A few thoughts on some recent Internet Prodigal Son banter, from David Zahl and Will McDavid:

As much as I admire The NY Times, it’s not where I go to read about grace. You? And yet, David Brooks was back at it again this week, talking about the parable of the prodigal son(s) and endorsing grace as an essential factor in crafting social policy for those who’ve squandered their inheritance/potential/goodwill. Check it out:

We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: “You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.”

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But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.

The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude.

The true detectives among you don’t need to read the whole column to know that Brooks is drawing heavily from Tim Keller’s reading of the parable (one by no means original to him), which stresses the self-righteousness of the elder brother and underlines, quite brilliantly, the offense of grace in a Type-A setting. Brooks uses Keller’s take as a jumping off point to advocate for the policy-making methodology focusing on “mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project.”

Anyway, in a predictable yet nonetheless disheartening display, no sooner had Brooks published his piece than the objections appeared. If it didn’t sound so blatantly elder-brother-like, we might venture to say that the pushback indicates how successfully Brooks conveyed the radical aspect of the parable. Yet it’s also a lesson in how hardwired we all are for Law. How do we take what is arguably the clearest and most beautiful picture of God’s mercy in the New Testament and turn it into a lesson about works and virtue? In this case we talk about repentance. Cue Rod Dreher:

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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…

If this 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.

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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. Or as John Chrysostom commented:

“[W]hen the right time comes for the lost one to be saved, it is time neither for courts, nor for minute examinations, but only for philanthropy and forgiveness. No doctor hesitates to administer medicine to one who suffers in order to demand correction and exact vengeance from him for his disorder. Even if it was altogether fitting for the prodigal son to deliver himself up for punishment, he was punished enough by living in a foreign land.”

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We see here an interior compulsion toward repentance, because God knows we all suffer from self-recrimination and manifest self-sabotage. Some Christians may need a hospital to get better, but I for one need, as Dreher so ably (if unsympathetically) puts it, a hospice. And that’s not only growing out of an observably and realistically low anthropology: it’s practical as well. As Christianity’s currently less-than-rosy reputation bears out, a strong focus on “amendment of life” can act as a potent form of denial, allowing us to skip lightly over our problems toward the newer, better versions of ourselves… and reprimand others when they don’t seem as high on progress as we are. Or as low on progress, for those of us who err on the side of proud pessimism. All that to say, going out and lecturing the elder brothers in us won’t work any better than lecturing the youngers–both are invited to the feast, both are assured of their father’s love, and that’s why the father remains, for the story at least, the central figure.

On that note, tomorrow marks the beginning of the 2014 Liberate conference. The theme of the event this year is, not surprisingly, One Way Love. It’s been too long since we posted an excerpt from that wonderful book, so here’s a passage that touches on the dynamics we’re trying to parse:

I remember a recently divorced woman who came to me for counseling. She was consumed by anger at her ex-husband, and it was spilling out into her relationships with everyone around her, including her children. She had plenty of reason to be mad. He had treated her terribly and then abandoned her at a particularly vulnerable time. You could not blame her for her anger.

After she finished sharing, I asked if she thought there was any possibility of forgiveness.

“Forgive him? He would never ask for forgiveness! And unless he asked for it, I would never grant it. And even then, I’d have to really believe it, you know? I’d have to see some real change. We are only called to forgive those who have repented. That’s how God works.”

Oh, really? I remember thinking at the time.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why she might not forgive or be able to forgive her ex-husband, but invoking God as her example would not be one of them. If God forgave only those who sincerely repented and changed their ways, it would be a very short list.