Fourth Sunday in Lent
Few unfinished books or manuscripts are even going to see the light of a published day. There are probably piles of them collecting dust on shelves and in dark corners. The author just got bogged down without a clear idea of where the work was going. Schubert was good enough to have his “Unfinished Symphony” included in works performed by orchestras. But, in general, we like plays and novels to come to a conclusion. We like closure in our discussions. Shaggy Dog stories usually irritate us for their long digressions and inane endings. The incomplete and unfinished cry out for resolution.
The conversations of our life also cry out for a response, for resolution. For them to be met with incomprehension subverts their purpose and leaves them incomplete. A serious question asked by some facing death is: Did I do what life asked of me? There is a sense that one’s life is not complete in itself, that it is answering a question or call, and that it is not complete until an answer is made. Our lives are not complete or finished in themselves. They cry out for a resolution, for a wholeness and completeness that they cannot give themselves.
The parable of today’s Gospel seems to be incomplete. We are left hanging. Did the elder son go in the father’s house to share in the celebration? Or did he stay sulking outside and knock over the water jars? Why didn’t Luke just end the parable with the younger son’s return to life? That would be a nice, happy ending. How would YOU end the parable? What do you think would move the elder son to make the decision to stay outside or join the party? Perhaps your new script would reveal something about yourself.
Luke provides an abundance of engaging details about the journey of the younger son. He is something of a privileged and entitled snot: Give me what I have coming. Give me the share of your estate that should come to me. I want it NOW. His father is only good to him dead (when I would get my share). The impatient callousness is only too familiar. It is my right! Unable to appreciate the cost and joy of mutual relationships, he heads off on a trip of exploitation having to pay for what he cannot realize by a gift of self. He went to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. A life of waste, pointless self-destruction and despoliation, lost opportunities all leading to self-disgust and despair. He came to his senses and his self and was able to honestly face the incompleteness of his life. An inner conversation which led to conversion. So, he got up and went back to his father. He realized he could not live on his own.
This was a realization that the elder brother had not reached. He lived on his own. All these years I have served you and never once disobeyed your orders. I am irreproachable and conscientious. He deserved rewards which would affirm his worth. He could tolerate no incompleteness or unfinished strands to his being. Being a son of his father (much less being a brother) did not contribute to his sense of worth. He served his father as if he were a hired worker, and hardened himself from trusting in the goodness of his father. It wasn’t even love that he hoped for as a response. That might have lifted him up from his isolation. His brother’s rediscovered worth was in the love the father had for him and the joy with which he received him. It was a sense of worth and life that were not deserved, but given as a gift which would never be withdrawn.
Pope Francis has said: Joy is born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved… It is a quiet, firm trust even amid the greatest distress. (Joy of the Gospel, #6). This was the joy being celebrated, but which the elder son was reluctant to join. He would rather die than go in. He would indeed have to die to the cold, angry, resentful self that had forgotten how to hope, how to ask for forgiveness and healing, how to lose oneself in receiving love from another, how to live in the new creation which joins us in the undeserved, unmerited but life-giving justice of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we can hear the Father’s voice: You are here with me always, everything I have is yours.
This is the revelation of a God who leads us to rise to life in knowing our incompleteness and even sin will be met by Him who humbles Himself to find His completeness in our being fully alive.