The story of the Prodigal Son used to make me quite angry on behalf of the elder brother. Not that I faulted the father for killing the fatted calf, but to do that after never even having offered the “good son” so much as a kid to make merry with his friends! I thought the elder brother had an excellent point.
Demetrios, of course, set me straight on all that. He reminded me that the older son is the type of the Pharisee, outwardly good but with a rotten attitude. Instead of focusing upon external things like partying with his friends, he should have been enjoying his father’s love.
“No, that’s not the point!” I said, hotly. “It’s that the outward things do also matter! They betoken the inward. How come his father, who supposedly loved him so much, never even gave him a kid? Maybe he can deal with that, but then the fatted calf gets killed for his no-good younger brother; that’s too, too much! What is he supposed to think of that?”
“He is supposed to trust his father’s love. He could have had a kid or even the fatted calf any time he wanted; he had only to ask. But being outwardly focused, he wasn’t tuned in to that love. Neither did he love his father. You cannot love someone you do not trust. Had he loved his father, he would have gladly shared his father’s joy.”
Then we had a discussion about Pharisaism. I wondered aloud where I had learned to be such a Pharisee. And the startling answer, which presented itself almost immediately, was – in church! “Because in other churches,” I said, “they don’t teach you the inner stuff. They don’t know it. They teach you that you should love, but not how to cultivate love. They teach you to pray, but don’t guide you in the ways of prayer. They encourage you to do good, but have little to say about how to BE good, inside. You won’t learn in most churches HOW to hope, to believe, to be patient, to forgive, or how you should combat specific temptations, or what to do when you fall. I remember that was one of N.’s major complaints about Christianity; she said it lacked a method.”
“But that is not true. There are centuries of accumulated wisdom on all this, as well as living examples.”
“Yes, but for most churches what I said IS true. Somehow they aren’t aware of all that Tradition. So they are reduced to encouraging good behavior without knowing very much about attitude adjustment, as if it were just going to happen automatically or something. But good behavior with a rotten attitude, that’s Pharisaism. So because they don’t know this stuff, these churches are inadvertently encouraging Pharisaism. That’s why you often hear people say a saint would be hard to live with. They’re confusing a saint with a Pharisee.”
(A genuine saint, of course, is the easiest person in the world to live with. To live with a saint, like living with Jesus, would be the most wonderful, precious, life-giving, glorious and enviable experience of a lifetime. Even just to meet a saint is all that! Because a saint is “Christ with skin on.”)
It still baffles me how so many Christians are just unaware of the vast wisdom on all these things passed down by saints and heroes of Christ: the detailed spiritual advice, the practical how-to. When and how did this ignorance happen?
Two Good Articles by Nicholas Kristof
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