It ends with the father pleading with his older son to join the celebration. They are outside the house (the second time the father leaves the house in the story). The older son is in a bad-tempered sulk, complaining that for all the years that he has slaved away for his father, he never even got a young goat to celebrate with his friends. Contrast that with the fattened calf provided for his reckless younger brother.
His father replies:
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.
And that’s it.
What did the older son do or say in response? Did he apologise for the way that he, like his brother, had publicly insulted his father? Did he relent and follow his father back into the house?
Or did he turn on his heel and walk away?
Jesus doesn’t tell us.
I think the reason he left the conclusion of the story hanging like that was that he wanted his listeners to write their own ending to the story. The story sits in the context of the complaints and criticisms of the religious people, appalled at Jesus’ acceptance of tax collectors and sinners. They were the older brothers, refusing to come in. The open-ended final scene of Jesus’ illustration left them to write their own ending. Would they relent and come in, or would they stay outside in their self-righteous blindness?
How would the story end?
Any of us who have ever detected a spirit of self-righteousness or judgmentalism within ourselves – traits of the older brother – face that same question.
How will the story end?