Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Prodigal Son

Lately I've been thinking about the parable of the Prodigal Son. It's one of the most famous of Jesus's parables, and I don't think people refer to it correctly. So, I'd like to talk about the parable itself, why I've been thinking about it, and why I'm more concerned with the older brother than the younger one.

I haven't really discussed my religion on this blog much, but suffice to say that I was raised Christian, which came with several years' worth of Sundays that acquainted me with the stories of the Bible. I'm of the opinion that church is the leading cause of early-onset narcolepsy in children, though, and it took me years to really absorb the stories and understand the lessons they were trying to teach.

In any case, if you've shared my Sunday school experience you're probably familiar with the parable already, but for those who did not or who have forgotten, here's the short version:

A older man plans to divide his wealth between his two sons when he dies. The younger son, impatient to start his life away from his family, demands to receive his portion of the wealth immediately. The father grants his request, and the son takes the money and squanders it. Some time later, the son returns, begging his father for forgiveness and a job. The father, happy to see his son again, embraces him and prepares a feast to celebrate the return of his son. The older brother, who had obediently stayed with the family, was upset that his younger brother was being celebrated for his failure while he, the responsible one, received no gifts for never having gotten into trouble in the first place. The father admonishes his son, saying that, sure, you've done well, but redemption is cause for celebration.

Unfortunately, there's nobody around to explain what the parable means, so the best I can do is give it some context: apparently Jesus tells this parable during a dinner after the pharisees express their disgust at Jesus for eating with "sinners," which I take to mean pretty much anybody the pharisees found unsavory: the poor, the sick, non-Jews, whoever. Jesus proceeds to justify his actions with three parables: one of a lost sheep, one of a lost coin, and one of a lost son.

The first two are pretty straightforward: if you lose a sheep or a coin, after you spend time looking for it, finding that lost sheep or coin is cause for celebration. In that moment, when you've found your lost sheep or coin, the recovered object is more valuable to you than the ones you never lost in the first place. This suggests that Jesus is spending time with these "sinners" to improve their lives, which is a more valuable use of his time than hanging out with the apparently sinless pharisees.

The parable of the lost son, though, is fundamentally different. The other sheep and coins are indifferent to the fact that their owners celebrate the return of the lost one, but the older son is actually offended that his father is celebrating the return of the prodigal son.

And that makes sense, right? The younger son was irresponsible, squandered half of his father's wealth, and upon his return they had a massive feast--paid for using the older son's half of the inheritance, no less. Who wouldn't be offended?

Jesus basically says that this is what grace is all about, but that explanation seems like it would be unsatisfying to the older brother and the pharisees, and by extension it's a little unsatisfying to me as well.

I don't disagree with the sentiment; I think that helping the outcast and down-trodden is great and important. I started thinking about this parable during one of my reflective "if I were the president" meditations, and I thought I might be able to use the parable as a justification for programs to help the poor and the homeless. In effect, the opposition would be compared to the jealous elder son and the pharisees, which is a comparison that might just resonate with the more-religious right-wingers who would be the most likely to oppose such philanthropic measures.

The parable doesn't directly relate the prodigal son to the needy, but taken alongside the parables of Luke Chapter 14 (the chapter directly preceding the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son), Jesus more directly tells people to feed the poor and the hungry.

The parable of the lost son, on the other hand, isn't directed at the people who feed the needy. It's telling the people who work to feed themselves, the ones that don't need help, not to be offended when we assist those in need. Be happy for the ones we're helping rather than feeling sad for yourself for having worked when you, theoretically, didn't need to.

Unfortunately, Jesus declines to give a reason to be graceful beyond an implied "because God said so." Looking around today, though, I don't think that line of reasoning holds much weight with most people, especially the religious-right. The conservative South is filled with radio talk show hosts bemoaning welfare, "free rides," and "lazy people." Ironically, there's very little grace to be had in the Bible Belt.

Many people seem to believe that providing income assistance, housing, and healthcare will produce lots of people who will be content to simply ride the grace of others and never contribute. And perhaps it would produce people like that. I have more faith in people than that, though. I think more people have a drive to be industrious in some way or another, and as long as there's a reward system in place for industrious behavior, some element of capitalism, then I think people will continue to contribute, not content to merely eek out survival.

So, sure, if we begin to provide housing and income to the needy they may proceed to squander their estates for a while. That's not our business. Rather, it's up to us to be ready and waiting for them to return, to embrace them lovingly, welcome them back, and, above all, to put away our resentment for them having left in the first place.


  1. I don't think that kind of rhetorical device is likely to work.

    It is one of the great paradoxes of our country that the party most against social programs that help the poor is also the party most strongly associated with the Christian religion. But conservatives don't see these things as at odds at all. They simply have different ethics at the personal and political level. Personal charity is one thing and should be commended. They see no reason why this principle should go all the way to the top and become law. They'd even say that it diminishes the act of charity by making it compulsory.

    It's certainly interesting that liberal Christians are able to find such cohesion between their political positions and their religion. But conservatives are just as good at it. So while you might preach to the choir with this one, I don't think you'll win many converts.

    Plus, you might scare the crap out of some secularist people who think you might get all your policy ideas from the Bible. Far safer game just to defend social programs on their merits, and not through their biblical justification.

    1. A fair point. I forgot to work my way back to my point that I had considered using this for rhetoric but decided against it.

      I like the thought of approaching ideas from multiple angles, though--providing both a biblical and secular justification for my actions in order to get both sides on board with policies.

      In practice, though, it seems like that approach is just as likely to alienate both sides as it is to bring them together. Plus, it kind of negates one of my personal goals of declining to discuss my religion during my campaign on the basis of "I don't think that should matter."

  2. Yeah, the concept of working from multiple angles and reframing old discussions is a good strategy, especially given how effective conservatives have been at dominating the frame of our national debates.

    But this particular frame is likely going to only be offensive to the people you're trying to persuade. Like, actually offensive. Like, "This candidate is trying to tell me I'm doing Christianity wrong." It didn't work out for Rick Santorum either.