Pondering The Prodigal Son

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 23 2014 @ 10:38am

In a column on what the parable of the Prodigal Son can teach us about social policy, David Brooks expresses (NYT) a wish for more grace and forgiveness in American life:

The father … understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed dish_spada and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.

The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.

Dreher squirms at the idea of no-strings-attached love:

I mostly agree with Brooks’s point here, but would emphasize that the Prodigal Son repented in humility. In practical terms, that means he recognized the error of his ways and came back with firm intention of changing. As Brooks says, the reconciliation and redemption of the Prodigal Son requires mutuality. If the Father and the Older Brother do not make it possible for the Prodigal to find welcome and restoration, then it won’t happen. On the other hand, the Prodigal must make a decisive act of humility, which is to turn from his life-destroying ways. Notice the Prodigal doesn’t come back expecting his family to forgive and forget, and restore him to his former state. Having tasted the bitterness of his own waywardness, he just wants to do whatever he can to be part of their community again.

David Zahl and Will McDavid defend the radical message of the parable:

If [Dreher’s response] sounds reasonable, that’s because it is. But Christ’s parable is not about a reasonable son or a reasonable father or their reasonable relationship. Doubtless Dreher means well, but his line of thinking opens the door for forgiveness to be predicated on proper repentance, or what he calls “firm purpose of amendment” (a milder “desire and resolution” in his ex-tradition’s catechism). There may be other biblical passages you could use to defend such a framework, but this isn’t one–after all, the son isn’t even allowed to finish his speech or declare his intent. So if the phrase “firm purpose” makes you shiver, you’re in good company. It’s a reliable recipe for religious neurosis, one which thrusts a person into the kind of excruciating internal guessing game that drove Martin Luther to despair: How do I know I’ve really repented? What if I say I repent but don’t feel it? What if I feel repentant but don’t act on it? What if I only act on it for a while? What if there’s something I need to repent of that I can’t remember? What if my neighbor’s repentance looks a lot firmer than mine? What if I’m in a coma? You get the idea.

(Image of Return of the Prodigal Son by Leonella Spada via Wikimedia Commons)