barely gets something like an apology off of his lips before his father throws the biggest party the town has seen in a long time.
The older son is incredulous when he hears that all of this attention will be lavished upon his delinquent brother. For years he has been the good son, always following the rules, working the fields, doing his best, hoping for some kind of gesture of gratitude. He refuses to go to his brother’s party.
When the father hears that his older son will not join the party, he rushes outside to plead with him, but the older son refuses to celebrate. The father states quite simply that they had to celebrate—his son, once lost, had been found.
I suspect that in most of our minds we imagine that everyone lives happily ever after—that the younger son becomes the dutiful worker his brother always was and that the older brother finally learns to be content and even joyful that his family is whole once again.
Jesus does not give us the satisfaction of a happy ending. Instead, the story just ends: two lost sons and one father who does not give up on them.
The lack of a satisfying ending stops us short, leaving it up to us to fill in the blank.
In reading the story, we are as lost as they are. We wonder about the characters, and we wonder what Jesus means for us to learn. Jesus leaves us hoping that somehow some great love is out there, in this life or perhaps beyond. We know we want to access that love. If we are to learn from these brothers, we may conclude that we cannot access that love or orchestrate our own salvation by taking it (as the younger son tried to do) or by earning it (as the older son tried to do).
We want that love and we know what it feels like to be lost, and that’s why this story hits so deep. Maybe we do not feel lost today or every day, but certainly some days. Some days when we just are not sure if what we are doing with our lives is worth anything. Some days when we lie awake wondering what will become of us.
On this Transgender Day of Visibility, we give special attention to those who know what it means to be lost inside of themselves and within a culture that struggles to accept them. Today we also resolve to create a fertile society where reconciliation is possible for everyone.
In our core, we want to be reconciled with ourselves and each other. We want to be acknowledged for who we are at our deepest, and we want to be loved completely. This story is one of the greats at least partially because we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of each of the sons—probably more in one than the other, but we can certainly identify with both on some level. And we also may be able to identify with the Father, who has such love that cannot be explained.
While we spend a lot of our lives getting distracted by dead ends, finding ourselves lost, Jesus invites us to acknowledged our lostness, but also to take on the role of reconciler—to do the work of finding ourselves and finding each other.
To do the work of loving each other, which is the work of all children of God.
Jesus doesn’t finish the story, but by leaving the ending wide open, he also leaves our story wide open. We may be lost sometimes, but the story is not quite finished until every last one of us is found—not until every last one of us joins in on the celebration.