Yesterday’s post discussed the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Today’s entry looks at two ways the Prodigal Son is misinterpreted in public policy and in the Church, based on a 2014 article by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative. Dreher was a Roman Catholic at the time.
In February 2014, journalist David Brooks wrote an article for The New York Times in which he used the Parable of the Prodigal Son as support for maintaining the status quo in public policy on welfare. He purports that the forgiving father serves as an example to us to care for and accept our fellow citizens, regardless of their everyday choices in life.
Dreher agrees that we need to care for our fellow man, but disagrees with Brooks’s no-questions-asked, anything-goes perspective.
Dreher rightly points out that the Prodigal Son was broken and repentant. More importantly, he did not expect to be taken care of (Luke 15:17-21, emphases mine):
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c]
The free stuff brigade is clearly not doing that.
Dreher explains the Prodigal Son’s repentance and humility:
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 … 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.
There is a profound difference between that attitude and one that asks for — if not demand — financial support for one’s wayward, unproductive lifestyle.
Dreher went on to examine attitudes in the Church towards the wayward. He says that lax churchgoers often make the mistake of wanting to continue living in sinfulness:
I very much like the saying that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of the saints. What sometimes gets lost in that, however, is the attitude that some people bring to the Church, which is that they should not only be accepted, despite their sins, but should be confirmed in their sins. That is, they see the Church not as a hospital that will help them be healed, but rather as hospice, where they can have the pain of their sin alleviated, the goal of healing having been abandoned as useless. This is how I first approached the Church in my college years. I wanted the comforts of religion without having to take on the burden of changing my life to live according to the Way. I found church people who were willing to confirm me in that, but I got tired of lying to myself about what I was up to.
I’ve been there myself around that same point in my life. And, yes, like Dreher, I returned with a different perspective because, like him, I was living a lie and couldn’t get myself out of it without a profound relationship with Jesus Christ. I had always had faith, prayed regularly and was a fairly consistent churchgoer, but I was still looking for worldly things to satisfy me. Researching for my blog and writing these posts helped a lot, probably more than church, in many respects.
Dreher draws an excellent conclusion about the Prodigal Son that can be applied to all of us as citizens and as churchgoers:
Humility must be present not only in repentant sinners, but also among the righteous, who aren’t as faultless as they think they are. Without humility all around, though, no project of reconciliation and redemption is going to work.
Tomorrow: Historical background to the Prodigal Son