Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son - Pompeo BatoniI was thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son recently. Ever since I was a kid I hated this story. It was just terrible. How could a father treat a loyal son in this way?!

It’s interesting, really. As the story moves on, it seems like it is coming to a big ending. The son says, “Why are you celebrating the return of this jerk?!” And we expect the father to say something like, “But you will always be my favorite and I’m going to give you a pony tomorrow.” Or something. But no. Instead, it’s just, “Yeah. I’m a dick. I take you for granted. I’m an asshole that way. But I have no intention of changing, so buck up, sucker!”

Here is the text from the New American Standard Bible, which I understand is one of the translations that stays closest to the original Greek:

And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”‘ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves,[1] ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'”

Out of the blue, I realized that this story is about the redemptive power of Christianity. Even though you have frittered away all the great things God gave you, he will still welcome you back. Yes, yes, I know: I’m dense. But now that I understand it, I understand better what I don’t like about Christianity.

This story brings us back to the Mother Teresa / Jeffrey Dahmer problem. This is simple. Mother Teresa seemed to have had doubts about Christianity toward the end of her life. By Christian dogma, if she lost her faith, she is in hell. On the other hand, Jeffrey Dahmer became a Christian while in prison. If he truly found Jesus, then he’s in heaven right now. I don’t see how such a system can be seen as anything but evil. Even allowing that both of them got into heaven, by the parable, God must have yawned when Mother Teresa arrived but had a big party for Dahmer.

I know what my Christian friends would say. It would be some variation on, “God works in mysterious ways.” This seems to me the ultimate cop out. If God’s ways are not just inscrutable, but absolutely contrary to our normal sense of morality, how can we possibly believe he should be worshiped? The “Good News” that Christians talk about is that regardless of how awful you are, if you follow Jesus you will have an eternity of bliss and regardless of how good you are, if you don’t follow Jesus you will have an eternity of torment. I don’t see how this news is good and I don’t see how anyone could find it a compelling reason to believe.

I am getting closer and closer to developing a spiritual belief system that works in the modern world. One that does not necessitate believing in folk tales, denying science, or hating people who are different. Thinking about Christianity helps me in this endeavor. Most people read the Bible and think, “How can I make this work for me in the modern world.” I ask a different question, “Why doesn’t this work in the modern world?”

Let’s be honest: Christianity does not work in the modern world. God hasn’t written anything down for us and he is not writing through anyone, except perhaps in the most oblique way. Finding God (for lack or a better term) is an process that requires constant change as advances are made in science and philosophy. Any religion must be a work in progress. Christianity may have been state of the art 2000 years ago, but it is not today. Imagine what kind of religious thought we could have if men like William Lane Craig spent their lives trying to improve on Christianity rather than trying to shoehorn reality into it.

[1] These are supposedly Jesus’ actual words. It doesn’t sound like he has a problem with slavery either. I understand that apologists would likely claim that he is talking about the kingdom of heaven. But I don’t see what this buys us. There are slaves in heaven? Gabriel is a slave, perhaps? This is what you get when you insist that the 2000 year old document is the divine word of God.

10 thoughts on “Prodigal Son

  1. Well…if you want to look at it another way, Christianity didn’t really “work” all that well in the ancient world, either. It was just another of the various competing monotheistic religions knocking around the rim of the Mediterranean, picking up bits and pieces of its competitors (like the winter-solstice-Christmas from Mithraism) until it was captured by a Roman imperial system that was going to hell (in the geopolitical sense) and looking for anything that would help prop itself up.

    The early Church then proceeded to leap, like a camel through the eye of a needle, from the religion of slaves to the religion of slave-owners, from the faith of the martyrs to the faith of the people holding the sword.

    And from there? Pogroms. Crusades. Schisms. God-alone-knows how many people butchered for stuff like “heresy”. I mean…when your “faith” includes stuff like the Cadaver Synod? You’re either doing it wrong…or the whole thing is a complete shitshow…

    The one question I’d have would be…why does a belief system that works today have to be “spiritual”? Why not have something based purely on human values? There’s enough good ones around to make a fairly decent body of belief, and the whole point is kinda NOT having to rely on the “God’s gonna getcha if ya don’t watch out!” thing, right?

    • You’re throwing around a lot of different times and peoples as though they are all one. I’m specifically speaking of late first and second century Christians: a rowdy bunch who were fighting to define their religion. It was alive. To say it “works” is to say that it gave those people meaning, nothing more. And I can’t imagine that this wasn’t the case.

      You misunderstand my use of the word spiritual in that sense. My main interest is in meaning. But I’m also interested in ontology. They are lucky who are fine with, “The universe is a brute fact and I will think of it no more.” Most people are not fine with that. I’m not fine with that! My thinking about ontology is based upon my knowledge of pure math. It has nothing to do with morality. On that score, I’m pretty much a standard issue humanist.

      • While Christianity might have worked for some Second Century Christians, I’m not sure that the Arians and Diocetists and Montanists and gnostics would have agreed. So even then, I think you’d have to have a pretty broad definition of “works” to make it…umm…work.

        And as far as “spiritual”, then…I guess I’m still baffled. ISTM that a “belief” system includes “morality” in the sense that it must, I would think, include the sort of core beliefs that provide some sort of guide to living or, at least, living a “good” or “meaningful” life, no? And that would seem to take in those beliefs that we lump into “morality” as well.

        I can see how the search for some sort of non-textural “spiritual” belief could be conducted without an explicit “moral” purpose…but, once accomplished, wouldn’t that concept (or concepts) inevitably influence one’s daily behavior and interactions with others…which is a huge part of what we consider “moral” behavior. No?

        • I can only speak for myself. I consider myself a kind of spiritualist; I wonder if there is some grander purpose to the existence of the universe. (Usually when I’m camping out in the desert, for some reason. I dunno, deserts just work for me.)

          That wondering has absolutely nothing to do with my moral values. Not a whit. I judge myself on how well I treat others. I wonder when I should be generous and when that’s being taken advantage of; I wonder when I should be righteously angry and when that’s my ego talking. Normal moral puzzles.

          My questioning the origin of existence is strictly personal. And most sincere, thoughtful religious people I’ve known feel similarly about their faith traditions. They take what works for their philosophical searching, they discard the rest. I’m sure most passionate atheists do the same.

          • I’m mostly with you, but… deserts?! Don’t you know there are scorpions out there! That is the purpose of life: to not get stung by a scorpion!

                • Very important to set up your tent and sleeping bag before you start on the booze. Then very important to have the booze, so spooky-looking crawly shapes half-illuminated by your campfire don’t terrify the blistering piss outta you.

        • Christianity worked just fine for the Gnostics. It’s just that they lost the war. That’s true of all kinds of early Christians. That’s what I love about early Christianity: how vital it was. But regardless of what happened to the church (it ossified like all religions) they found meaning in their own way in the religion as they saw it. Sure: having those views a few hundred years later would have gotten them burned at the stake. But they didn’t live then.

          I assume you are an atheist. Therefore, you must believe that man created God, and not the other way around. Thus, morality comes from some place else. It seems to come mostly from evolutionary processes. I’m a humanist. I don’t need any external force to give me moral lessons. But what I do need (or want) is to understand why it is I exist at all. That’s not a moral question. For me, it is more akin to a mathematical question. I hope that’s clear.

          And for the record: humanism works for me.

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