[My friend Adam Cole, writer, musician, and director of Grant Park Academy of the Arts, offered some great thoughts on my post Regarding Others in Light of What they’ve Suffered. I’m so used to reading the Prodigal Son parable through my lens, Adam’s take on it caught me by surprise. Rather than try to cram his views in with my perspective, I asked him if he would turn them into a guest post. Fortunately for all of us, he did.]
I find the Prodigal Son proverb to be a very difficult one. I believe it’s not sufficient as a learning tool. There are many questions it raises that it does not answer, and by doing that, it pretends to having answered them, which I find a troubling kind of trap for the unwary.
I do know from experience that proverbs like this one (and the one about the Talents) are sometimes better understood not as things that actually happened and must be explored in full, but as stories that are to be distilled as a means of illuminating some kind of important idea. Christians are entitled to take their stories simply in order to express simple truths, if truths they are.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult for me to separate the parable from the people in it. I find myself triggered by the actions of the people in the parables. They work on me as if they are targeting my anxiety, my sense of justice.
When the father welcomes the prodigal back, is he showing compassion for his son, or for himself? Who is he letting off the hook, exactly? The son’s failures are, in fact, his own parenting failures and by restoring his son, he has the ability to erase that mistake. Their relationship seems quite simplistic. The son and father both find ways to ease, even erase their suffering in ways that are too easy. “He was dead, but now he is returned to life. He was lost, but now is found.” My apologies for diminishing the message of the resurrection buried in that statement, and of grace to the sinner who turns – I think those are tangential to the good stuff here and, again, are too easy for my taste. We risk missing better fruits by reaching for easy ones.
I think it’s quite true that we suffer because of our sins, and not as punishment for them. We suffer in ways we don’t recognize. Our world becomes diminished and therefore we think we’ve gotten bigger. The father’s grace to his son may be a kind of modeling behavior that both frees the father from a sin and shows the prodigal that the world is bigger than his conception of it. However, again, it’s very easy for the father.
Maybe the real heart of the narrative lies in the response of the other son. He is challenged to have compassion for his brother. In reality, the other son hasn’t actually suffered from watching his brother receive grace, he’s just had his notion of “fairness” and “justice” challenged. And because that’s the extent of his suffering, having to grow, having to recognize that he’s fine even though he’s angry, it may be that he will gain an opportunity lost to his brother and even his father.
God doesn’t need anything from us. If we sin, even if all we do is make ourselves smaller from the sin of omission, it’s going to hurt us, not God. And to recognize that, to do what’s necessary to remain open and grow in spite of any perceived pain as a result, would therefore bring us closer to what God does.
I don’t give homeless people money. I fail to make myself vulnerable and I give myself the idea that I’ve kept myself safe. If I genuinely felt danger, I would know it and wouldn’t question it, but most of the time I have to have the little rationalizing conversation in my head, because there isn’t any danger. Can I be forgiven for this sin if I have no intention of changing my actions? What would changing my actions do for me, not in heaven, but on earth, right here and now?
What about Trump? If he were to repent, why not accept it? That’s what I actually want, right? The question is whether after he repents he follows through. Time for the parent to step up now and do his job. Trump is president partially because of my inaction. So no reason to force Trump, or any troll, to do anything more than repair the damage they’ve done, and I must hold myself accountable, not him.
That’s where the parable falls short. Does the prodigal do the whole thing again? If he did, it would change the story, and that’s probably why the narrative doesn’t include it.
I can get behind the idea of God as perfect in love, and for us to emulate that. It’s a powerful, challenging concept. If the parable encourages us to act like the father, then great, because it’s something to strive for.
If it encourages us to act like the son, not so great. I don’t know if I can blame the parable for the choice of Christians, or anyone else, to move forward with the idea that because God forgives you, the work is done. However, if someone acts like that for any reason, I think they’re in grave error.
The Jewish tradition is that we forgive and repent on Yom Kippur. For sins against God, you pray and fast and the slate is wiped clean. For sins against a person, you MUST apologize, and if your apology is not accepted, you must apologize a total of three times before you’re off the hook. I think that nicely separates the responsibilities of us as prodigal children. I think the parable of the prodigal son can contain that tradition and, if Jesus really told it, that’s what he likely would have understood it to mean in my opinion. The fact that it does not more explicitly state the responsibilities of the younger son to repair the damage he’s done to himself and his family is not so much a fault of the parable, but perhaps a falling short of theological study which should be discussing it.
There’s no reason in my mind why there can’t be room for disagreement about questions of the nature of God and still have a recognition that we are responsible for the damage we do in the world. If we care about this world and believe we have a responsibility to better it, the nature of God matters less than how we act. This is an old debate, millennia old, and I’ve never really had much sympathy for faith over works.
That being said, faith is essential. It bridges the gap between what we can do and what we can’t do, and without faith, it’s unbearable. However, faith is necessary but not sufficient.
The question is never about what we believe, but rather what our belief encourages us to do
My own opinion is that those who blithely accept the notion of the clean slate, or fail to see the mote in their eye, are not that way solely because of their religion. There are such people in every faith, and outside of faith as well. If you could show that religion currently attracts such people, then that would demonstrate not that the faith CAUSED the problem, but that the way it’s been used is EXACERBATING it. Solve that dilemma,, however, and those people will go somewhere else. Some folks are traumatized and cannot bear a complex world view, others may have other issues preventing them from thinking clearly, and still others want to use the power of the simple narrative to advance their own status. Again, those people are everywhere in the world and they’ll use confirmation bias to believe whatever they need in order to maintain their self-image.