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.