It is one of the most familiar parables. The son demands the inheritance from his father, gets it, blows through it living the high life, and then sinks into destitution.
Penniless, hungry and full of regret, he returns to his father, who can’t even hear the young man’s well-rehearsed apology because the homecoming has filled him with such joy.
With music blaring and the fatted calf on the spit, the father seeks his older son, who has refused to join the party.
The father tells him how he has always loved him; how everything he owns has always been the son’s, as well.
Then the story abruptly ends. Was the older son able to forgive his brother and welcome him home? Or did his anger at him and his father become an impenetrable wall between them.
We simply don’t know what happened next.
But when you think about it, isn’t that the case for most of the stories in the Gospel? Something good — something even miraculous — occurs, but we never know how it all plays out.
Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, but that was no guarantee of sainthood. With a son-in-law as certain, stubborn and sometimes deceptive as Peter, there’s little doubt that there were later bouts where she would once again lose her cool.
When Jesus saved the life of the woman caught in adultery, He told her, “Go and sin no more.” I’m sure she took that to heart, at least for a while. But there’s always the chance that her repentant heart was overcome again by emptiness, loneliness or desire, and she strayed once more from the straight and narrow.
Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead with the words, “Talitha koum” or “arise, little girl.”
Years later, when she was no longer that talitha, would her way still be sheltered by that one childhood event, or would she succumb to something else that sapped her life?
We live in fits and bursts, in starts and stalls. An unexpected blessing can heal us, energize us, propel us forward.
But then there will always be another challenge — a setback, stumble or failure — that can once again leave us blind, paralyzed, hungry or lost.
Back in that unfinished parable of the prodigal son, there is a lesson of note. For both brothers and for us, God will always be there, open-armed and willing to help.
But first, and infinitely harder, we must admit our need.