Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fatted calves

Pastor Brooks here, delivering your Tuesday sermon on the familiar text of Luke 15:11-22, the tale of the Prodigal Son. As you'll recall, this was the younger of two sons whose father divvied out his estate for them in order to avoid the inheritance tax; the kid moved out and to another town and blew all the money on drugs and meaningless, loveless sex, whereupon he returned home looking for a handout.

The father saw him coming, ran out to greet him, embraced him, laughed and wept, and ordered up a huge feast, slaughtering a veal calf. When the older brother showed [jump]
up for lunch (he'd been out in the field, screaming no doubt at the lazy hired hands) he was amazed and distressed to find out what was going on, uttering words to the effect of "Jesus, Dad, I'm here working my ass off every day, staying away from cards and hookers, but you never threw a party like this for me."

"Kiddo," said the father, "you're still living at home, and I feed you all the time, plus you've got all my stuff anyway. This one I never see."

What Reverend Brooks wants to know is:
Did the father do the right thing? Is the father the right model for authority today?
Which is a fairly adventurous approach to the parable. Generally speaking, it's understood that the father is the Father, i.e., God, distributing the Easter eggs of existence in what appears to mortal eyes to be a capricious manner to the deserving and undeserving alike in unpredictable portions, and the point of the story is to be absorbed by us, the children: above all in traditional Christianity for the sinner to understand that however far she or he may have strayed forgiveness and welcome are always available; but also, as Timothy Keller pointed out in his influential 2008 book The Prodigal God, for the older brother, who "works hard and plays by the rules" and feels perhaps a little resentful, to be reminded that the deserving person is not necessarily the one who lives mechanically by the letter of an orthodox understanding.
Via BananaTriangle.
To Brooks, though, the parable of the Prodigal opens up the way to a critique of God: Does he do the right thing? Should we (the Brooksian "we", meaning the princes and potentates to whom, like Confucius and Machiavelli, he generally addresses himself) make an attempt to emulate him, or try to work things out on a more rational basis?

Because after all we're faced with problems God never had to deal with back in the day:
We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay — with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father’s example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.
But remarkably, although Brooks has consistently been on the pro-Pharisee, anti-God side throughout his career, he now appears to have changed his mind; we can learn something from the old Creator, out of date and unwired though he is, after all. What's more, Brooks appeals bizarrely to Reverend Keller as his authority :
It’s a valid critique, but I’d defend the father’s example, and, informed by a reading of Timothy Keller’s outstanding book “The Prodigal God,” I’d even apply the father’s wisdom to social policy-making today.
Portrait of the artist, by Grumpy ("Fatted Calf", get it? her title, not mine).
Whoop-de-doo!  Are we going to fatten up the food stamps, then? Are we going to give those layabout lads and their hussy baby mamas a break on the rent and a boost into college? Don't get too excited. Brooks isn't exactly recommending any calf-slaughter just at present. You see, to him the operative part of the parable isn't the way the father gives stuff to his wayward son, but just the way he doesn't lecture him:
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....”

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.
What our own unpleasant lecturer and model of rectitude suggests for a feast, rather, is a kind of rectitude stimulus or muscular-Christian WPA:
projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or a congregation. The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship.
Oh, sure. The older one gets to be supervisor, because of all his supervisory experience beating the household slaves and jiggering his father's accounts, so he can dock the younger one's wages, sorry expense allowance, for all sorts of infractions, and no doubt tell the drugstore guy not to sell him condoms. And Brooks-God gets to pat himself on the back for using some of that sneaky Ward Cleaver psychology to get the wayward one to buckle down and be miserable like everybody else. Exactly what God would do, am I right? Thanks, Pop.

I learned something completely new to me, by the way, that never gets mentioned in the discussion of this story: the kid has been given a completely bad rap. It never occurred to him to just go home because he'd spent all his money. He went out and got a job, and he wasn't exactly fussy. There was a famine out there, and no decent work, and he had to take a gig as a farmhand feeding the swine with grain husks, i.e, stalks from which the grain had been removed, which was more than his new employers gave him to eat by way of pay. He went home because there was no famine at home, and intending to ask his father for a real physical job. Fortune gone, he was happy to work! If they'd had a proper minimum wage in that other country the kid would totally have stayed there.
Image via Classical Beaver.

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