11Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[a]'
22"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' " [Emphases added.]
This parable has two parts. In the first, it tells the story of the younger son’s fall and redemption; in the second, of the older son’s unforgiving attitude. Regarding the second aspect, there are several real-world parallels to the brothers’ relationship. We find here the attitude of the Pharisees towards the “sinners and tax collectors”. We see the attitude of the Jews towards the pagan Gentiles that would soon flock to God’s worship. And we are warned against an ever-present danger to the church in our own time.
Obviously, although the parable cogently states the older brother’s grievance, there is much to criticize. First, his sense of entitlement – “‘All these years I’ve slaved for you’” – ignores the need we all have for God’s grace. Second, his hardness of heart – “refused to go in” – leaves no room for restoration.
But there is a meme about this parable that has crept its way into a couple of sermons I have heard over the years that I believe to be not just erroneous, but dangerously misleading. The meme calls attention to the highlighted passages above contrasting Jesus’ narrative description of the younger son’s life of sin with the older son’s characterization of it. This is alleged to say something bad about the older brother: he makes an unwarranted assumption, and/or he betrays an envious attitude of his brother’s erstwhile un-chastity.
Regarding the first point, the assumption looks unwarranted only by ignoring the implausibility of the contrary assumption – that the younger brother went off to the big city for “wild living” that didn’t involve women of easy virtue. Um . . . where’s the fun in that? Speaking for myself, I don’t think I have to actually aspire to a life of dissipation in order to admit that, were I to lead such a life, I would certainly hope that it involved the attention of, if not professionals exactly, then dedicated amateurs. What would be the point otherwise?
This brings us to the second allegation: the charge of envy. This is trickier; to wax Clintonian, it depends on the definition. Nothing in the narrative prevents the older brother from following the younger to the big city, but he doesn’t; instead, he chooses to remain loyal to his father. Allowing that human motivation is complex, this is the choice we all make when we resist temptation. We could give in to temptation, and certainly when the sin is un-chastity, there are few external impediments preventing us. But to the extent we are moral agents, when we instead choose the way of righteousness, it becomes difficult to lay against us the charge of really wanting to do otherwise.
To the extent that the narrative contrast in the parable has a point, it may be this: that the older son was fully aware of the trade-off he had made. The older son is saying, “hey, junior there had a grand ole’ time up there in the big city, while I’ve loyally slaved away.” That this doesn’t imply what the older son thinks it does, doesn’t make it false; on the contrary, it is factually true: the older son did choose what in the near run was the harder path. Yes, in the long run this worked out well – “‘everything I have is yours’” -- but that he, and we, give up treasures on earth in favor of treasures in heaven doesn’t mean that the earthly treasures don’t really exist. Let’s face it: if sin wasn’t fun, this conversation wouldn’t be necessary.
We are often assured that the wages of sin are paid in this life, that the way of immorality ends in earthly misery. Often this is true. The book of Proverbs certainly encourages us to think so, as does Jesus’ parable: the younger son, after all, returns home broke and starved. Likewise, it is easy to draw a straight line between sexual immorality and various unpleasantness like STDs and unwanted pregnancy. But two quick points. First, as morally satisfying as this aspect of the story is, it’s not especially reliable. Many people don’t so much repent of their sin as simply outgrow it, with no noticeable ill effects. Second, the benefits of righteousness are usually realized collectively. The reason God told the Israelites that murder, theft, and adultery were crimes was because they undermine the social trust so necessary to a collective project such as conquering Canaan and building a nation. It would be impossible for the soldiers on the front lines to fight bravely if they had to worry about what the rear guard was doing with their wives and property. But the Israelites didn’t need a story about how the apparent ability of one person to lie, steal, or adulterate his way to advantage was somehow a product of false-consciousness.
It can be argued that God’s grace make all earthly pleasures pale by comparison. I would agree that the closer we draw to God, the less the emotional salience of the trade-offs we make to get there. But stated categorically, the argument reminds me of the Tiger Woods episode on South Park: everybody (the men anyway) pretending to be shocked, shocked, that Tiger had sex with a string of beautiful women. Come off it! It doesn’t compromise the moral judgment to say there’s no mystery to what motivated him. It’s not envy to say that, yeah, we get it.
This is no mere theological arcanum. I am convinced that the meme described blinds us to the way this parable often plays out in real life. To illustrate, let’s . . . tweak it a bit.
In Jesus’ version, the younger son comes home destitute. I suppose one can analogize the “money” that his father gave him that he no longer has, but let’s suppose that money is just money. Now let’s suppose the younger son comes home not destitute. Let’s suppose that, in spite (or because) of his “wild living”, he now has a fortune that rivals or exceeds his brother’s.
Or, even more on point, let suppose the younger son comes home, maybe with money, maybe without it, but after reintegrating himself in the family he . . . steals his older brother’s girlfriend. It’s not hard to see why. Even if we accept his repentance at face value, the younger brother carries with him an aura of worldliness. While admitting that the causality runs both ways, we can see that the younger brother is now experienced in, as Roissy would put it, the “dark arts”. Maybe his intentions are now strictly honorable, maybe they aren’t, but the point is that the younger brother has directly parlayed his misadventures into attractiveness to women. And suddenly, all the nose-to-the-grindstone young men who were regarded as perfectly adequate now seem hopelessly provincial.
I’m not making this up. It is precisely the attendant social confidence that leads an otherwise decent man like Trumwill to abandon the ethic of chastity and eagerly anticipate the conquests of his own (future) sons. I even had a female youth director at church (a relatively liberal, PCUSA church) say without shame that she hoped her future husband was sexually experienced.
Alas, this preference is not limited to liberals. Granted, no conservative woman would state it that baldly, but . . . ye shall know them by their fruits. A few years ago, I read a feminist blogger who, commenting on a young female chastity advocate, said something along the lines of: “well, just make sure you marry a virgin.” She intended this as a taunt, of course, but the remark succeeded in highlighting, if not hypocrisy exactly, then at least an incongruity between what female chastity advocates claim for themselves and the mate choices they make. I challenged Spearhead blogger Hestia on this point last year and discovered that even conservative Christianity confers on its adherents little immunity to the rationalization hamster.
Likewise, the response to this from the Christian community at large is disappointing. I have blogged before about my experience at a large, urban, relatively conservative church, hearing twenty-something women complain about how the men in our circle were so . . . uninteresting, and then listening to church leaders say, basically, “yeah!”
Which brings us back to the meme. It bodes ill for the church’s ability to apprehend the perverse incentives it is perpetuating. It says, alternately, “shame on you for noticing!” and “none of this should matter.” But that’s too pat. Men have wanted women since Adam noticed he didn’t have one. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” i.e. a competent portion of the good things of this life, including the opportunity to find a mate. I don’t want to exaggerate the extent of the church’s responsibility here, but young men aren’t (generally) stupid. If they notice that the path to getting married routinely take them through promiscuous behavior, I promise you that we will get more promiscuous behavior. This is injurious not only to social morality but also to the church’s ability to retain the loyalty of its young people.
No Easy Answers
Solving this problem will be hard. On the one hand, the church has turned the doctrine of forgiveness into an inability to enforce social disability, let alone social ostracism, in any kind of sustained way. On the other, it has no language with which to hold women accountable for their preference for social confidence and charm. In isolation, each of these appears defensible. But the church does itself no favors by refusing to acknowledge that their combination is poisonous.
UPDATE: Lest I seem out-of-touch, I want to say that Ferdinand already posted at length on this topic.