Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another prodigal post

I returned to church today after an extended absence. The reading for the day: The Prodigal Son - ironic.

It's easy to see why this particular parable is one of the more well-known. It truly does speak to us on an analogous level. There are so many situations we face that we can logically extend the lessons of the story.

For me the difficulty always lies in the elder son who had kept the homestead running all these years. I realize that I'm supposed to boo him offstage and be more like the father, but it's incredibly difficult for my personality to see it that way.

The question I have so often faced is on what basis should we ever bother being moral?

Yes I know that in theory we're supposed to do it because "it's the right thing" and "because we love God." Somehow that doesn't quite cut it. Shouldn't it be the right thing to do because there is a benefit for having done it, and a consequence for having failed in doing it? And if that is true, isn't there logically a balance between forgiveness and disciplined insistance that we must strike?

For me, the problem becomes more acute in our cultural context. Oddly enough, even our secularized cultural inheritance is informed by Christian ideals. Among these is forgiveness. I might even claim that most secular people I know still believe at some level that forgiveness is divine, and inherently better than judgement. Yea, I might even claim that forgiveness is too easily given. A simple "I'm sorry" gets you out of any culpability.

We also have the unusual phenomena of persons who pre-meditate their own conversion. You know the mindset I'm talking about: For now I'm going to do whatever I want no matter how depraved, but later in life I will be a good citizen, join a church, sign up for the PTA, drink only in moderation, and vote Republican. As a person in college put it to me: "I have the ultimate 5 word get-out-of-jail-free card. I just have to tell people who ask me about my past "Well, I was in college" and it's all water off a ducks' back."

His point was clear. He was telling me hey, I can do whatever I want, because ultimately I can just "repent", people will buy it and even sympathize with it, and if you deny me that turn-around, you'll be the elder son.

Perhaps I've let that sentiment affect me too long. Yet, I cannot shake the sheer injustice of it. Of all reasons that I have to rail against my own religiosity, my ideals of justice are the primary stumbling blocks to my Christianity. Not unbelief, not the lure of material things, but the very notion of unconditional forgiveness. I can square with it now and again, but ultimately I yearn for an imperative for virtue.

I think the trick is in the sincerity of the repentance. If it's used simply to escape consequences, then I don't think we're obligated to acknowledge it as an action of God. On the other hand, if the person is truly penitent, then the obligation to receive them is impressed upon us. I can't explain it exactly, but I do get a sensation these days that helps me distinguish between the two. Namely, often the truly penitent person simply did not have a good standard before. They were, if you will, the "virtuous gentile". They were good by their own code, but they hadn't ever come to grips with the rigors of God's laws, so they didn't even have those categories to think in terms of. It's not that they sinned by commission, they just didn't recognize the standard of righteousness.

Finally, I have to say that the old debates regarding whether or not a person could sin after Baptism give me some satisfaction. Sure, the church ultimately ruled that we will all most likely sin after Baptism, but it does show me that others were plagued with the same problem. And even with all that I have learned, and my gradual growth into being a more forgiving soul, I still contribute a skeptical eye towards "penitents" that will help ensure that more forgiving hearts are not taken advantage of, and that their love is only poured out on those who truly desire to partake of it.


Blogger Jana said...

Great post. Those are definitely some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my cranium lately (especially since I haven't been to church in a while and am tempted to slide over to the way of thinking that: it's okay, because I plan on going back LATER ON and then I'll be okay. Not just that I haven't warmed a pew in so long, but that I've left God out of the life He gave me and that I expect him to bless, which He does still.

I'm disgusted at the fact that I would ever try to use God's grace. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

2:19 PM  

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