“…His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father; ‘Listen!’” (Elder son in the prodigal parable of Luke 15:28b-29a)
“He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:29b)
“When the young man heard this word he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (The rich young man as written in Matthew 19:22)
“Then he said to them; ‘Do you not yet understand?’” (Jesus speaking to his disciples as told in Mark 8:21)
We read the Bible today with a completely unfair advantage compared to those who lived it. We know the ending. So many times we hear from the pulpit on a Sunday or we say in our Bible study on Wednesday; “I can’t believe these people didn’t get it. I mean, really. They were walking with Jesus! How could they have missed it?”
Yet when we look closely at the words, several of the stories in the Bible have open endings – meaning the story isn’t over yet. The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is a great example.
This story ends with the father of two men standing outside his own house. A great celebration is happening inside and the father is pleading with his oldest son to come in and celebrate with family and friends because his wayward younger brother has returned. And what does the oldest son do? He argues, no that is wrong, he lectures his father beginning with an emphatic, “You listen to me!”
The dutiful father listens carefully and then states his case plainly. A boy they thought was lost forever was found and they need to celebrate. And that’s it. Jesus suddenly ends the story. If this were a play on a stage we would see the two grown men in a standoff, looking into each other’s eyes. One pair of eyes angry; the other pair pleading with love. The stage lights would dim. The curtain would come down. The house lights would come up. And all in the audience would stare in disbelief and do some pleading of their own; “Wait, the story isn’t over. That can’t be it, can it? But what happens? Does the son go in to be with his brother? Does he run from his father just like the younger son did earlier? Does the father run after him or let him go?”
Just the other day we had a small group gathering and were talking about the story in John chapter 4 about the woman at the well. One of the people in the group exclaimed quite confidently; “Now here is a great example of how to do evangelism! Jesus confronts a woman with truth, she immediately gets it, confesses who he is, runs back to town, tells all her friends, and they too come to believe Jesus. This is one of the fastest conversions in the whole Bible!”
Take look at your version, whatever version you read, at verse 29. The last thing we hear from the woman is a question; a question that is full of promise, but just as full of doubt; “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” That does not sound like the words of someone who has suddenly given all they are to follow a man they believe to be the savior of the world. I agree that the woman experienced something profound and she is shaken to her core. But she hasn’t crossed the finish line yet. She is asking people that she thinks might know more than she does; “Can this be him?”
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain a story about a certain man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. These are commonly known as the parable of the “Rich Young Ruler.” Well, the fact is in Mark 10, it is just a man who is rich, in Matthew 19 it is a young man who is rich, and in Luke 18 this man is a ruler who is rich. The funny thing is that none of the gospels call him a “rich young ruler” but for some reason we do. And what do we know about this man and his encounter with Jesus? While he was able to keep all the commands of Moses all his life since he was a boy, when Jesus asked him to do one thing he could not do it. But that is not what the text says. The text does not say that this rich man would not sell his possessions. All we know is that he left the presence of Jesus with his head down and feeling sad because Jesus asked him to sell his possessions, which would include his land, give the money to the poor, and then follow him. Nowhere in the text does it say the rich man, the rich young man, or the rich ruling man did not sell his possessions. But he did go away sad and I might assume he contemplated what this command of Jesus really meant. And why do I say this?
Look at Jesus’ words immediately after the man leaves him. Matthew 19:23 states that Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” He did not say this man could not enter the kingdom. He said (in a loud voice) “IT WILL BE HARD!!!” So let’s not write this rich young ruler off. Let’s stick with the story. Follow him home. Sit on the couch with him. Ponder Jesus’ words with him. And then help him enter the kingdom.
And finally I look at Jesus himself. How frustrated he must have been! Jesus had just finished feeding thousands of people with very little to start with, the disciples were talking to themselves trying to understand Jesus’ words about yeast and so Jesus spells it out:
“With the five thousand, how many baskets of broken pieces did you collect?”
“With the four thousand, how many baskets of broken pieces did you collect?”
“Do you still not get it?”
While I can imagine the human side of Jesus being frustrated, the grace that filled him was more than willing to be patient. And explain it again. And again. And again. And so it goes with us. The question that Jesus asks remains; “Do I still not yet understand?” And the story continues…