Brooks, The Prodigal Son, And Humility
David Brooks reflects on the parable of the Prodigal Son. You know it, right? Jesus told it to illustrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, and tells the story about a young man who asks his father for his inheritance in advance, then runs off and wastes it in prodigal living. He ends up slopping someone else’s hogs for a living. He returns to his father, begging his mercy, asking only for a lowly servant’s job. The father instead welcomed him back royally. The prodigal’s older brother got angry at this, saying that he had been hard-working and faithful to the father all these years, and that it isn’t fair that the father makes such a big deal over the younger brother’s return. The father responds to the contrary, that the right thing to do is to rejoice over the fact that a brother who was once lost has now been found.
Brooks says we should learn from that in our own approach to public policy and how to deal with people among us who have lost their way. Yes, he says, it’s true to a certain extent that people who have not followed the rules, even as lax as those rules are today, don’t necessarily deserve to benefit from the work and sacrifice of those who have. However, there is something self-righteous and smug about the older brother — something the father, guided by love and grace, doesn’t share. The Kingdom of Heaven is about justice, yes, but it is mostly about love, mercy, and grace. Brooks continues:
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. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.
The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.
I mostly agree with Brooks’s point here, but would emphasize that the Prodigal Son repented in humility. In practical terms, that means he recognized the error of his ways and came back with firm intention of changing. As Brooks says, the reconciliation and redemption of the Prodigal Son requires mutuality. If the Father and the Older Brother do not make it possible for the Prodigal to find welcome and restoration, then it won’t happen. On the other hand, the Prodigal must make a decisive act of humility, which is to turn from his life-destroying ways. Notice the Prodigal doesn’t come back expecting his family to forgive and forget, and restore him to his former state. Having tasted the bitterness of his own waywardness, he just wants to do whatever he can to be part of their community again.
Now, we shouldn’t expect those who have erred and done badly with their inheritance to grovel, but there absolutely has to be what Catholics call “firm purpose of amendment” — that is, a strong and sincere desire to turn from one’s errors. I’m not sure how one judges that, and Brooks is right to say that moralistic lectures from the righteous Older Brother would likely destroy the whole project of redemption. Redemption from this brokenness requires humility from both sides.
Brooks is talking about public policy, more or less, but it’s likely that the experience of the church with regard to would-be penitents is instructive. I very much like the saying that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of the saints. What sometimes gets lost in that, however, is the attitude that some people bring to the Church, which is that they should not only be accepted, despite their sins, but should be confirmed in their sins. That is, they see the Church not as a hospital that will help them be healed, but rather as hospice, where they can have the pain of their sin alleviated, the goal of healing having been abandoned as useless. This is how I first approached the Church in my college years. I wanted the comforts of religion without having to take on the burden of changing my life to live according to the Way. I found church people who were willing to confirm me in that, but I got tired of lying to myself about what I was up to.
It was only when I had continued on my way, and found myself slopping the pigs, so to speak, that I showed back up at the Church’s doorstep, willing to do whatever I needed to do for the sake of restoration, that the long march out of the dark wood became possible.
There is a reason that Dante makes taking on Humility the only way a penitent can begin scaling the mount of Purgatory, towards final redemption. Humility must be present not only in repentant sinners, but also among the righteous, who aren’t as faultless as they think they are. Without humility all around, though, no project of reconciliation and redemption is going to work.