Thursday, April 11, 2013

Prodigal Son Parable, Slacktivite edition

[Skip to the parable, if you want]

Have I mentioned that I don't like the Prodigal Son Parable?  My only real experience with being triggered in my entire life was when during the discussion of it someone accused me of not knowing what a certain type of abuse was like and in so doing managed to bring every single memory I had of suffering, or watching as someone I love suffered, that specific type of abuse right to the surface all at once.

If I've ever been triggered other than that I don't remember, and being triggered is something I don't think I'd forget.  It was during an internet discussion and for days afterward, maybe weeks, I couldn't say anything anywhere on the internet without pushing through a panic attack to do so.  (Not sure if it showed in my comments, I tried to make sure it didn't.)

And that's what I don't like about the parable, not the parable itself which is pretty bare bones, but the discussion of it.  People will project this or that onto it when it's not in the parable.  Now some of this is that life today is not the same as life under Roman rule, some of it is that most of us do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish feasting customs in the first century CE.  Some of it is that people see something that reminds them of something and so they bring with them an entire trunk full of baggage which they empty out and use to clothe the parable until you can't even recognize it anymore.

For my part, the answer to whether the father was a total asshole or not hinges on knowing something about Jewish feasting customs in that time period that I do not know.  Specifically, while preparations were made for the feast the elder son was left in the field unaware.  Is this because the father just didn't think of him (in which case father=asshole) or because it was considered rude to call someone to a feast before the feast was ready (in which case father=polite.)  I know enough to know that the elder son didn't miss out on the feast for lack of notice because he would have been a key component in starting it, but he did miss out of the pre-feast music and dancing because no one called him back from the fields for those.

Is that snubbing him or waiting until it's ready so he won't have to wait to eat his portion of the fatted calf?  I have no fucking clue.  I don't think most people have a clue.  I think it's a very specific piece of knowledge that most people are unlikely to know.  But what people are likely to do is interpret the parable without having that specific piece of knowledge and pass moral judgement based on that uninformed interpretation.

You don't understand the parable if you don't understand that as paterfamilias (Israel was under Roman rule at the time) the father in the story could have killed either of his sons at any time and for any reason because he owned them and that was the extent to which ownership of your children went at that point in time.  That was the law.  So he could have ordered the prodigal son not to leave, he could have ordered the elder son to come into the party rather than merely plead that he do so.  He could have ordered them to do what he wanted because they were his property under the law.

You don't understand the story if you don't realize that by the end both sons will say something that amounts to either, "I wish you were dead," or, "I wish I could act like you're dead."  The prodigal son does at the beginning when he asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive, the elder son does at the end when he states his desire to have gotten a young goat to rejoice with his friends (which only would happen if he were leading the feast rather than his father, which only would happen if they were treating his father as dead.)

You don't understand the parable if you don't know whether or not it was assholic not to send someone to get the elder son the moment the celebration was decided upon.  As previously noted, I don't.  Thus I cannot honestly claim to fully understand the parable.

You don't understand the parable if you fail to notice that elder son is bullshitting when he talks about what the prodigal son has been doing.  (He doesn't know, the household had given that son up for dead and the son was in a different land.  He assumes buying prostitutes' services and presents that assumption as fact.)

But also you don't understand it if you don't realize it is a parable.  Things need to be placed in context, but there comes a point where you have to look at a parable and say, "Ok, this doesn't appear to be the point, so if I delve into the details of this aspect then I'll miss the point."

You need context.  You need to know the power the father had for him not using that power to be as clear a divergence from the possible as it would be to the listener.  But you don't need to treat it like a historical narrative.  You don't need to know the names of the men in the story, you don't need to know what happened to the father's wife/wives, you don't need to know if either son ever married, you don't need to know what season it took place in or how the prodigal son secured passage home.

It's not that kind of story.

And there's a sort of balancing act between, "You need to know this to understand," and, "That's not important, it's not that kind of a story."  You need to dig deep for context because the story was not meant for you, it was meant for someone who the context would be unstated for, so obvious a fact of life that it need not be brought up, but you need to be wary of digging too deep because in the end the story is just a parable.  Its lack of detail, bare bones style and total inability to explain how the prodigal son was able to get back to his father's place when he decided to make the journey while broke and malnourished in a distant famine stricken land, and the fact no one has names all play into the fact that it's a parable, not a historical narrative.

Anyway, discussions of it can get very charged and it has been my experience that rather than looking at the text people project onto the text.  Which means that discussion of it is usually not fun.  And if you try to bring context so that people can better understand the text, well it seems to have a coinflip's odds of working at best.

An interesting thing is that a lot of people seem to end up writing their own version of it, whether it's a simple rephrasing, or adding in characters and concerns not mentioned there, or whatever.  I am not immune to this.  I attempted to bring the parable into the context and setting of the Slacktivist community

As noted, I don't have all the requisite knowledge to understand the story, and this was written when I had a lot less of the requisite knowledge for understanding.


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I always took the prodigal son story to be both a statement that it is never to late to get saved and advice about what (not) to do when someone you don’t like gets saved.

In the second case it is something like this:

You, loyal Slacktivite, are off doing good in the world. You come back to the forum and find that everyone’s celebrating because Tim Lahaye has joined the fold. Tim Fucking Lahaye. You get all pissed off and run off on your own to be pissed off in solitude.

Everyone else is happy that Lahaye won’t be spewing his bad theology any more. They’re happy that he is working to undo the damage that he has done. They’re happy that one more person has decided to do good and stop doing evil. They’re happy because their faith in humanity has been affirmed (because if even he can reform …)

You, on the other hand, are still pissed off. Your rage seethes. You never got this kind of celebration because you never acted badly like him. Maybe if you had created the world’s worst books and tried to make everyone convert to the “Let’s torment the woman trapped in oppressive painful darkness” religion people would think it was a big deal when you came here and started being a nice person. But you didn’t do all that bad stuff, so you never got people going “Wahoo!” all you got was someone saying, “Please don’t kill us with sheep.”

You’ve been good the entire time, and what do you get for it? Nothing. Just time spent in the company of loving people. Not a damned thing. And here Lahaye is getting the fatty calf.

It’s cold where you are, and you can smell the fragrant aromas wafting out of the celebration and hear the sounds of merriment. (Yes, I am playing very lose with the idea of an internet site as a place. I liked The Nameless Mod.) People laugh as Lahaye tells an incredibly embarrassing story about that time his beliefs made him do a really stupid thing (think a good Jackie story.)

You could go over there and join in, you could laugh at Lahaye, but that would require laughing with him because he’s finally laughing at himself. That would require accepting that your presence here is still just as good if someone else, someone lesser than you, has it too. You could join in. You don’t.

It is dark. Your hands are cold, you should be shivering, only your anger keeps you warm. You’re just as pissed off as you were to begin with, if not more so. So you stay alone.

Fred himself comes out to you and says, “Come on. Please cheer up. I’ve always cared about you and you’re always welcome here. We had to celebrate. Tim Lahaye just became a good person, how is that not a good thing? It’s pretty much a miracle.” Except infinitely more eloquent.

And the story ends.


There are three places you can be in the story. You can be Lahaye, you can be the slacktivite alone in the cold, or you can be the person having a pi pie while laughing at how stupid Lahaye used to be. If you’re Lahaye then it means there’s always room for redemption, if you’re laughing at Lahaye then everything is good, you’re at a party.

If you’re alone in the cold then who does that really inconvenience? Not Lahaye. It hurts you, it hurts Fred. Neither of you get to enjoy the party. So the question becomes, do you really want to punish yourself rather than enjoy the party with someone you find unworthy?

Or to put it a completely different way, Heaven will really suck if you spend the entire time being pissed off at who they let in and refusing to enjoy yourself because of it. There’s a party going on. Join in and you reward yourself, get tied up in knots with outrage and you punish yourself.

Though I really don’t think it’s about Heaven specifically. It works just as well with a new convert, the joy that a loyal Christian is a loyal Christian is spread out over every day of their time as a Christian because there is no one day that’s different from the rest on which to celebrate. (Though, as someone not a Christan, I’m guessing about that.) The day that someone converts they’d probably get more recognition for converting than the loyal Christian ever did for failing to stray. If the one who never strayed gets all bent out of shape as a result they’ll sabotage their own chances of being happy.


  1. That is a really excellent way to explain the parable. It's been years since I cracked open a bible or Torah, so my memory of the prodigal son is pretty hazy.

    I've been reading a book lately about how language, cognition and migration impact the development of history and myth. In particular, how what is seen as common knowledge isn't included as a necessary part of relating a story. As groups move away from the original location of the event and/or as social mores change, what was common knowledge changes, which has a big impact on how the history/parable is understood. The book is "when the severed earth from sky: how the human mind shapes myth" by Elizabeth and Paul Barber. I highly reccomend it as a facinating read.

  2. Great points about the historical context of the parable. I go to a church that often talks about historical context and I've never seen all of those particular points brought up.

    Though I really don’t think it’s about Heaven specifically. It works just as well with a new convert, the joy that a loyal Christian is a loyal Christian is spread out over every day of their time as a Christian because there is no one day that’s different from the rest on which to celebrate.

    You've totally hit the nail on the head here. I think it's one reason that some Christians - particularly teenagers - "devote their lives to Christ" over and over again when there's an altar call, even if they are loyal members of the church. You get an emotional rush from it, a combination of being recognized as special and that you have the chance to be someone new (again).

    In addition, I think your modern interpretation is very close. In addition to the historical context, the parable has to be understood in the context of the other parables around it. Before he tells the story, Jesus talks about the lost sheep and lost coin, both of which focus on how much God loves each individual person. The other one it reminds me of is the story of the workers in the vineyard, which is exactly what you're talking about. It's about how people who have been working all day are annoyed that they are getting paid the same rate as the people who only started working at the end of the day. Like the Prodigal Son, it seems deeply unfair if applied to a modern situation. But the parable's message is the same - what not do to if someone else is saved.

  3. I think that part of the problem with the parable is that it's using finite allegory to talk about infinity.

    In the original version, the farm is made poorer by the younger son's having taken his share of the inheritance and spent it. There's a limited amount of stuff for him to have, and he's not only had that up front but got more when he came back, which will (must) be taken away from the eventual inheritance of the older son. This is obviously (to Western thought) unfair.

    But the only thing God has to offer in this model is binary: either you're in, and nothing else matters, or you're out, and nothing else matters. As far as Faithful is concerned, it makes no difference what state Prodigal is in.

    On the subject, while the theology is even more dubious, I rather like this take on the situation.