I’ve commented often on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because I find the contrast among the characters so striking. First on the stage is the younger son, who seems unable to do anything right. Third to emerge is the older son, who seems unable to do anything wrong. Caught right in the middle is the father, who does his level best to balance his love for two very different offspring. But his dilemma is painfully obvious to any parent. Is he too indulgent with one son, while unappreciative of the other? What’s a father to do in such a situation?
I thought I had this parable all figured out, simply by looking at the people around me and applying a little common sense. For one thing, nobody I know even remotely resembles the rakish wastrel that is the younger son. Certainly such people exist, because we read about them all the time. But they are not us, and those people don’t read parables anyway. Certainly Jesus didn’t intend to lump me and my friends into that category.
Long ago I also realized that I and most of my friends don’t identify with the father either. For one thing, I just don’t have the emotional capacity to dole out buckets of forgiveness to the ungracious clods around me. And even if I did, I still wouldn’t have the time. I’m way too busy doing all the right things, all the time.
That leaves the elder brother. He was obedient, hard-working, reliable, and an all-round goodie-two-shoes. That’s me to a T; and if the truth be told, an awful lot of people relate to him as well. His is our story, and after each reading of this parable I always know that he and I are kindred spirits. But then I ran across David Brooks’ recent column on the Prodigal Son, and I shrank back in horror. As Brooks points out, beneath the upstanding veneer of the older brother lurks some really disturbing qualities. Could that be me as well?
Brooks makes several points, but two especially resonate with me. First, this is not necesssarily a bad son/good son story. “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 heart.” If only life were so clear-cut; but we’re all more complicated and nuanced than we had thought.
Brooks also posits that neither son was a paragon of virtue. There is no doubt that the prodigal son got away with murder, at least figuratively, and I always found it a little disconcerting that the father’s forgiveness let him off scott free. Still, I’ve prayed that he was tormented with remorse for the rest of his life. But what if he was only faking it? Too bad Jesus didn’t do a follow-up parable to let us know what happened to that guy.
What really jolted me, however, was Brooks’ analysis of the senior son. To all appearances that guy may have been upstanding and reliable, but he too was riddled with faults. He may have done everything right, but there’s no denying that it was in his material self-interest to do so. Worse, there is no generosity of spirit in him; and there is zero inclination to give his brother any benefit of the doubt. Small wonder, Brooks observes, that the father didn’t put the older son in charge of the “welcome home” party. There would have been no party.
From this Brooks extrapolates one important conclusion. Any society that rests itself on one class of wastrels living alongside another class consisting of unforgiving overachievers is doomed. There can be no successful community when virtually everyone acts entirely in their own selfish interest rather than for the good of their neighbor and community. That, ultimately, is what the father tries to teach his deeply flawed sons.
I leave it to others to figure out how best to apply this, but for me life under the Rule of Saint Benedict creates the perfect lab conditions for testing this parable. First off, unlike contemporary society, Benedict does not give absolute importance to individual rights, to the detriment of the good of the community. Secondly, he also runs counter to contemporary culture with its assumption that personal sins and vices are just that — personal matters affecting no one else. On the contrary, virtually anything a monk does has a social consequence. Everything he does or does not do impacts the monks around him, and that goes double for sin. Ironically, this puts a premium on the individual. Individuals matter, but only in relationship to the others in the community.
Because all sin has a social dimension, Benedict proposes solutions that are social. If a monk has done some wrong, it is important to deal with it, first on a person-to-person level. If that fails, Benedict prescribes the equivalent of an intervention in which two or three senior monks confront the individual. And if worse comes to worse, the abbot must resort to the “knife of amputation.” In short, it’s time for the errant monk to “pursue other opportunities,” to borrow a phrase from the business world. All this rests on a world-view that the abbot shares with the forgiving father: he does not want to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him. Naturally he wants each monk to be a healthy and constructive member of the community. But no one monk has the right to put his personal welfare above that of the community. There’s no room for the prodigal son who refuses to change his ways.
On the other hand Saint Benedict is equally determined to root out any self-righteousness among the monks. He most certainly prizes hard work, sincere prayer, and the many talents that each monk brings to the community. But no monk can become puffed up with pride by the thought of his own greatness. Such a monk shares the destructive potential of the unforgiving older brother.
All of this is great in theory but a huge challenge in practice. This explains Benedict’s concern that the abbot be a wise physician to his monks. Each monk is a gift from God, and each monk matters. But on any given day each monk has the capacity to be the prodigal son or the self-righteous brother, or both. I know I see those tendencies in my brothers all the time; and I suspect they’d be more than happy to say the same for me. Fortunatley, on most days restraint of speech is the better part of valor.
This brings us round to the original challenge of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I always knew I never aspired to be the wastrel son. Who does? But after reading David Brooks I certianly don’t want to be the smug older brother either. I also know that no monastery can long survive with a cloister full of both types living side by side. Nor can the Church or society, for that matter.
The solution may entail a middle course to which the forgiving father hints. Perhaps in all humility each and every one of us needs to admit we are a smidgen of both. On any given day I will commit my sins, just like everybody else. And on any given day I can also be self-righteous and point out how different I am from the rest of people. But if, in fact, I am both of these people, then the line between good and evil runs right through my heart.
Is there a happy moral to this? Yes. The good news is that I guess I’ll never run out of work to do when it comes to putting my life in order. The even better news is that God need never go looking for “other opportunities.” God will always have more than enough to do with the likes of me, and maybe even you.
+On February 19th I gave two presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Mary’s College of California. In the afternoon I spent two hours with faculty members from the Department of Theology, and in the evening I spoke to an audience of ca. 150.
+It’s nice to know that not all of the difficulties of travel relate to airports and weather. At Saint Mary’s this week I put my watch down on the tech cart at the start of my talk. At the end of the presentation I visited with several members from the audience, while a superefficient student rushed the cart off to storage in another building. We retraced the path of the cart and eventually located it, but there was no watch to be seen. I resigned myself to never seeing it again and drove off. The next day someone pried open the inside of the cart, only to discover that my watch had slipped deep into the bowels of the equipment. Happily, we hope to reunite when we both return to Minnesota.
Yet another inconvenience involved a dinner meeting with a member of the Order of Malta. We had hoped to visit at an event weeks earlier, but we sat opposite each other at a round table of ten, in a huge and noisy room. Frustrated, we rescheduled, only to have the restaurant catch fire the afternoon of our dinner. I genuinely fear the results of any future attempts to meet.
+Last week I wrote about John O’Malley’s book on the Counciil of Trent. Among the myths that have grown up in its wake has been the assertion that Protestants got the pulpit and Catholics got the altar. In fact, O’Malley points out that there was a significant emphasis on preaching in Catholic churches in the centuries following Trent, as the architectural evidence gives witness. What happened in the 19th and 20th centuries is another story. In the last two years I’ve taken photos of various pulpits for just such a post as this. At top is Saint John’s Cathedral in Malta; second is St. Sulpice in Paris; next is the cathedral of Oliva in Poland; and then are several from south German churches. They support O’Malley’s contention quite dramatically.
+On the morning of February 17th we were stunned to learn that Br. Aelred Reid, OSB, had died of a heart attack in the course of the night. Brother Aelred was a monk of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND, and he had been studying theology at Saint John’s for the last two years. May he rest in peace.