11 March 2016

He Said It: Darwin

From his 1871 The Descent of Man (pt. 1, chap. 5), Charles Darwin's explanation for why we seem to instinctively like the ideas of "giving back" and sacrifice for the common good: 
"There can be no doubt that [during 'primeval' times] a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."  

08 March 2016

The Prodigal Son Reconsidered

Jesus's parable of the Prodigal Son has always bothered me. Here it is, in case you don't remember it (Luke 15:11-32):
Then [Jesus] said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.' So the father divided the property between them.
A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch; so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, 'How many of my father's hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.'
So he left the place and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him. Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.' And they began to celebrate. 
Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.' He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, 'All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property--he and his loose women--you kill the calf we had been fattening.'
The father said, 'My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.'"

This parable has always bothered me because I felt for the elder son. He had done everything right, and yet his father had never thrown a party for him. And now his younger brother comes along, after wasting everything in vice and licentiousness, and he gets a party? I would be angry too!

It does seem unfair, doesn't it? The reason I've always thought it was unfair is because I imagined myself as the elder brother. I am the one who's always done the right thing, obeyed the rules, and lived virtuously. I felt like William Graham Sumner's "Forgotten Man," the man who works hard and well, who takes responsibility for himself and his obligations--and is rewarded by being forgotten by the world, which pays attention instead to the person who's lived a dissolute life.

But then I realized: I am the prodigal son. Indeed, we are all prodigal sons. There is not one of us who has not sinned against heaven and his father, least of all me. It was my pride and hubris that led me to fancy myself as blameless and without fault. In fact, however, I too have failed, erred, and sinned. (Haven't we all?) So when I resent the father in the parable for welcoming his prodigal son with open arms, with mercy and forgiveness, and with a party celebrating his return, I was actually asking that I not be welcomed with mercy and forgiveness. 

What a mistake that was. The parable is not about the other person who sins and yet is forgiven, but about me who has sinned and seeks forgiveness. I am the prodigal son, and I hope and pray that, no matter how many mistakes I have made, I too can be forgiven and welcomed with open arms when I return.

There is one other aspect of this parable that had escaped me. Just as I hope that I as a prodigal son can be forgiven for my failings, often I am in the position of the father who has been sinned against. How do I treat people who have lived in ways I disapprove or have wronged me? Just as I hope to be forgiven, so too should I forgive others. 

One does not need to be a Christian to see the beauty and power of this parable. It is a model not only for how we should treat others' failings with mercy and forgiveness, but also for how we should hope for forgiveness from others, even when we are not entitled to it.