Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Wrong Side of the Parable

Few things are as disconcerting as to find yourself identifying with the wrong character in one of the Parables. You know, when you realize the person Jesus is blasting, that's you.

Today it was the Prodigal Son. I've already written about that, but here's an excerpt:

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.”


Last Sunday it was the Tax Collector (Publican) and the Pharisee, from Luke 18:

10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

So most of my life I have identified with that Pharisee. (And if it were otherwise, I'm sure that upon hearing the Parable, I'd sigh a sigh of relief and think, "Thank God I'm not like that Pharisee!") Like the members of that super-strict sect, I was living by the book. My personal code of morality was high and I took care to live accordingly. I didn’t find it difficult to do. And that being the case, I began to wonder why other people seemed to find it impossible. I never got drunk, so why should he? I didn’t sleep around, so why did she? I was poor, but I paid my taxes, so why didn’t rich people like senators and nominees for high office? I had no problem dressing modestly, so why must this other person dress like a slut?

These questions occurred to me with ever-increasing frequency, and I found my self becoming more and more annoyed with more and more people, and then, one day, I realized I was just like the Pharisee in the Parable. Now of course the whole point of the Parable was, do not be like that Pharisee. I knew that. But what I couldn’t see was any way out of this trap. I really WAS behaving better than most people! Much better. And it wasn’t as if I supposed this was any of my own doing; I knew the thanks belonged to God. But then, so did the Pharisee.

I asked everybody I knew if they could tell me how to get out of this predicament, because being so irritated by so many people was gradually but thoroughly destroying my peace. Nobody could tell me how to overcome this problem. Except one Russian Orthodox priest I had recently met. “Do you know the way out of this?” I asked him.

“Oh, yes, I do indeed,” he replied, his eyes twinkling.

Events, however, intervened in such a way that I never learned the secret from him. (I was still 10 years away from becoming Orthodox.)

Well, I know one secret about that now: the common thread running through all of this is self-righteousness. And sometimes, to bring us to our senses, God allows us to fall into some really huge blooper, some sin big enough - and maybe also public enough! - to embarrass us forever after. It may perhaps be the only cure for some of us.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

There's something else I've thought of about the older brother, too. Jewish law would have the eldest son receive twice the inheritance of any other son. So, the older son was thinking, with the younger one having disappeared, "That's okay, I still have my part of the inheritance coming." But then the younger son comes back. The father will then, of course, redistribute the portions, so that older son is going to end up with less inheritance than he would have had. It's no wonder he wasn't happy to see his younger brother. His younger brother just gobbled up a whole chunk of "his" inheritance. But it's the Father's right to do what he wants with his wealth as long as he's there, and the older son seems to resent that, too. "It's just not fair!" you can almost hear him say.

And I think this also goes back to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20: it's up to the Master what he does with his own money, and how he distributes it, no matter how "unfair" some workers may think.

God will do what He does, and we need to learn to accept that with love, in love, for love's sake. If He gives one person some incredible blessing, yet not another, we need to think of the Prodigal Son and keep the Father's love in mind and its joy, rather than the older brother's resentment.

Anyhow, thanks for being so thought-provoking. You're good at that!