Sunday, August 17, 2014

The parable, the prodigal, and the pagan

Our gospel reading at church this morning was the parable of the Prodigal Son. I was meditating on the fact that Jesus is almost certainly representing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and the salvation of the Gentiles in this parable, and the following thoughts occurred to me:

This parable should be reassuring, though not answering many specific questions, concerning God's attitude toward pagans who have never explicitly heard of Him. First, the prodigal son in the parable is considered morally culpable for his wrong acts. When the father, who represents God the Father, says, "This my son was dead and is alive again," there is no question about the spiritual overtones of "dead." And if this applies to the Gentiles generally, then inter alia it applies to those Gentiles who have never heard of Jesus Christ. They, too, are responsible for their sins. They don't just do them because they don't know any better. There is some sense in which the prodigal son knows that what he's doing is wrong. His "riotous living" is a form of rebellion.

The Gentiles didn't have the Law of Moses. But that didn't mean that the Gentiles were invincibly ignorant of the wrongness of "riotous living." Similarly, if a man is part of a tribe that commits murder and cannibalism, the mere fact that he has not been told the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not make him non-culpable for committing murder and cannibalism.

This should be comforting, in a sense, because it should remove a kind of cultural relativism that haunts the edges of our thinking about pagans who have never heard. Everyone commits sins, and they really are sins, even if one hasn't heard of Jesus. No, they aren't all on the level of murder and cannibalism, but even those who don't explicitly know God do some things that are wrong and are, in that sense, in rebellion against God. Hence, if they are punished for their sins, God isn't just arbitrarily punishing people who didn't know any better.

But there's much clearer good news in the parable. The father (who is the Father) reacts with overwhelming joy over the repentance and return of the prodigal. And he chides the jealous older brother who begrudges the feast. Surely this must say something positive, even if we don't know all the details, about God's love for those who have never heard or who have scarcely heard. God desires that they would return. God does not want them to continue to be dead in trespasses and sins. There will be rejoicing in heaven over one who repents.

One cannot imagine the Father portrayed by this parable as playing a gotcha game in which he sends a repentant prodigal off into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Father in this parable is just waiting for the opportunity to welcome the wanderer home.

It's true that we don't in this parable see the Father going and searching for the lost one. The search is portrayed in the parable of the lost sheep. But after reading both of those parables I defy anyone to portray as biblical the picture of a Father who sits back and says, "Too bad, so sad. You're under my wrath because of original sin, and I had no responsibility to send you the gospel, so you're going to hell. Don't complain to me, man, complain to Adam."

I don't know the answer to the concrete question: What does happen to the virtuous (at least somewhat virtuous) pagan? Does God send more light in this world--a missionary, a dream, a book--if the person embraces the light as far as he has it and attempts to follow the Good? Does God give a blinding self-revelation and a moment of choice, a cross-roads, at the moment of death, to one who has not previously heard of the true God? I don't know. Nor do these musings on the prodigal son answer those questions.

What I think these musings do tell us is that, since the prodigal son represents the Gentiles, we can learn something there about God's attitude (for want of a better word) toward even the most far-removed, sinful, and clueless Gentiles. From there on, we should become the instrument of that love and forgiveness--God's hands and voice, bringing the Good News.

How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace. (Romans 10:15)


Kristor said...

Also this: you ask what happens to the virtuous pagan. I always liked to think that what happened to the Telmarines in The Last Battle was a pretty good indication. Emeth is a good example too, a wholly virtuous pagan like Virgil or Plato. But as quite devoted to Tash, and observant of the religion of his fathers, he was in a different situation than the young Telmarine soldiers who had never given the question a moment's thought one way or the other. Yet they, too, when push came to shove, were given a choice.

William Luse said...

It certainly does deal with the Gentiles, but I usually take it more personally. It's the story of every man ever born, who have all departed from the truth to greater or lesser degree, but who also, with a salvageable conscience, are called back to it. As with so many of His sayings, we can hardly fathom its depths, and is one reason I believe Him to be the Word - the Way, the Truth, and the Life - to Whom all our words pay tribute.

Kristor said...

Funny, I had never taken that parable as referring to the Gentiles. It works perfectly for that, but I had always understood Jesus to be using the Prodigal Son as a metaphor for the Israelite Hellenists, seduced to unfaithfulness in the fleshpots of Magna Graecia and Rome - like Sepphoris, an easy walk from Nazareth - and the elder son to be the counterpart of the righteous Pharisees and Essenes. Then too the Hellenists and Essenes were themselves metaphors for Fallen Man versus faithful angels, as the Essenes saw things (the Pharisees discouraged talk of angels).

The genius of scripture is that it works on all those levels.

Lydia McGrew said...

I was certainly thinking of Emeth when I raised the possibility of a chance at/after death. Of course, that whole idea is sufficiently speculative as to be considered borderline (or over) heretical in many circles. I had an earnest young lady once ask me with some consternation if Lewis was portraying a chance after death there, and I had to tell her openly that I think he is. Though Lewis would have been the first to admit that we know very little about the virtuous pagans, and he says so expressly in his letters.

As for the Hellenic Jews, I'm dubious about that. I don't, for example, see any evidence with reference to the "Greeks" in the early church that they came from a background that could have been described as "wasting their substance in riotous living." Rather, there is merely a sense of some ethnic rivalry, but without any indication of genuinely bad background by the "Greeks." It is the Gentiles about whom special consternation arises and for whom rules must be spelled out. I think scholars may be too inclined to exaggerate the Hellenization of the Hellenists, and that Jesus would have characterized them as the Prodigal Son seems to me dubious.

Kristor said...

Well, the Essenes characterized the Sadduccee Temple establishment – which they considered collaborationist – not using the gentle Dominical metaphor of prodigal sons, but as “sons of perdition.”

But in any case I should have been more precise. The Hebrews who were attracted to pagan ways and to collaboration with Rome in Herod’s day were just the latest iteration (to that date) of the persistent tendency in Israel to stray to idolatry from complete devotion to YHWH. Hosea and Jeremiah rail against the same thing.

It was that perennial tendency in Israel – and in man – to which I meant to refer. The Hebrews understood the very existence of nations, from Babel on, as evidence of man’s disobedience and sin. It was from among the nations of the gentiles that Israel had been chosen in the first place.