Flannery and Jesus

Many of us know the story of the prodigal son. A father on an estate has two sons, the older one obedient and compliant, the younger one wild and adventurous. The younger one comes to the father, asks for his share of the estate, and proceeds to dump the contents of his father’s wealth into the hands of sinners and drink. In the Diaspora, of all places.

Which story has opened up the light of grace to you?

The story has been used forever to urge sinners to come home. Surely it illustrates what repentance is all about, and the words in Luke 15:21 incisively reveal repentance:

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’…”

So the story tells the story of a paradise regained, but there’s an element in this parable often ignored. Correct that. An element that defies the reader’s expectations. It concerns the elder son, who seemingly begins as a good son but then is revealed as both envious and jealous, alongside his obvious lack of empathy, sympathy and joy for his brother’s return. What we expect in the parable is double reversal: the lost son honored and the older jealous son dishonored. But that does not happen. Instead, there’s a note of grace for that older son, the kind of grace that just might annoy the reader and that seems out of tune with expectations. Here is how Jesus tells the story:

Luke 15:28    “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’  31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”

We expect denunciation. We get grace. “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

Maybe Flannery O’Connor learned some of her drastic notes of grace in such endings. She’s not at all beyond using violence to reveal grace; I find her racism off-putting but often deconstructed by grace in the story. Her dispersals of grace all over her weird characters, including old and grandson-betraying Mr. Head’s surprising embracing of grace in “The Artificial Nigger,” magnify grace rather than complicate it. Mrs. Cope, in “A Circle in the Fire,” a self-absorbed woman only encounters grace through the violent nastiness of three young boys who set the woods on fire. O.E. Parker is thoroughly disgusting, far worse in details than the younger and older son, but he experiences grace, ultimately leaning on the tree where he finds a companion in the suffering Christ. Yet the relentlessly merciless, Manichean, Christ-denying Sarah Ruth — whom we are taught to despise in the story as Flannery paints her as a disgusting hypocrite who pounds bloody Parker’s tattoo of the Byzantine Christ — gets to be the older son, but she does not seem to find any grace. Her broom beating of the tattoo of Christ is where grace is found, and here Flannery uses violence to reveal grace. Old man Tanner is just too racist and judgmental to like, his daughter’s devious posture about returning the old man’s body unacceptable, but the old man dies and the daughter, against her wishes, returns her father to his desired resting place and she finds her own kind of rest.

She makes grace impossibly believable by making grace real.

With Flannery, as with Jesus’ use of the older son, no story goes where you expect.

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  • Percival

    Wow Scot, fiction. Cool.

  • Diane

    I find O’Connor quite powerful as a Christian witness and wish more writers were like her. And as long as we’re talking about literature, Wuthering Heights offers an interesting gloss on what might happen to the prodigal son when the father dies: the older son will inherit all the property and power, so the younger son might yet suffer. We take grace as it comes.

  • In the essay The Fiction Writer and His Country she delves into the drive behind her work, which is located out of the, “eternal and absolute.” To write palatable characters she argues is being, “asked to form our consciences in the light of statistics, which is to establish the relative as absolute.” She is concerned ultimately with the proclamation of grace given in Christ, not through statements of joy, but rather through the exposure of systemic sin (deformities, and grotesqueries).

    She writes:
    My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for thegrotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichean spirit of the times and suffer the much-discussed disjunction between sensibility and belief, but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.”

    I see her work as a reaction against thought-less faith, and reason-less optimism.

  • I know of no writer who captures the scandalous and disorienting nature of divine grace better than her. Her stories epitomize the epigram: “show, don’t tell” and are very close in spirit to the parables of Jesus.

  • Joe Canner

    Focusing some attention on the older son is useful, because many of us can relate to him more than with the “prodigal”. We were raised in Christian homes and have stayed more-or-less faithful throughout our lives. I heard Louie Giglio speak on this story at a concert last week and it got me thinking about what we can learn from the older son.

    In addition to the very important point Scot notes about the older son also receiving grace, our testimonies should reflect appreciation for the grace that we have received and that we were spared from prodigality, rather than being jealous of those with exciting testimonies.

    This story (and the accompanying stories of 100 sheep and 10 coins) also got me wondering about who the older son, the 99 sheep, and the 9 coins actually represent. Are they simply faithful believers without spectacular testimonies or can we extend it to those who “do the right thing” even if they don’t fully understand God’s grace? This might include observant Gentiles like Cornelius, those referred to in Romans 2:14-15, and modern day folks who have a hard time articulating salvation by grace alone.


  • Marshall

    “All that I have is yours”. The younger son gets to wear the fancy robe and eat fatted calf (salvation) but the next morning all he knows how to do is feed the pigs. The older son is still the heir.

  • Dianne P

    To Marshall @6… so why is the elder so ticked off? He should just be enjoying the party, knowing that tomorrow it’s still all his. Your comment makes him look even worse.

    I recently fed my book addiction by buying a collection of O’Connor stories. Haven’t started them yet, but it just got moved up a couple of notches on my “to read” pile.

    And I echo Percival… Scot? Fiction? Really? Congrats! Cuidado amigo. It’s a slippery slope!

  • scotmcknight

    Dianne, I read all of her letters and non-fiction after I read “Parker’s Back,” which stuns me every time. Since then I read another story now and then. Read six or seven in our snow delayed trip to Denver. The big deal for me is learning to let her stories create a world of shocking grace, as I want to break down each person into an analogy. Her characters destroy simple analogies.

  • An interesting thought about the parable is in the first world the moral is forgiveness and grace and in the third world the lesson the heavenly Father will give the famished their daily bread