Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Reading Jesus" with Mary Gordon: The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son, by Gerrit van Honthorst (1622)

The other day I was going through some America magazine podcasts from last year that I hadn't gotten around to listening to yet. One of them was Kerry Weber's interview with author Mary Gordon. Gordon normally writes novels and memoirs, but in 2010 she wrote a book called Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels.

She was inspired to do so out of a taxicab ride she had taken in New York city. The driver was listening to a fundamentalist radio station, and as she listened to the preacher urging his listeners to "pick up your book and read the words along with me" she became indignant about the message.
Then he begins speaking, or rather, shouting, about how at the end of the world Jesus will come in fire, separating the sheep from the goats. He is literally quoting chapter and verse: Matthew 25:31-33. They happen to be chapters and verses I'm familiar with - the words, that is; I wouldn't have known the numbers. He moves from quotation to interpretation.. The goats are homosexuals, abortionists, divorcees.

It isn't call-in radio, but if it were I would say, "Wait a minute, Reverend... that chapter, those verses, don't say anything about homosexuals, abortionists, and divorcees. Jesus is talking about people who will not feed the hungry. Pick up your book, Reverend, and read."
Upon reflection, however, Gordon realized she had been rather diffident about reading the Gospels herself. She had lots of ideas and impressions about Jesus that she had accumulated over the years, but had not read all the way through the four Gospels herself, and realized that whatever her criticisms of the fundamentalists may be, they had. How could she be in a position to criticize if she had not taken the time and effort to do so herself?
The radio preacher and his audience are the kind of devoted readers that writers like me long for and only dream of. They read, and they reread. They know the text more thoroughly than people like me, who think of themselves as living for literature, know any text, even the ones to which we devote ourselves, professionally or for plain love. The radio preacher and his audience are the new people of the book.
When they read the Gospels, they say they are reading the Gospels. When I say that I am reading the Gospels, I say that I am reading the Gospels. And yet I find their readings so different from mine, it is difficult to for me to believe that we are doing the same thing, that one word, "reading," is adequate to describe these very different experiences.
Right then and there, she resolved, as a writer, to read the gospels straight through without stopping and to write her impressions on them "because what is being done in the name of Jesus seems to me a betrayal of everything I understand the Gospels to be about."

Much of what she discovered in the journey is what you might expect. To her surprise and consternation, however, she did discover there were some things she discovered about Jesus that she didn't like, such as what seemed to her to be a callous indifference towards family ties, as in..

"Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."


"Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me."


"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”


"Let the dead bury their dead."

But she has some very clever insights worth sharing. I'm still pretty early into her book, but she had some things to write about the Parable of the Prodigal Son that I thought were very good.
Is that the story of the Prodigal Son is the first story I remember?

There were images that I felt kinesthetically rather than saw. The first were the husks provided for the pigs; he longed for the husks, envied the pigs: even husks had not been provided for him. I imagined used-up corncobs, tossed on the ground after a summer picnic. Dried out; devoid of succulence. I understood that he would have to wait even for these until the pigs had had their fill; without articulating it, I knew that he was less valuable to his employer than the pigs were. This frightened me: that kind of hunger.

I was the child of an ardent father, so I could imagine the heat of a father's embrace that was led up to by a yearning run: the unseemly speed of the father who could not wait to see his child. Who runs for him, unable to bear the slowness of the normal progression, the son's ordinary pace. I could feel the warmth of the father's ardent arms; I knew the boy's safety, his sense of relief. Forgiveness...

Of the four Evangelists, only Luke presents it. Luke, the most domestic, the most poetic, the most contemplative of the four. It is the third of three parables that speak of the importance of recovering loss. The first is the parable of the lost sheep, which makes the point that the good shepherd searches for his lost sheep, and treasures the lost one the most dearly. The second parable of the series, the woman and the lost coin, tells the story of a poor woman who sweeps her house, searching desperately for a lost coin, and focuses on her joy when she at last recovers it. It is a response to an accusation of the Pharisees and scribes, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

We are told that there is a father, and he has two sons. The younger son wants his money, now. We know this will lead to no good. We doubt the father's wisdom, granting such a heedless wish. Had he said no to his young son, the boy would have been forced to stay at home and share the sensible location, the prudent placement of the elder brother.

But the father says yes. Thus far there are only shadows, traces or hints of characters. The father and his greedy son. Of the older son we as yet know nothing.
Mary Gordon goes on to share some insights the parable reveals in regard to both the younger and older sons, and I'd never thought of them before. Is the parable really more about the older son?

The Prodigal Son, by Gerrit van Honthorst (1623)
As a child, and as a young person, I paid no attention to the older son. If you had asked me, I would not have been able to tell you that he had a place in a story. The young are prodigal; providence is a virtue of the middle-aged. I have gone from being heedless to being careful: I have become much more the son who never left home and worked hard than the traveling boy, the squanderer.

And so, reading it recently, my heart goes out to the older brother. Of course he is outraged; his sense of justice has been thrown into a cocked hat. He has worked hard for his father; his brother has run away and squandered everything in a particularly disreputable way. And what has he earned for his good behavior? Not even a goat. Certainly not a party. His father has betrayed him, and he responds to his father with what is usually the child's first ethical statement, "It's not fair."

A great deal is at stake with this unsettling story. Suppose it says that loyalty counts for nothing? Suppose love is unearnable, unearned? Suppose instead of a situation of rights, there is an economy of grace? Suppose it is unfathomable, as divorced from the rational as the impulse that sends the father running to meet his child on the road? That animal impulse, that full of the heat of blood? Suppose that life is larger, odder, less predictable, and more surprising than we had thought or even hoped. Particularly those of us who by the very virtue of reading this particular example of English prose are more likely to be descendents of the careful brother than the prodigal?

"Everything I have is yours."

The good boy is not left bereft. But what has been lost has been found. What is acknowledged here, what is given the greatest weight, is the terrible blow of loss. The loss that has seemed final, and then: reprieve. Resurrection. A new chance. A rebirth whose wage is celebration. "We had to celebrate and rejoice." Had to: an injunction, a duty. The duty of celebration. In King James: "It was meet that we should make merry."

And the story ends here. With an assertion of the rightness of celebration. The propriety of joy.

But what of justice? The difficulty of accepting an economy of mercy is echoed in the parable of the vineyard, which recounts the incident of a landlord who pays the same wages to workers who have worked all day as to those who have worked only an hour. When the workers complain, they are greeted with the question:

"Are you envious because I am generous?"

It is an impossible question, calling for an impossible honesty, one that makes self-love nearly impossible. The answer: yes. I am envious because you are generous. I am envious because my work has not been rewarded. I am envious because someone got away with something. Envy has eaten out my heart.

It is to me one of the most ethically complex, therefore greatest questions ever presented. A question with no answer. A circle without a break. Except the break of mercy, the break of grace.

But why, then, should we strive, why should we give our best, our all? Does this kind of striving only lead to envy?

The radical challenge of Jesus: perhaps everything we think in order to know ourselves as comfortable citizens of a predictable world is wrong.

And then how do we live?
In celebration.
Without envy.

And justice? What is to become of that?

It is easy to focus on the potential narcissism of an insistence upon justice if one is not being oppressed by the unjust. But what of justice for the victims? Isn't mercy another excuse for noblesse oblige rather than an assertion of the primacy of human rights? Isn't it better that there should be some clearly stated measure, some setting out of obligations, some recourse to law ... a law which can be enforced or abrogated, but is stable, within reach for consultation and recourse? We are given, instead, two sentences, each in its way unbearable.

"Are you envious because I am generous?"

"Everything I have is yours."

But we are creatures of outsize appetites, and sometimes when we hear "everything," our response is: "Not enough."

We follow the fate of the younger son. He shoots his wad. He blows it on whores. Of the three characters who will populate the story, the youngest son is the least completely drawn, and in a way we know him least: he remains of the three most a type, least a character. A spoiled boy—we aren't even convinced of the sincerity of his apologies to his father. He plans his words in advance; first we hear him rehearsing them, and then repeating them in his father's actual presence. The father's emotions are named; he is "filled with compassion."

We know the elder son's emotional state; he is angry. But the boy — he seems to have the lack of self-consciousness of the irresponsible user.

The father has not much interest in the apology. It is something that has to be said, something to be got through. It is certainly not something that makes possible what follows it.


crystal said...

I do like that story. It's even more weird for me than her because I didn't have a father like that - hard to imagine him.

Jeff said...

Yes, Crystal, I'm very sorry about that.