A recent David Brooks column has been getting a bit of attention in the theo-blog areana. The subject was the parable of the prodical son, and Brooks' interpretation of it as providing a lesson in the things that make for social cohesion in a fragmented society.
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.
Now, granting for a moment that David Brooks puts literally everything he comes across through the same interpretive meat-grinder, determining that everything he likes contributes to social cohesion, and everything he doesn't damages it, I have to admit that I agree in a broad sense with what Brooks is driving at here. The core of the parable is its message of acceptance. Of course, Brooks culls some ethics and policy lessons from this that are, I think a bit more of a stretch.
The father’s lesson for us is that if you live in a society that is coming apart on class lines, the best remedies are oblique. They are projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or a congregation.
The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship.
I think that the conclusion of the parable is far more ambiguous than that. The nature of the grace offered by the father to his sons, and their acceptance of it, is left at loose ends, and it's hard to see how Brooks can move from that to invocations of national service! as a policy matter. But I'm less interested in that than in how the parable can be underestood as a story about God (which is, I think, what the point actually is).
Rod Dreher at The American Conservative objects to the implied message of free and unmerited grace that is at the heart of the story:
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.
Now, we shouldn’t expect those who have erred and done badly with their inheritance to grovel, but there absolutely has to be what Catholics call “firm purpose of amendment” — that is, a strong and sincere desire to turn from one’s errors. I’m not sure how one judges that, and Brooks is right to say that moralistic lectures from the righteous Older Brother would likely destroy the whole project of redemption. Redemption from this brokenness requires humility from both sides.
The problem with Dreher's interpretation is that it is not based on what actually takes place in the parable. On the one hand, the son does return to his father, but its not at all clear that he comes in a "spirit of repentance." He comes in recognition that he's fallen about as low as he can go, and that the worst possible deal he could get from his father is better than what's he's got right now. Is this repentance? Maybe, but I think it could also be read as the son's continuing self-interest. Notice what he does not say -- He doesn't think about the harm he did his father, how badly he treated him, or the way in which he squandered all that his father worked for on his short-lived party life. All he says is this:
"How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough to spare, and I'm dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.'"
Give the son credit: He doesn't expect to be welcomed home as the son he once was. But his primary concern is still his own well-being, and the words of repentance he plans to offer his father strike me at least as fairly formulaic and self-serving. His goal, again, just seems to be to get a better deal.
However, let's give Dreher his argument for the moment and consider what happens next: The son never gets to give his little speech, because his father doesn't let him. The son never gets out two words, because before he's even gotten to within shouting distance, his father is already on the move:
But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
This, I take it, is the core moment of the story. Whatever the son's motivations, whatever his intensions, his father had already moved to embrace him before he ever even expressed them. Forgiveness and acceptance were total and complete before the son ever had a chance to debase himself. As the blog Mockingbird notes:
When repentance gets cast as our part of the equation of forgiveness (or reconciliation, or redemption), rather than the God-given way we connect with His prior forgiveness, we dig ourselves into a hole of scrupulosity, that rather outlandish-sounding word for using penance as a tool, or technique, for appropriating grace. It’s telling, too, that earlier in the article Dreher summarizes Brooks’s view as emphasizing the truth that the Kingdom of God is “mostly about love, mercy, and grace.” Hmmm… Some might say it is comprehensively concerned with those three words–and comprehensively concerned with justice, too, such that love and justice coincide perfectly in God. In any case, the “mostly” here should raise an eyebrow. It leaves (too much) room for our inner-elder brother to stretch his legs–and all of us have one. The “mostly” allows space, however minute, for our too-predictably-human “justice” to take control of matters but also, and more fundamentally, because it implies that love and justice are locked in a zero-sum tension. Yet the Prodigal Son story views justice–the younger son’s reconciliation–as something which occurs totally through grace.
And, actually, this as much as anything helps to explain the older son's reaction. While Dreher may be right that genuine acceptance requires a kind of humility that the older son does not seem willing to extend, it's not at all clear that the older son has any intention of ever giving it. Consider how the parable ends: With the father and the older son outside of the tent. We have no idea whether the older son will ever enter the tent, ever extend that grace that his father gave without question. And, I suspect, anybody who has ever had a ne'rdowell sibling can sympathize.
Ultimately, I think, the parable tells us little about society and policy, and a great deal about the grace of God. In particular, it says that God's grace does not require a prior act of ritual self-humiliation on our part. While humility and repentance are necessary components of any self-reflective life, which recognizes the inevitable harm we do to one another through our own self-seeking and self-interest. What this passage says, and once more here I agree with Brooks (but with Paul Tillich long before him), that the core message of this passage is straightforwardly this: You are accepted!
Video: Miroslav Volf speaks on forgiveness.