Apples and oranges

Well now way back in the Bible
Temptations always come along
There’s always somebody tempting
Somebody into doing something they know is wrong
Well they tempt you, man, with silver
And they tempt you, sir, with gold
And they tempt you with the pleasure
That the flesh does surely hold
They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple
But man I ain’t going for that
I know it was her pink Cadillac …

– Bruce Springsteen, “Pink Cadillac”

I’m reading Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. It’s a lovely, candid and generous book and one of my favorites in the burgeoning genre of younger memoirs about recovering from evangelical childhood.*

Describing the intense, unyieldingly correct faith of her childhood, Held Evans writes:

I was the nutcase kid who removed wise men figurines from manger scenes at Christmas to more accurately depict the historical time line of Advent. I gently corrected my Sunday school teacher when she referred to Jonah getting swallowed up by the whale (everyone knows that the word is literally translated “big fish”) or referenced the forbidden apple in the garden of Eden (which was more likely some sort of Middle Eastern fruit, like a fig).

Held Evans is able to look back and laugh at her insistence on such “corrections” because she realizes now that they were based on a misplaced certainty. I remember such certainty, too, and how it led to odd speculations about things like the “historic” location of the garden of Eden or the precise identity of the forbidden fruit.

So let’s correct one of those corrections. The fruit in the story of the Garden of Eden was neither an apple nor a fig. Nor was it a pomegranate or a grape. The story just says “fruit,” and to ask what kind of fruit the story actually refers to is to misread the story, transforming it through that word “actually” into the historical account it never claims itself to be. That’s not how the story presents itself and it’s not something the story allows itself to be. That’s not what this story is for.

Imagine someone leaving a performance of Hamlet and dismissing the play as worthless because the final scene just wasn’t funny. On the one hand, that criticism is valid. Hamlet has some very funny bits, but the ending is a real downer and once the final duel starts, you almost never hear anyone in the audience laughing. But on the other hand this complaint is simply confused. It’s based on misreading what kind of story the play is telling and judging it as though it were some other kind of story than what it is.

Trying to validate the story of the garden of Eden by deducing its historical “details” — what kind of fruit? where was the location of the garden? — is the same sort of error. It’s as foolishly beside-the-point as complaining that no one laughs at the end of Hamlet.

So, then, where did the popular notion of an apple come from? How did this come to be the prevalent idea when we picture this story? I suppose that painters or sculptors portraying scenes from this story had to settle on some identity for this fruit — but what led them to choose the apple?

Cecil Adams has an excellent discussion of the history of this idea on The Straight Dope: “Was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden an apple?

Genesis doesn’t mention apples, but Proverbs 25:11 says a timely word is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. More significantly, in the Song of Solomon the apple is an erotic symbol indicating sweetness, desire, and the female breast, which gives you an idea how things are starting to go, metaphorwise.

Early Christian scholars often took the forbidden fruit to be an apple, possibly because of the irresistible pun suggested by the Latin malum, which means both “apple” and “evil.” At least one early Latin translation of the bible uses “apple” instead of “fruit.” A contributing factor no doubt was that apples were a lot more popular in Europe than in the Middle East, where it’s generally too hot for them to thrive.

… Still, the apple wasn’t the unanimous choice for forbidden fruit. Carved depictions of Adam and Eve with apples are found in early Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi. The apple was the favored representation of the forbidden fruit in Christian art in France and Germany beginning around the 12th century. But Byzantine and Italian artists tended to go with the fig.

In fact, you can read Christian iconography as a long, twilight struggle between figs and apples over which is the alpha temptation symbol. The apple has a lot to recommend it: red (blood) or golden (greed), round (fertility) and sweet-tasting (desire). The fig, on the other hand, has a certain phallic look, noted as far back as the ancient Greeks, who, admittedly, thought everything looked phallic. By the Renaissance, almost simultaneously we have Albrecht Dürer depicting Adam and Eve and the serpent with an apple (1504, 1507), and Michelangelo equipping the same cast with figs on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (circa 1510).

Ultimately the apple prevailed. In Areopagitica (1644), Milton explicitly described the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as an apple, and that was pretty much the ball game. Islamic tradition, however, commonly represents the forbidden fruit as the fig or olive.

If we’re going to insist on identifying the forbidden fruit from the story in Genesis, then forget about apples and figs. I prefer to go with another suggestion by some early rabbis — the citron. Adams notes that this idea was based on a pun — the Hebrew word for citron is etrog, which sounds like ragag, or “desire.”

But I like the idea of the citron because it’s a citrus fruit, which raises some interesting possibilities for this story. This occurred to me while reding another of those recovering-evangelical memoirs, Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words. In his chapter on evolution, Dudley notes:

The reason that humans, gorillas and chimps need to consume vitamin C in their diets — while lower mammals, including primates further down the evolutionary tree, don’t — is that humans, gorillas and chimps all have the same, inactivating mutation in a gene needed to make vitamin C. From an evolutionary perspective, the gene was mutated and rendered nonfunctional in an ape ancestor, then passed on to its evolutionary descendants, including humans. From a creationist perspective, God gave all higher primates the same broken gene for no apparent reason.

So genetically, we humans have no choice but either to add some vitamin C to our diets or to suffer from scurvy. That changes the story quite a bit. A story about choice becomes a fatalistic tale of hard-wired genetic inevitability. That’s a rather substantial and dramatic change — almost a complete reversal of the meaning of the story as originally told.

But that’s what happens when we take one kind of story and treat it as another kind of story. Any attempt to read this story from Genesis as history — as the tale of a historical man named “Mankind” — inevitably changes the story and inevitably entangles it in some such notion of fate or fatalism. If we insist on twisting this origin story into a pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical tale of our actual genetic ancestors, then we’re forced to regard Adam and Eve as having the same genes — the same fallen, imperfect genes — as we possess as their children. That’s not what the story seems originally to have intended, but once we turn from reading it in the way it was originally written we shouldn’t be surprised that its meaning changes. To treat any story as another kind of story is always to change its meaning.

Was the forbidden fruit a citron? Or an apple or a fig? The story doesn’t say. It’s not that kind of story.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* See also Alisa Harris’ Raised Right, Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words, Christine Rosen’s My Fundamentalist Education, Jason Boyett’s O Me of Little Faith, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, etc. The pattern I’ve noticed thus far in those I have read is that most of the authors had to question or abandon the “package deal” politics that came with their faith in order to reclaim and rediscover that faith. The one exception is the author who retained the conservative politics of fundamentalism, but lost the faith. Interesting, that.

  • Anonymous

    Basically, she’d celebrate a lot.  Even knowing that her other daughter wouldn’t react well to it.

    But would she preemptively leave the other daughter out of the celebrating?  I think that’s what bothers me most about the Prodigal Son parable.   (Well, that and the implication that the father has never been appreciative and just taken Responsible Son for granted.)  Responsible Son doesn’t even know his brother’s back until he comes in from working in the fields. What, Dad couldn’t be arsed to send someone to find him and join the celebration?  I can’t hold Responsible Son taking that as a giant “fuck you” from Dad against him, either.

    Basically: celebrating that your long missing kid isn’t dead, perfectly understandable.  Not bothering to tell tell your other kid, not so understandable.

    (Which is not to say that Responsible Brother isn’t kind of a jerk, too. None of them come off good. Like I said earlier, they desperately need some therapy.)

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Ok, you know what I said about respond to people in order?  Not happening.  I’m all lost.  I know that there are 11 12 [new response just came in] things in this thread somewhere addressed to me (since I have email notification set up), but I seem to be having incredible difficulty staying on top of what is where.  I hope I don’t miss anyone.

    -

    Elder brother: You never threw a party for me. Father: You could have had a party any time you wanted. The nicest thing I can say about that exchange is that it’s problematic. I always want to go up to the father and say, “It’s not about the fucking party you ass. He wanted some of your attention. He wanted some acknowledgement. He doesn’t get that from throwing a party for himself, you jerk.This is probably the heart of my disagreement with… uh… a group of people that seems to be smaller than I initially feared but certainly includes more people than you alone.The elder son never says that.  Oh my god how I wish that he’d said that.  That’s what I wanted him to say.What he says is that his father never gave him a goat to have a party with someone else.  Not his father.  It would have been easier to say, “You never threw a party for me,” but he chooses to instead specify that he’s not interested in a party with dad.  That’s different.Your interpretation is what I want to have but I can’t make it fit with mister, “You never gave me the resources to have a party with someone not-you.”  In fact, “You’ve had the resources to have a party without me all along,” actually seems like a pretty good response to me given what elder son actually said.That brings up the fact that the father is using resources earmarked for elder son to throw a party for younger son.  If elder son were mad about that, I’d be on his side there.  He doesn’t even mention it.What about the question of whether he was working in the fields while the party was taking place?  If he was left out there working while everyone else had a good time I’d definitely think he was right to be pissed off.  We don’t know the exact details because he doesn’t see fit to mention them.  For all we know he was already on his way back when the celebration started.  (The detail with respect to the order of events is less than clear.)  There’s a difference between, “We knew you were already on your way so decided we’d tell you when you got here,” and, “We figured you could work your ass off while we were having a good time, you don’t mind, do you?”  Whatever the case was, he doesn’t mention it so it’s hard to interpret that as the reason that he’s pissed.And so on, with every interpretation I try.

    -

    All of that said:

    I think the one thing we can agree on is that the story is short on detail in a way that leaves a lot of space for people to see it based on things they bring to the story. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is open to debate.

    I go back and forth myself.  We do have some pretty specific details that I think we can work with, but given the other things 

    Beyond that I suspect we’ll simply have to agree to disagree because we’re approaching the story from radically different angles.That’s probably the case.  Part of the reason that I’m not cutting out the above and just leaving this part is that, while it starts from a quote from you, it also addresses, I think, some stuff of interest to other people.  If we disagree so much on the meaning of a ten word phrase I doubt we’ll accomplish too much.That said, if you feel like I’m being rude by having the stuff above the hyphen in the same post as agreeing to disagree (which I can see how you might because it has the effect of giving me the last word) just say so and I’ll remove it.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    The prodigal son was a young idiot who sort of figured out he was an idiot, but, at the same time (so far as we know) is perfectly willing to be given everything by dad, yet again.  Humility, dude?

    He’s silenced the moment his dad starts speaking.  He gives his, “I’m not worthy,” line and then the dad orders the servants around and the prodigal never appears in the story again.  And by servants I, in all likelihood, mean slaves.  The word originally just meant slaves but, due to ambiguity (again, I blame Herodotus), it could actually mean things less … horrible.  And since the prodigal comes looking to be hired, maybe it doesn’t mean slaves in this instance.

    We don’t know how he reacts.  And since we know nothing of how he reacts, this is an omission I can do nothing with.  If we had even one tiny inkling of how he reacts then the choice of what was left in and what was left out would itself be telling, but when everything is left out the story becomes void.

    We know his dad ordered the probably-slaves to do various things for the son, we don’t know how he reacted.  The only order that we know to have been carried out is that the fatted calf was killed and we don’t know whether that was with prodigal cheering it on or going, “No, really.  I don’t need this.  Please, I feel bad enough without you making a big deal about it.  You really don’t need to do this.  I don’t need a feast.”

    We cut from the father saying the should celebrate, to the text saying, “and they began to celebrate,” to the brother in the field coming home.

    I wonder if this omission is actually to try to get us in elder son’s headspace.  We know a lot more than he does about what’s been going on*, but we don’t know anything about how his little brother reacted after his dad took him back, and since elder son doesn’t either that puts on somewhat level footing in that regard.  We know more about what led up to the celebration that elder does, but we don’t know anything more than him about the celebration itself.

    -

    * One important thing that he doesn’t know, for example, is that prodigal came back saying, “I’m not worthy,” and came back not looking for a giant welcome but hoping for work.  As such I think it’s clear that the story isn’t working too hard to give us the same info as elder.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Your complaint here basically boils down to the bankers got a fattened calf and ordinary people didn’t even get a goat.

    No.  No it does not.  My complaint was that the fatted calf was slaughtered, a feast was held, there was music and dancing, and rather than being invited in we were all kept out.

    If the people of this country had been invited in so that they might partake of the same benefits as the bankers, even if not the same attention, then I personally think things would have gone a lot better, notably for struggling home owners.  The problem wasn’t that they never got a smaller bailout in the past, the problem was that the people were barred from attending that one.

    We didn’t choose to stay out side and refuse to come in when we were personally invited/pleaded with/ordered (depending on your translation of choice) by the head of household.  The banks got bailed out and we were told, “No dancing for you, no feast for you, stay the fuck out!”  That’s the exact opposite of what happens in the story.

    In the story the elder son is invited to take part.  The people of this country were not invited to take part in the bailouts.

    There’s a vast difference from choosing to stay out of a party and being not allowed in.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    But would she preemptively leave the other daughter out of the celebrating?

    For me this is another area where we’re not even given enough information to make sense of the omissions.  We can be pretty sure that it’s not high on the list of things pissing elder son off based on what’s left in and what’s left out, but that’s about the elder son’s feelings, not the dad’s thoughts or actions.

    Certainly he didn’t wait for the elder son.  If he sent a messenger it was the suckiest messenger ever which would be just as bad as not sending one.

    All that the story says is that the older son was in the field and as he came near the house he heard music and dancing.  (Technically it also says “his” and a particle that can be translated as many things, here probably “and” if we’re going to use it, but can also often be left out.)  Anyway, there are so many things we can do with that.  One thing that interests me is that there’s no indication that any time passes between when the dad says they should celebrate and when the elder son starts coming home.  (Then again there isn’t any indication time doesn’t pass.)

    Almost certainly telling elder would be much better than not, but I personally have somewhat more sympathy for not telling him if the reasoning was “he’s already on his way,” though in that case I have much less sympathy for the decision not to wait for him.

    And the story is silent on everything.  Lori is right that the story is low on detail.  This is one place where it is extremely so.

    If we wanted it to be sympathetic to the father he lit a signal fire telling his elder, “Hey, something’s up, come on home,” if we want the opposite the younger son came home right after elder left for the day, the party lasted all day and into the night and it was only then, after a long day’s soul-crushing back-breaking work while everyone was celebrating, that he found out there was a party going on.

    All that we really know is that the elder son doesn’t think it worthy of note.

    -

    @veejayem:disqus 

    While it’s nice to have someone agree with me for a change, I think that there’s more going on than ordinary sibling rivalry.

    -

    Am I caught up?  I think I’m caught up.

  • Lori

     On the subject of mapping our own experiences onto things, when this last came up one of the commenters was a mother with two daughters.  One who was still around and responsible, the other who had run off and might, for all she knew, be dead.  For all I know she’s shared her story in this thread as well, I’m still on the first page, but her talking about how she would feel if her might-be-dead daughter came back has stuck with me.

    Basically, she’d celebrate a lot.  Even knowing that her other daughter wouldn’t react well to it. 

    I would never criticize a parent in that circumstance for celebrating the return of a child. However, if that parent takes the stay at home child for granted and then celebrates the returned child at the expense of the one that never left, I’d take Ms Stay At Home’s side if she wasn’t able to refrain from being a might pissy with her mom about that. I wouldn’t think it was the best possible reaction that Ms Stay At Home could have, but I’d get it and I wouldn’t look down on her for it. 

  • arc

    guys guys guys

    the parable of the prodigal son is just that, a parable – and like any good parable it has an obvious point, and has been stripped down to the bare essentials to convey that point.  It’s not a subtle work of short fiction by Mansfield or someone where a lot can hinge on small details like how the tea cups were laid out.

    The point is to tell us that as far as God goes, They may well be righteous, but Their righteousness is outstripped completely by Their love, grace and mercy. 

    To the extent that we’re righteous (and most of us are fairly righteous) the whole point is that we don’t like what’s going on and we sympathise with the elder son.

    The difference in treatment between the two sons isn’t right.  It isn’t just.  From the perspective of fairness, justice and right the elder son is completely justified in his attitude.  The whole point of the parable, though, is that the celebration isn’t about fairness, justice and righteousness, and neither is God.  and the celebration isn’t about the elder son at all, or about anything anyone has done in the past – it’s about the return of a loved one from the dead.

    The moral challenge of the story is, I guess, to try to become more like the father and less like the elder son, or to reconcile yourself to a cosmos where people don’t get their just deserts, but rather get saved and celebrated no matter what they have done, or something like that.

    All else is incidental. But if you’re going to keep the point in mind, rather than turn this into an episode of a soap opera where we argue about the exact dynamics of a fictional family, interpret it in whatever makes you view the elder son as a pretty reasonable sort, but one that’s concerned with fairness, and the father as someone who’s reasonable keeping in mind that his primary motivation is overwhelming love for both his sons.

    So let’s say the elder was coming home soon anyway.  But hinging all this stuff on not being invited in seems to me to be missing the point – in fact, it’s making the same mistake as the elder son, in a way, it’s focusing too much on the details of who is being treated fairly.

    I think the example of the earlier commenter who’s actually in the position of the father with regards to her daughters is helpful.  If a long absent loved one of mine turned up alive rather than the suspected dead, I’d not wait for some other loved one I see every day to get home before I started celebrating. 

  • dr ngo

    One aspect some commenters in this thread seem to have overlooked is the role of feasting (vs. saving or investing) in many pre-modern societies.  In some of those that I have studied, the principal social role of wealth is *precisely* to feast, to share with the community, for which the feast-giver obtains benefits in terms of regard that far outweigh whatever might be obtained by saving or investing.  WEALTH IS TO SHARE.  We encounter this outlook in retreat when “modernity” enters, and a few forward-looking villagers start being encouraged by new circumstances (e.g., colonialism and/or capitalism) to cut back on feasting – or eliminate it entirely – in order to build up capital, or “grow” their wealth, or otherwise participate in the “Puritan ethic” upon which, we are told, modern capitalism was constructed.  Such people may be regarded by the “traditional” community with distaste, if not horror.  Saving your money (or your fatted calf) rather than spreading it around may be considered not just a dereliction of your social duties, but an outright contempt for society and all of its values.

      In the Philippines, as late as the 1950s, prospective modernizers, anxious to use their wealth “wisely” in the new vein, by investing in farm improvements or small business or education, learned, sometimes the hard way, that it was all but impossible to do this while remaining in their home village, where the pressure to “share” whatever they had with all – in return for local honor, regard, loyalty, esteem – kept nibbling away at any surplus they might otherwise have accumulated.  In the words of one (American) sociologist:  If you want to get up, get out.

    I don’t know for sure what this has to do with the parable of the prodigal son.  I don’t know the extent to which the society in which the parable was told operated like this, and I don’t know what it proves if it did.  But I am highly suspicious of analyses that begin with the assumption that by holding a feast for the returning son, the father was depriving the older/other son of his working capital, thus preventing him from modernizing the farm or whatever.  That is, I suspect, to impose on this story a profit-and-loss framework that might have been alien to much of the original audience.

    It also suggests one of the problems the father may have had with supplying a goat to the other son for him to feast with his friends.  “Feasting” as such is not the issue, in the sense of having good things to eat and drink; everyone in the village gets some.  This also made sense in a society without refrigeration; when you kill a large beast – which may constitute a significant part of your “capital” – you might as well feed everyone, because the meat is not going to keep!

    But being the *giver* of a feast often is more significant than merely consuming Good Stuff.  (There’s considerable anthropological literature on this, I am told.)  So what the other son may be asking for – and the father is denying him – is the means to be a feast-giver himself, to attract to himself the aura/benefits of “patronage” within that society, means to which the father may have felt the son was not yet entitled.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Are we agreeing to disagree or engaging?

    Given how much I said in the same post as saying that you were probably right about agreeing to disagree I certainly think that fairness says you should be able to post that much and (much, much) more without me responding if you don’t want me to.

  • Lori

     guys guys guys

    the parable of the prodigal son is just that, a parable – and like any good parable it has an obvious point, and has been stripped down to the bare essentials to convey that point.  It’s not a subtle work of short fiction by Mansfield or someone where a lot can hinge on small details like how the tea cups were laid out.  

    If something I’ve said has created the impression that I don’t know what message we’re supposed to get from the parable of the prodigal son then I have failed to communicate clearly. I am very well aware of what the point is supposed to be. 

    My problem with this parable is the dame problem I have with most of the other parables—it gives just enough detail to undermine it’s own point in a way that I consider to be essentially the same thing as a Freudian slip. The obvious, “nice” mean is right there on the surface, but if you dig down even just a little bit the rot shows through. 

  • Lori

    You can, as always, respond as much or as little as you wish. My point about agreeing to disagree is that we’re unlikely to change each other’s minds and I don’t want the disagreement to seem hostile. We disagree on this. That doesn’t mean that I’m angry with you or think less of you. It’s just a difference of opinion.

  • Anonymous

    All that we really know is that the elder son doesn’t think it worthy of note.
    I actually agree with you about the older son losing sympathy the moment he opens his mouth. For me, it’s that – standing back and looking at what people do in the parable – the omissions make everyone look like an ass (depending on what one brings to the omissions).

    If the younger son had gotten to say “No, wait, Dad, that’s really not necessary!  I was an ass, I’m just glad to be home.  Really.” then he’d be more sympathetic.  If older son had either complained about more sensible slights “Really, Dad, you didn’t even send anyone to tell me he was home?  I can just feel the love. -_-” then he’d be more sympathetic.  If Dad had lit a signal fire or included “And go get OS!” to his list of things for servants to fetch, he’d be more sympathetic.  But without those details, we’re left with a mess.

  • Anonymous

     If a long absent loved one of mine turned up alive rather than the suspected dead, I’d not wait for some other loved one I see every day to get home before I started celebrating.  
    But would you forget about them entirely?  It’s not that the celebration waits, it’s whether or not the stay at home son matters enough to be told that his brother has returned before he gets back at the usual time.  (Of course, it matters whether he’s already on his way or just left before brother staggered in.)  It seems cold toward the non-missing loved one to not tell them ASAP.  For one thing, presumably absent loved one is also their loved one, too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Have those theologians ever heard of Loki?

    Loki is why the Norse gods can’t have nice things.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    First, thanks for clarifying.  I never got the sense of any hostility from you.

    Agree to disagree to me is usually put at the end of a conversation and since this particular topic has a tendency to bring up abuse, I’m trying to be very careful to look for any signs that people want me to stop. I’d rather get false positives, as in this case, than end up hurting someone.

    However, if that parent takes the stay at home child for granted and then celebrates the returned child at the expense of the one that never left

    The thing that I want to say is is that we really don’t know that he took him for granted.

    Part of this is why I blame Herodotus*.  It’s unclear if the elder son is saying that he remained his father’s subject while the younger one ran off and spent his half of the money, or if he’s saying he was treated like a slave for the duration.  Those are so very, very different.

    Both would fit.  Saying, “He ran off and I remained your subject like a son is supposed to be subject to his father within this culture,” is perfectly reasonable.  On the other hand, saying he’s been like a slave would be a pretty good complaint to bring up and there’s no reason to assume that’s not what he’s saying.

    If he has been treated like a slave then I definitely agree that he’s been taken for granted.  Quite possibly worse than that.  The dad has hired servants, while he could be hiring someone else’s slaves I feel like, and this is totally unsupported and random speculation, that hired servants are probably free people.  Who would probably be treated better than slaves.  In which case it is possible that the elder son is saying he’s been treated worse than the staff.

    On the other hand, it could just mean that he stayed a member of his father’s household.

    Big giant range of meaning in that one word.  And in this case, in my opinion, the ambiguity is firmly on the side of bug rather than feature.

    And then there’s the goat thing.  He’s not saying he’s pissed off for his father never celebrating with him.  He doesn’t even bring that up.  Does that mean that his father does celebrate with him so there’s nothing there to complain about?  Does it means that not only has his father never thrown a celebration for him but father’s also been such an ass that if father did throw a celebration it he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it simply because father is there?

    It’s not really clear.  (And I’m going to have to look at dr ngo’s point as well because the prestige of being a feast giver is something I never really took into account before.)

    -

    * Herodotus called what the Persians did to the people they conquered enslaving them.  (For an example of what the Persians did to people, see the ending of the Babylonian captivity.  I tend to think of that as setting them free rather than as them becoming slaves of the Persians instead of the Babylonians.)

    I think it’s because it sounds more dire to say, “The Persians want to conquer us and then we will be slaves,” than, “The Persians want to conquer us and then we will be largely autonomous much like we were before largely running our country as we see fit, leading lives that in no way compare to those of our slaves, but we’ll be in the country of Persia meaning we’ll have to pay tribute and might have to obey the occasional order.”

    It might not really be Herodotus’ fault, he’s pretty much the earliest example of Greek prose we have so if the usage was common in prose before him we simply wouldn’t know about it.  Anyway, whoever did it first the result was that the meaning of the word expanded there are two very different meanings of words related to slavery.  One refers to actual slavery.  The other refers to being subjects.

    For comparison of the meanings, every character in the story would be considered the subject, but definitely not the slave, of Rome.

    Here things get more difficult for me because while I know some about what things were like in Rome in general, I don’t know as much about what they were like in the Roman provinces of Judea and Galilee in particular.  In the Roman family structure you were definitely expected to be subject your father (with at least as much force as you were subject to Rome), you were not expected to be treated like a slave by him, so you can see where the range of meanings can really screw with interpretation there.  Trouble is, I have no idea whether the same was true for Jewish families of the time.

    [added]
    Why does disqus keep killing my formatting?

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I actually agree with you about the older son losing sympathy the moment he opens his mouth. For me, it’s that – standing back and looking at what people do in the parable – the omissions makeeveryone look like an ass (depending on what one brings to the omissions).

    You know, I may just leave it there.They’re all jerks.  Parable over.

    I’m not sure if this is where my participation in this conversation ends, but if it is I think it’s as good a place as any.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    One aspect some commenters in this thread seem to have overlooked is the
    role of feasting (vs. saving or investing) in many pre-modern
    societies.  In some of those that I have studied, the principal social
    role of wealth is *precisely* to feast, to share with the community, for
    which the feast-giver obtains benefits in terms of regard that far
    outweigh whatever might be obtained by saving or investing.  WEALTH IS
    TO SHARE.

    The Tlingit potlach is an excellent example of this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    Well, if that’s really it, then as parables go this wasn’t one of Christ’s best works.

    It’s hard to tell that it’s the same guy who spoke of “Lazarus and Dives”. It must have been a ghost writer.

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    The thick skin of the Red Delicious means it keeps longer – so you can harvest in October and still sell it next September. And the growers have been breeding for redder color (looks good on the grocery shelves) and thicker skin, at the expense of flavor, for the last 130 years.

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    They are quite bitter – but quite a few people *like* strong bitter and/or sour flavors. (Not me – bitter and sour are nature’s way of telling us “not safe to eat!”)

  • Anonymous

    Lori, I actually felt a bit foolish writing that, because I do think it’s obvious, and I suppose you all know it too, but I think the obvious meaning of the parable is getting lost in the fine divination of the exact characters involved through what’s said and not said and exactly how much time elapsed between party starting and the elder son coming home and whether or not a messenger was available and how much the elder son really wanted a goat to party with his friends and does the father actually do anything to acknowledge his elder son or is he just taken for granted, where is the mother in all of this – did she die? Does the younger son look like her? Maybe *that’s* what’s going on.

    This is an interesting intellectual exercise, no doubt, and you might need to ask these questions if you were going to flesh out the story into a play or something.

    But to do this as a serious inquiry into the meaning of the parable to miss the point of the parable, and in fact to miss the point of parables in general.  They’re not real people and they’re not fleshed out enough to treat them as such in a fictional analysis, and that’s by design, because those details don’t matter, and to the extent they cloud the purpose of the story, they’re actually worse than irrelevant.  If Jesus had said things like “the father gave serious consideration to sending a messenger but didn’t because he was still sore at his elder son for being so demanding about the damn goat earlier to impress his idiot friends”, that makes for a worse parable, not a better one, because the central point would be lost in the kind of discussion you’re having now about whether the father’s right about the elder son’s friends and his demandingness or whether he’s just a petulant old man.

    It’s a bit like being given a word problem in mathematics like “Johnny is 50 meters away from a building and he measures with his theodolite the angle of the top of the building with the ground to be 40 degrees.  What is the height of the building? ” and then saying “he looks like he’s 9 years old in the picture, what’s a nine-year-old doing with a theodolite? Has he been trained to use one? I don’t think we’ve got enough information to tell.  Is the ground flat?  Is this child labour? Why is it Johnny and not Janey? Are they telling us girls can’t do geometry?”

    It’s not that I don’t think you can tell something about attitudes to women that examples in the past have often involved boys or that that’s not important, but the point is that for the purpose the story is being told, the gender of the geometer is unimportant.  You don’t learn anything about trigonometry by asking these questions.  You assume (usually without thinking about it) whatever is necessary for the story to work

    You assume that Johnny does know how to use the theodolite and the ground is flat, or maybe you decide that details are irrelevant, it’s not really about a little boy who’s in any way ‘real’, it’s actually about a triangle and the tangent function.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    While it’s nice to have someone agree with me about this for a change

    FWIW I’ve been agreeing with you, but not joining the conversation because I don’t think I have anything productive to add.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I might well forget completely about the loved one I see every day in my utter joy and jaw-droppingness with regard to someone I loved and thought was dead coming back into my life. 

    That’s not because I’m cold or because I take people for granted, but because like most people I’m actually somewhat susceptible to emotion.  Slightly more idiosyncratically, I’m also somewhat prone to get caught up in whatever I’m doing now and forget about other things.

    Also, while I still maintain that it’s ridiculous to search for details about how much the father really loved his elder son, because parables don’t work like that, I suspect that the original audience would not have given a second thought about the level of emotional validation the elder son got from his father, firstly because they would have understood how a parable works, and secondly the notion of the high importance of emotional validation of children I imagine is more of a preoccupation of progressive middle-class 21st century westerners than it was of 1st century Jews.

  • Anonymous

    whoops, replied to the wrong person.  The good news is I have a disqus login now so I can edit posts next time disqus eats my linebreaks. 

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a challenge for you who don’t like the characters you think you see in the original parable, and something more constructive than arguing over what the sparse details tell us about the rich human psychology evident in these characters:

    rewrite it.

    *) The original point has to remain: that grace and love trumps righteousness. 

    *) Someone has to be aggreived that a certain outcome is unjust and unfair.  The final point has to be that the outcome was not about justice and fairness, but about love. 

    *) The aggreived party must be sympathetic and reasonable.  They’re right – the outcome is unjust. 

    *) the recipient, if there is one, should be quite undeserving of the outcome, but they should be somewhat sympathetic too – at least just before the outcome is bestowed.   They don’t think the outcome is deserved either. 

    *) it must have emotional impact – so what’s at stake has to be important.

    *) It also has to be short and to the point, that’s part of the art of writing a parable.  The NIV has this story in 500 words, but you’re all so detailed-focus I’ll give you 1000 words as an aspirational target.

    Those are my only requirements, but I will quickly point out some of the features of the original that make it work.  3 people is probably the minimum that this can work for, although I’m keen to be proven wrong about this.  Making them a family makes sense in terms of what’s at stake and the emotional impact – I think this would be hard to motivate with someone’s accountant (without it getting creepy).    The love angle is maximised by having the younger son to be thought dead or at least lost completely.

  • Kukulkan

     chris the cynic wrote:

    Your complaint here basically boils down to the bankers got a fattened calf and ordinary people didn’t even get a goat.

    No.  No it does not.  My complaint was that the fatted calf was slaughtered, a feast was held, there was music and dancing, and rather than being invited in we were all kept out.

    I really don’t see the distinction you are drawing here.
    One party got a bailout/fattened calf, the other got nothing/not even a goat. The feelings of the side that got nothing/not even a goat are, I think, similar. Both stem from the shock of the realization of just how little valued they and their contributions are.

    We didn’t choose to stay out side and refuse to come in when we were personally invited/pleaded with/ordered (depending on your translation of choice) by the head of household.

    You keep stressing this point — and it’s a valid one — but you keep skipping over the broader context.

       I. The elder son was not invited to the party.
      II. He only learned about it when he came in from the fields and found everyone in the
          middle of a celebration.
     III. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that if you weren’t invited — weren’t even
          informed — you probably weren’t welcome and to choose to sit it out.
      IV. When the father comes out to invite/plead/order the elder son in to the celebration he
          proceeds to ignore his quite valid feelings and talks only about the prodigal son.

    Now, for me, the combination of items II and IV has the clear subtext of “it’s all about the prodigal son; not only are you and your contributions not valued, I’m barely aware of them.”

    Or, to put it another way, the only time anyone gets any attention around here is by causing trouble. The prodigal son gets attention by blowing his inheritance, the older son gets attention by sulking and sitting out the party. Since, apparently, that’s the only thing the father responds to, I can see why the sons behave that way.

    There’s a vast difference from choosing to stay out of a party and being not allowed in.

    No-one said they weren’t allowed in. They just weren’t invited. And when they complained, they were told “Oh no, this is for you too. The banks will use the bailout money to re-negotiate the mortgages and make loans to businesses to get the economy moving again and create jobs so everyone will come out a winner.” It’s just that once the people were somewhat mollified by that statement (invitation/pleading/order) the bailed out banks haven’t followed through on that promise and no-one in any position of authority seems to care that they haven’t.

    What one really wants here is something like the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4), but, alas, that’s not what we’ve got.

  • Kukulkan

    dr ngo wrote:

    One aspect some commenters in this thread seem to have overlooked is the role of feasting (vs. saving or investing) in many pre-modern societies.

    This is a valid point.

    However, as the parable of the talents makes clear, the society Jesus was delivering these parables in was not a pre-modern one. People clearly understood the idea of investing and, more importantly, the idea of return-on-investment.

    After all, the master’s expectations in that parable as to what the servants should do with the talents he gave them are not treated as bizarre, unusual or even anything that needs to be explained or expanded on. The audience is expected to know that’s how things work.

    As such, applying such notions to other parables is not bringing an inappropriately modern perspective to bear. The perspective is already one that existed in the society at the time.

  • Kukulkan

    Lori wrote:

    My problem with this parable is the dame problem I have with most of the other parables—it gives just enough detail to undermine it’s own point in a way that I consider to be essentially the same thing as a Freudian slip. The obvious, “nice” mean is right there on the surface, but if you dig down even just a little bit the rot shows through.

    I’m with Lori on this one.

    While I can understand what most of the parables are trying to say — I think I’ve already said that the point of some, like the parable of the talents, completely escape me — I find that some of the details included in the parable actually serve to undermine their own point.

    Sometimes this is because things have changed in the past two thousand years — the parable of the Good Samaritan really does loose something if you don’t appreciate that Samaritans were a despised minority of whom only the worst was expected. And sometimes it’s, as Lori says, a kind of Freudian slip where the teller is revealing certain assumptions which are really questionable. And it’s not unreasonable to question those assumptions.

    I got involved in the discussion of the Prodigal Son when I responded to veejayem’s observation that young children really HATE the parable of the Prodigal Son. I can understand why they do and I can’t say they are wrong in getting indignant on behalf of the elder son. There are some very problematic assumptions built into that parable.

    And I must admit that my focusing on the economic aspects comes from the fact that when I was a kid, my mother died when I was about ten and I ended up being in charge of the family budget because no-one else seemed capable of it. I was the responsible one. So, perhaps, I’m just a little more sensitive than most to family members just blowing savings we needed for other things on stuff like parties.

    Also, as my experience taught me, being the responsible one means you get to be the nag and the meanie who everyone else complains about and who just stops them from having any fun. After a while, especially when you’re young, you seriously wonder why you bother. There’s a reason such duties are referred to as “thankless”.
     

  • Anonymous

    The ‘assumptions’ might be problematic, but they’re necessary.  That’s what God is like (according to Jesus).

    I put the ‘assumption’ in scare quotes because the notion that it’s OK for the younger son to be celebrated isn’t really something that’s assumed by the audience and the teller,  rather it’s what the teller is trying to convey by the whole story.  It’s news to the audience – that’s what they’re supposed to be learning from the story.

    You should sympathise with the elder son.  He has done everything right, and the younger son gets the celebration.  It’s right that children don’t like it, because it goes against what (most of them) get taught at home – bad behaviour results in bad outcomes, and good behaviour gets rewarded.  But that’s not what happens in this parable.   The whole point is that it undermines your expectations of fairness. 

    And so it is with the Kingdom of Heaven.  God doesn’t reward good behaviour; rather They celebrate when the lost come home.  It’s reasonable to expect to be rewarded more when you’ve served more – but that’s not what’s on offer, so it’s time to start giving up or at least radically de-emphasizing your notion of righteousness and start working on your notion of loving grace.  At least, that is what Jesus says both here and in the parable of the talents, and it seems to be a fairly consistent thread to his teaching.

    The whole point of Jesus’s teaching is that it’s not a series of obvious homilies to make your children good and obedient and allow them to succeed in business.   If you don’t find the teaching challenging, you either aren’t listening or you don’t need it (and therefore are a much better person than I am). 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    (Noting that the elder son can hear, appears to be physically capable of dancing, and we have no reason to believe he is incapable of pleasantly digesting the food in question.)

    When you’re invited into a feast you are being invited to eat.  You are not being told to watch other people eat while being forced to go hungry.

    When you’re invited into a dance, you are being invited to dance.  You are not being told to watch other people dance while you are not allowed.

    When you’re invited to come to the place where there is music, you’re being invited to enjoy the music, not to watch other people enjoy the music while you hear nothing.

    -

    Whatever we may think about the elder, the younger, and the father, or the situation as a whole, the elder son is being asked to partake in the perks of the celebration.  He’s being asked after it’s already started, but he’s being asked.

    For the bailouts to be comparable the people would have had to have been asked to partake in the perks of that.  The people’d have had to have been offered a portion of the money.  Direct relief instead of the indirect stuff we were told would manifest itself through hazy means as a result of the banks being bailed out.The people emphatically did not get invited to that party.  No one offered us a portion of the fatted calf, dancing or music.  Which is to say we weren’t invited to the celebration.  We weren’t offered to partake in the bailout money.

    That makes it different.  It’s not just that the fatted calf was killed, it’s that the people weren’t offered to share in the results.  We weren’t offered when it happened, we weren’t offered when we came home and found out what was going on, we weren’t offered when we asked for it.

    For the parable to fit that situation the elder son would have to be saying, “I see you’ve got a party going on here, can I come inside?” and the father would have to say, “No.  Stay outside.  But don’t worry, the fact that your brother is enjoying himself will rub off on you.”

    -

    disqus is acting strangely, hopefully this won’t post three times.

  • Kukulkan

    arcseconds wrote:

    Here’s a challenge for you who don’t like the characters you think you see in the original parable, and something more constructive than arguing over what the sparse details tell us about the rich human psychology evident in these characters:

    rewrite it.

    I think you could fix it just by having the elder brother home when the prodigal returns. Have him standing there, witnessing and listening to the entire exchange between the father and the prodigal.

    So we pick up at verse 25 in Luke chapter 15.
    But when the older son saw all this, he was not happy. He left the celebration and went to stand alone in a field.

    The father notices and approaches the elder son to ask “What’s going on?” The elder son answers “How come when my younger brother comes crawling home after blowing his inheritance he gets a big party, but I, who have stayed here and faithfully done everything you ever asked, don’t get any sort of acknowledgement?” I think that would emphasise that the elder brother is being a jealous jerk since it removes almost all the valid reasons why he might be angry.

    The father than replies “Son, the party is because your brother has returned to us; we are all together again. I would gladly do as much for you or any member of the family. I understand why you’re angry, but come, let’s celebrate the return of your brother. He that was dead and is alive again; that was lost and is found.”

    I just think a more inclusive language from the father — “you or any member of the family” — and a simple acknowledge that he understands the older son’s feelings would a long way to sorting out the difficulties. As it is, the focus on just the prodigal son in his speech tends to undermine the point.

    Oh, and leave out the whole business about the fattened calf and the goat. Just make it a celebration.

    Alternately, replace the older son with a chief steward who has no familial stake in the matter and who just voices the conventional wisdom that the father shouldn’t welcome the prodigal son back because he’s a deadbeat who will just bring more pain and sorrow. That way the father’s response, emphasising love and forgiveness over prudence and justice doesn’t get caught up in questions of family dynamics. You can even soften the exchange by having the father start with “Oh good and faithful servant, I know that you have only my best interests at heart, but…”

    The difficulty with this one is that it creates a family/not-family dynamic (is the prodigal welcomed back only because he is family?) that may also prove problematic.

    Maybe Jesus just needed a good editor. Or maybe Luke just wasn’t that good at transcribing the parable.

  • Kukulkan

    arcseconds wrote:

    You should sympathise with the elder son.  He has done everything right, and the younger son gets the celebration.  It’s right that children don’t like it, because it goes against what (most of them) get taught at home – bad behaviour results in bad outcomes, and good behaviour gets rewarded.  But that’s not what happens in this parable.   The whole point is that it undermines your expectations of fairness.

    Children get told that for a reason. We also try to set up society to function that way.

    If it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad gets you a big celebration, then why be good? The incentive is not there.

    I can’t remember the specific name of it, but there is a heresy that since God demonstrates his grace and mercy by forgiving us our sins, we should go out and commit as many sins as possible just so God can forgive us. Seems a rather suspect notion to me, but it follows logically from this idea, so I can’t say it’s wrong within the framework established.

    I don’t want the guilty punished. I’m quite happy with the idea that they get saved and their return to the fold is celebrated. I just think the righteous need to be acknowledged and celebrated as well. If that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works, then maybe that’s why I’m not really sure I want to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    It’s reasonable to expect to be rewarded more when you’ve served more – but that’s not what’s on offer, so it’s time to start giving up or at least radically de-emphasizing your notion of righteousness and start working on your notion of loving grace.  At least, that is what Jesus says both here and in the parable of the talents, and it seems to be a fairly consistent thread to his teaching.

    I really don’t understand how taking what little someone who has nothing (ignoring the logical contradiction there as simply being a rhetorical flourish) or slaughtering those that disagree with you (both parts of the parable of the talents) has to do with loving grace. I would have thought they were demonstrating quite the opposite.

    I’m not being deliberately obtuse here; I genuinely don’t understand that.

    If you can explain it, you’re far more insightful than I am.
     

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Thank you for saying this.

  • Lori

     But to do this as a serious inquiry into the meaning of the parable to miss the point of the parable, and in fact to miss the point of parables in general.  They’re not real people and they’re not fleshed out enough to treat them as such in a fictional analysis, and that’s by design, because those details don’t matter, and to the extent they cloud the purpose of the story, they’re actually worse than irrelevant.  

    All I can say about this is that I think the stuff that “worse than irrelevant” is, as I said earlier, often something very like a Freudian slip. The fact that that’s not what the person meant to say doesn’t mean that it’s not telling you something the person may not have wanted you to notice. 

    Obviously the POV on this is going to be very different between a person who is inclined to see the Bible in a necessarily positive light because it’s the word of God and me, who thinks it’s a collection of stories written by people to accomplish particular goals and therefore is as open to critique as any other moral fable. 

    As an example of something secular, I had the same kinds of problems with those moralizing little children’s books Madonna wrote. Someone gave a set to a friend of mine so I had a chance to read them a couple years ago. The details have slipped my mind, but I remember sort of hating all of them. They were simple and obvious even by the standards of books written for fairly young children, but they had underlying issues that I found problematic. 

  • Anonymous

    oops, I was thinking of the workers in the vineyard one, not the parable of the talents.

    (in the vineyard one too the rewards are not distributed according to merit.)

    mea culpa.

    I’m not going to attempt to explain the parable of the talents right now, firstly because it’s more difficult (and I’m not sure I can succeed), secondly because the topic is quite a different one.

  • Kukulkan

     chris the cynic wrote:

    For the parable to fit that situation the elder son would have to be saying, “I see you’ve got a party going on here, can I come inside?” and the father would have to say, “No.  Stay outside.  But don’t worry, the fact that your brother is enjoying himself will rub off on you.”

    Yeah, but the point of the parable is that the older son is being a jerk for resenting the fact that there is a party. Some of us are saying that he was justified in being a somewhat resentful because he wasn’t invited. To which you point out that he was invited… eventually.

    If we remove the implication that the older brother wasn’t invited — and that only follows from the passage saying he was out in field and heard the celebration already in progress when he returned — that doesn’t change the point of the parable.

    The older brother resented the fact that his prodigal brother got a party and he didn’t. Not that he wasn’t invited to that party — that’s just a contributing psychological detail that I and others bring to the story — but the fact that his brother got a party after bad behaviour while he, who had been good, didn’t get a party.

    So, there was a bailout. We were promised a part of that bailout (though the promises weren’t followed through on) through what we were told were the normal workings of the system. But the main point is there was a bailout. And it was given to the banks and financial institutions who had engaged in bad and reckless behaviour, not to the people that had been good and prudent. And those of us who had been good and prudent resent that bailout — especially since it turns we are the ones who have to pay for it; it used up the calf we had helped fatten up.

    So, as far as I can tell, the promise equates to an invitation to partake of their party, not a party of our own.

    They got a bailout, we didn’t. We should be happy they got a bailout because they almost died and now are alive again.

  • Lori

     Also, while I still maintain that it’s ridiculous to search for details about how much the father really loved his elder son, because parables don’t work like that, I suspect that the original audience would not have given a second thought about the level of emotional validation the elder son got from his father, firstly because they would have understood how a parable works, and secondly the notion of the high importance of emotional validation of children I imagine is more of a preoccupation of progressive middle-class 21st century westerners than it was of 1st century Jews.  

    The thing I found ridiculous was being told that stories that were so of their own time had been spoken by an all-knowing deity and were supposed to be applied and remain unquestioned for all time. 

    And with that I am out of this because I can feel a rant coming on. 

  • Kukulkan

    arcseconds wrote:

    oops, I was thinking of the workers in the vineyard one, not the parable of the talents.

    (in the vineyard one too the rewards are not distributed according to merit.)

    mea culpa.

    Oh, okay. That one I get. No problems with that one.

    Just as an aside, when I was learning Latin years ago I once got into real trouble when I suggested that a valid translation of Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa was “It’s my fault, it’s my fault, it’s all my fault.” The teacher insisted that it had to be “My sin, my sin, my most grievous sin.”

    Personally, I thought I had it colloquially right.

    I’m not going to attempt to explain the parable of the talents right now, firstly because it’s more difficult (and I’m not sure I can succeed), secondly because the topic is quite a different one.

    Maybe we could schedule a time for it, because I would really like to get other people’s thoughts and ideas on it.

    But not now. We’re in the middle of other things. Maybe in the quite period following Christmas and New Year’s.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Please don’t lie to me about what I said.  It’s rude.

    I would also argue that it’s pointless.  You can read what I wrote.  I can read what I wrote.  Any onlooker can read what I wrote.  What exactly is the lie meant to accomplish?

    -

    Second, if the elder son had gone and joined the party he would have gotten to partake in a feast there and then.  He would have gotten to dance there and then.  He would have gotten to listen to music there and then.  Not an empty promise of it coming about later, actual results in real time.

    To imply that the people who were shafted by the banking crisis got anything like that kind of offer is false, it is rude, and it is hurtful.  They’ve haven’t just been left out in the cold, they’ve been kept there.  They haven’t refused to come in, they’ve begged to.

    They’re not standing out in the cold because they’re pissed off that they weren’t given the opportunity to throw their own bailout at some point in the past, they’re pissed off that they’re not even getting the table scraps from this one.

    They’re not refusing to come and have a piece of the fatted calf because they’re angry about past goats denied, they’re begging for a piece of the fatted calf.  They’re not refusing to dance because they’re angry there were not dances in the past, they’re saying, “Can I please come in for just one dance?  Even a little one would be better than nothing.”  They’re not refusing to come to where the music is, they’re asking to be allowed in for even one song.

    To imply that the people who were shafted by the bailout are the same position as the elder son, that they could instantly get a share of the bailout if they could manage to make up and play nice with the banks, is false.  It is blatantly, hurtfully false.

    They’re not staying out because they don’t like the bankers, though they almost certainly do not.  They’re not staying out because being around the bankers would be traumatic for them, though it might very well be that it would be.  They’re staying out because they haven’t been allowed to come in.  Far from being pleaded with to come in and partake and then refusing, they have pleaded and been refused.

    Those who are hurting have not refused help.  They have been refused help.

    Those two things are different and your repeated conflation of the two is rude and it is hurtful.

    -

    Third, you know as well as I do* that the story is completely silent on whether or not the elder son has gotten parties in the past.  He says that he’s never had the opportunity to throw one.  No one ever mentions whether or not he’s had one thrown for him.  Maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t.  Treating the idea that he hasn’t as if it were fact is presenting the text as saying something it does not.

    It is, at best, being extremely and intentionally misleading.

    What I said at the beginning of the post has very high stakes for me.  If you continue to misrepresent my words to me then this is where I have to leave.  I’m simply not going to continue in a conversation where someone does that to me.  What follows is a simple request.  If you ignore it I’ll be unhappy but I’ll probably stick around.

    Please do not say extremely misleading things, especially not an hour and a half after you have demonstrated that you know them to be extremely misleading, in the future.  It is very difficult to have a conversation with someone who is not only acting in bad faith, but also doing it blatantly.

  • P J Evans

    We should be happy they got a bailout because they almost died and now are alive again.

    I think the banks have died for real, but the bailouts turned them into zombie banks. And we’re supposed to not notice that they’re really dead. (The fees they charge are what’s keeping them looking like they’re alive.)

  • Anonymous

    I think you had it exactly right, assuming you were studying classical latin and not, say, medieval church latin.

    ‘Sin’ is a term that comes with a hefty theological and cultural baggage which quite probably doesn’t map on to anything that the Romans had.  I’d be wary of translating anything anything outside an expressly Christian context as ‘sin’, particularly anything from the classical world.

    I’ve just checked and both latin-dictionary.org and the OED give ‘fault, blame’ for ‘culpa’.

    You should demand a reconsideration of your grade and the head of your former teacher on a plate or something :]

    (well, at least, you had ‘culpa’ right.  ‘maxima’ doesn’t mean ‘all’, although you might have a point about the colloquialism)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    If it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad
    gets you a big celebration, then why be good? The incentive is not
    there.

    When “white-collar” crime gets a slap on the wrist and companies can legally make money by all manner of dodgy tactics that any reasonable person would deem an attempt at reaching into one’s wallet…

    I think we’re at the stage now where the taken for granted part is widespread in this society.

  • hapax

    What about the question of whether he was working in the fields while
    the party was taking place?  If he was left out there working while
    everyone else had a good time I’d definitely think he was right to be
    pissed off.  We don’t know the exact details because he doesn’t see fit
    to mention them.  For all we know he was already on his way back when
    the celebration started.  (The detail with respect to the order of
    events is less than clear.)

    The last time this parable came up I recommended Kenneth Bailey’s exhaustive analysis in the the context of contemporary Middle Eastern culture (POET & PEASANT AND THROUGH PEASANT EYES) which goes into great detail the extent to which *both* sons more than insulted their father from the very beginning of the set up, to the point of actively wishing him dead.   

    I shan’t repeat my extensive summary of his discussion, but to address this specific point;  it is a mistake to think of a major feast in a first century Palestinian town in any terms of “when did the party start?” 

    In one sense, the party “started” at the moment the father announced it; then it “started” when the calf was slaughtered and distributed to homes all over town for roasting (because no one house would have a big enough oven);  it “started” when all the village women and house servants began singing and dancing as they cooked the meat, and began looking for side dishes they could contribute;  it “started” as the the guests (= the entire adult population) began to trickle into the host’s home, playing their pipes and clapping hands; it “started” as the village children (one of whom was later interrogated by the elder brother, instead of entering his home to simply ask his father) gathered around, hoping for handouts and treats;  it “started” as ALL the village men (not just the brother) came home from fields, to find out that a grand feast was occurring;  but it couldn’t “start” until the oldest son, in his role as the junior host, entered the house and welcomed the honored guest, the younger brother returned from dead, a role the elder declined because he preferred to refer to himself as an independent servant-for-hire rather than as a member of the family(note that he doesn’t ask why his father didn’t throw him a party, but rather why he couldn’t, like his brother, go off with his inheritance and spend it with his friends, once again quite literally telling his father: “I wish you dead”).

    The only conceivable application of this parable to the current economic crisis that I can think of is to put the bankers in the role of BOTH the younger and the older brother:  first saying to the home-owner, “We’re going to go take this money you gave us to secure your mortgage and blow it on gambling on a financial equivalent of three-card monte”; and then coming back and saying, “Gosh, how can you be offering mortgage cramdown when we don’t have enough to give big bonuses to our buddies?  Forget legal technicalities and just drop dead, so we can foreclose and move things along.”

    Except I don’t see the abused father / homeowner / victim in any position to offer forgiveness and reconciliation, let alone a party;  his robe has been stripped from him, his ring pawned in an effort to keep the heat on, and any fatted calves he might have had are poisoned with pepper spray…

  • Anonymous

    Children get told that for a reason. We also try to set up society to function that way.

    Do we? Perhaps in a pretty weak sense.  We punish people for doing things that are against the rules (so long as they’re caught and can’t afford a lawyer clever enough to get them off), but there isn’t much in the way of rewards for people who do good things (there are some, but they’re few and far between and the rewards of looking out for number one are far easier to attain).  The marketplace rewards meeting demand, not working hard or being good or even following the rules.

    Anyone who says otherwise is a fool or is trying to sell you something :]

    If
    it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad
    gets you a big celebration, then why be good? The incentive is not
    there.

    You’re not really doing good if you’re doing it for an incentive, though.  If the elder brother is doing everything solely because he expects to get a greater reward than the younger, then he’s just as selfish as the younger one, he’s just more prudent. 

    Once again, I think the whole purpose of this parable, and of much of the teachings of Jesus in general, are about trying to get people away from any kind of tit-for-tat, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, black eyes and feathers in your cap style understanding of what God is and what being good is all about.

    I can’t remember the specific name of it, but there is a
    heresy that since God demonstrates his grace and mercy by forgiving us
    our sins, we should go out and commit as many sins as possible just so
    God can forgive us. Seems a rather suspect notion to me, but it follows
    logically from this idea, so I can’t say it’s wrong within the framework
    established.

    Well, the usual story is that repentence is necessary for forgiveness, and if someone deliberately going out and committing more wrongs in order to be forgiven, then they can’t really have repented of those wrongs in the first place, and I’d say they don’t really understand what ‘repentence’, ‘forgiveness’, or even ‘wrong’ really mean.  (a wrong is something you get punished for, maybe, and forgiveness is when you get a party instead of the expected punishment).

    The prodigal son does repent, and I think that’s an important part of the story. It stops the father from looking like a sap.  While it might not be unrealistic for a loving parent to celebrate even if they had reason to believe the prodigal was insincere, that really would be something that undermines the point of the parable, because it would muddy the issue.

    I don’t want the guilty punished. I’m quite happy
    with the idea that they get saved and their return to the fold is
    celebrated. I just think the righteous need to be acknowledged and
    celebrated as well. If that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works, then
    maybe that’s why I’m not really sure I want to be a part of the Kingdom
    of Heaven.

    Well, the parable isn’t about that. It’s about what happens to people who are lost and then found.   The elder son is there really just to provide a commentary on how this undermines any notion of desert.  There’s plenty of other material in the new testament that shows that those who do good are also rewarded – the parable of the vineyard, for example.

    In general analogies only work up to a point, and it’s important not to try to stretch them further than they go.  If it were necessary that analogies must be entirely isomorphic to the thing to which they are analogous, then analogies would be pointless  and only possible in the trivial case – you could only use the thing itself as an analogy.

    It’s made more difficult of course because there’s no clear picture in the text of what the Kingdom of Heaven actually is – as far as I recall Jesus only ever speaks of it metaphorically, and the other parts that might show you something about it are steeped in imagery as well.   It’s a bit difficult when the subject you’re discussing can’t actually be discussed directly.

    Anyway, while the elder son doesn’t get a party in the parable, he does get to spend several years with his loving father doing honest work, and he doesn’t have to live in degraded filth, and he doesn’t have to swallow his pride, come crawling back and hope to be treated like a slave.  He also doesn’t get involved in debauched pleasures, either. Any decent person would prefer to be the elder son, almost by definition, no?

  • Lori

     The last time this parable came up I recommended Kenneth Bailey’s exhaustive analysis in the the context of contemporary Middle Eastern culture (POET & PEASANT AND THROUGH PEASANT EYES) which goes into great detail the extent to which *both* sons more than insulted their father from the very beginning of the set up, to the point of actively wishing him dead.    

    If we take away the assumption that the father in the story represents God and that God by definition is good and can’t be wrong I think most of us would be asking what the hell went on in that family to make both that man’s grown sons wish him dead. 

  • Anonymous

    I’d just like to say that aside from still thinking this parable is a good parable, I also think that the family dynamic is quite believable even in our culture (which is one reason why it’s a good parable).

    Drop the extraneous detail (I still maintain it’s not important) and concentrate on the broad aspects.

    I’ll refer once again to Chris’s account of the poster in the earlier thread.  While of course I don’t know her, I’ll use feminine pronouns to show I’m trying to suggest this works in a modern setting with a case not unlike hers.

    Younger daughter takes some money and runs and becomes a heroin-addicted adult entertainment industry worker.  Older daughter stays at home to save money for a car and a house. 

    I’ll pause here to note that it’s pretty common in such circumstances, when you see your loved ones every day, to not celebrate them in extravagant fashions.  They just get ordinary birthday parties, not marquees on the lawn and the whole tribe invited around.  That might not be being the absolute bestest most ideal parent, but it’s compatible with being a pretty good one.

    Younger daughter one day comes back and says she’s sorry and it was a huge mistake. 

    It’s very understandable that mum will be overjoyed, and a celebration might be exactly what she decides to do.  It’s also understandable that ‘Ms Stay at Home’ (to use Lori’s expression) might get a bit ‘pissy’ about it.  She might well say things like ‘I’ve slaved for years and you didn’t even throw me a decent 21st!’ – which might not actually represent how she really feels towards her mother most of the time, but does express frustration with how ‘rewards’ are being distributed (of course, that’s not what’s going on here, but it’s understandable for someone to feel as though it is).

    (I think hapax is right and the elder son actually is being pretty insulting too, but under these kind of circumstances I wouldn’t take that to actually be a measure of how the child actually feels about their parent most of the time.)

    Actually, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that if the parent didn’t feel celebratory, that something might be a bit amiss – remember, the child was thought forsaken and possibly dead.

    But I must admit I also rather like the idea of a taciturn farmer scarcely acknowledging the prodigal, just a curt nod of the head, as if it hadn’t been years but just a few days, and then later quietly moving the son’s things from the servant quarters back to his old bedroom.

  • hapax

    Anyway, while the elder son doesn’t get a party in the parable, he does
    get to spend several years with his loving father doing honest work, and
    he doesn’t have to live in degraded filth, and he doesn’t have to
    swallow his pride, come crawling back and hope to be treated like a
    slave.

    The elder son gets all the parties he wants.  The only way for the father to divide up his estate between his sons while he still lives is to in effect allow them to declare him “dead.”  BOTH sons have to agree to this.

    When the father tells the elder “all that I have is yours”, he isn’t speaking metaphorically.  The elder son legally owns everything at this point.  What he doesn’t have — what he can’t have, until the father is dead — is the disposition of the household.  That is, he can’t cart off the livestock and have a party with his buddies that excludes the father and his cohort.

    The elder son is refusing to acknowledge that he is a member of the family, a larger community.  He does not call his father by that title.  He refers to himself exclusively in terms of servant-for-hire.  He is basically saying, “Nope, we’re not a family, we’re in an employer-employee situation with a wage dispute.”

    Note that the younger son’s original “repentence” is not much better.  He isn’t showing “humility” in going back and asking to be hired as a slave / wageservant.  He is trying to avoid starvation (good for him!) as a result of his own greediness and opting out of the family, but not by asking for forgiveness and to be welcomed back;  rather, he’s saying, “Yeah, I screwed up, but I’ve got Executive Experience, man;  give me a job.”

    And the father says to him, “Nope, we don’t do things like that here in the Kingdom of Heaven.  You’re a member of the family — a beloved, honored member of the family — with all the privileges AND RESPONSIBILITIES that come with that.”

    We don’t know what the younger brother says.  That isn’t the point.  The point is that there isn’t a “bad” son and a “good” son, no matter how you divvy them up.  There are TWO lost sons, because they — for whatever reason — have lost themselves, chosen to see their relationships in terms of points earned and points lost, rather than as members of the family.

    And the father says to both of them, “We don’t work that way.  We live and work and die and rejoice together.  Come in and be part of the family again.”

  • hapax

    We don’t know what went on in the family prior to that point.  But we do know that the sons couldn’t declare their father dead without his active agreement.

    And we do know that every time either son tried to rub it in his face the father responded with astonishing humility (seriously — the kind of offense we are talking about here showed up in comparative legal discussions with the father having the *responsibility* to punish such rebellious sons with death), running out to meet them (instead of having the son come into the father, as was proper), entreating (rather than commanding them, as was his right) to come back and act as a family again.

    There could be dark hidden currents of parental abuse that justified the sons’ resentment, of course.  But maybe — JUST MAYBE — the sons were actually greedy, arrogant, self-centred jerks, all on their own, without it being the parents’ fault.

  • Lori

     But maybe — JUST MAYBE — the sons were actually greedy, arrogant, self-centred jerks, all on their own, without it being the parents’ fault.  

    Of course that might be the case, but if we approached the story with no preconceived ideas that the father must be good I think most of us would ask the question. One son wanting you dead is one thing. Both sons wanting you dead seems like a weird family dynamic. 

  • Anonymous

    To quote a writer far wiser than me: Justice without mercy is unjust, but mercy without justice is unmerciful.

    If you wound somebody, even accidentally, in the service of another’s happiness, and don’t act to heal that wound, you are behaving poorly, unjustly. Unmercifully. I refuse to accept as moral a lesson which teaches me to ignore that.

    There is no mercy or justice or goodness in accepting with out protest unfairness and inequality, in telling somebody who feels wronged to quit feeling wronged.


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