410. rethinking the story of the Prodigal Son (Part 2) — church and sex


(read part 1 here)

Years ago, when I was the drummer for a rock band, I wrote a song called “We Are Free” with these lyrics:

There was a time when
you thought all their words were true
Wrong and right were
black and white as a rule

But the world is wide as
the girl in the bubble was small
And you could not resist
when you heard curiosity call

And you found some things beautiful
and you found some things depraved
And you learned to be cynical
but you also learned how to be brave

They would call you
the prodigal daughter who
Ran from home
before her time was due

Could it be in the scheme of things
it’s just part of some grand design
Could it be we’re just waiting for
all the water to turn into wine

We are free

I think this song relates to my rethinking of the Prodigal Son story in that both are about how it is that God is working in our lives and how does that relates to the way we think about Christian sexual ethics.

I think the most profound metaphor for how God interacts with us is parenting. I don’t have kids but from everything I’ve ever heard from friends or learned in grad school, what good parents ultimately want is for their kids to grow into the healthiest versions of who God uniquely created them to be. That involves a process of discovery for both the parent and the parented, and this process involves a delicate balancing act. Give a child too much freedom and you risk them growing up to be a huge asshole. Raise a child with boundaries that are too restrictive and unwielding and you risk them growing up to be an entirely different sort of asshole.
No one does parenting perfectly, but according to attachment theory, ideal child rearing may involve simply being good enough. Basically, that means providing the child support and freedom they need to experiment and explore the world and their place in it. It also means being there to comfort, soothe, and reassure when things go sideways.

Finding the perfect balance between overly restrictive and overly permissive boundaries is impossible, but I wonder if the message of the Prodigal story is that God’s way is to err on the side of being overly permissive and overly gracious if/when the child makes a mess of things.

Ultimately, this is a question of formation. How does a Christian come to live their life in a way that conforms to who God created them to be? And a crucially related question is, what role does the church play in facilitating this process?

One stark example of where the church has gone wrong can be seen in the draconian rhetoric of the purity movement and how it led to disastrous consequences in the lives of many people (including me).

Again, I think the story of the Prodigal Son is instructive. In the previous post I wrote that the Prodigal’s father gave him half the family’s inheritance knowing full well what he intended to do with it (basically partying hard). And yet, scripture records no pushback or plea from the father to do otherwise.

As with good parenting, the father (personifying God) gave the Prodigal son freedom to explore the life abundant. And despite the fact that he spent what must have been a considerable fortune on decadence and pleasure-seeking, despite the fact that these choices lead to the point where he looked at pig slop as a viable meal, the father was there, waiting to welcome him back with a party.

Could it be in the scheme of things
it’s just part of some grand design
Could it be we’re just waiting for
All the water to turn into wine

Could it be that the church should be less dogmatic and restrictive in how she talks about sex, sexuality, and the ethical norms around them? Could it be that allowing people the freedom to make mistakes (as good parents do) and lovingly welcoming them back if they make a mess of things is more in line with how God would have us form Christian character?

To be clear, I’m not saying that the church should wholeheartedly embrace hookup culture, but I would love to see a more open and honest conversation take place – one where we don’t use shame to force conformity to vaguely-defined sexual guidelines. It would be so refreshing to hear stories of couples who may not have waited to have sex until they were married and how that decision did not ruin them.1 It would be so great to hear the church talk about mutual respect in relationships, about how to have conversations about sexual intimacy with a partner, about consent, about proper use of contraception, and yes, about our God-gifted bodies, about our inherent worth and the worth of others, about loving God and neighbor as self. And to hear about how all of that relates to the way we live out our calling as sexual beings.

Lastly, I wish the church would trust people to make their own healthy, God-honoring decisions about how they steward their sexuality and their relationships – that with the explicit message that the church will be there to nurture and love regardless of how things may go.

  1. I remember a story from a high school retreat where one of the Sunday school teachers got up and tearfully shared how he and his wife had had sex after they were engaged but before they were married. He talked emotionally about how he wished they had waited, but never fully explained why. He was still married to this same woman and they had two kids and life seemed to be going well for them. I couldn’t help but wonder why he so regretted the choice to have sex before he was married.  

404. rethinking the story of the Prodigal Son (Part 1)

1024px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project The Return of the Prodigal Son Painting by Rembrandt

You probably know the story. Two sons. One of them asks his father for his share of the inheritance while the father is still alive. He goes and spends this inheritance on a life of partying and delight. And when the money runs out, he goes back to his father who lovingly takes him back, welcoming him into the family with a lavish celebration.

The Good Son seldom gets any attention, and when he does, it’s often negative, focusing on his hard-heartedness, on his lack of ability to forgive and love as his father does. And the attention to the Good Son usually stops there. But there’s so much more.

Because here’s the thing. I don’t think the Good Son’s refusal to welcome his brother back is the worst of his sins. Not by a long shot. That’s the response of someone who has been harboring a much deeper, more profound sin — a sin that seldom gets addressed in church, a sin that has likely festered within him well before his brother went prodigal.

The Good Son’s fundamental sin? Forsaking God’s (and his father’s) gift of love and life.

It’s obvious that the family was wildly wealthy. The fact that the father could give the Prodigal half the family’s inheritance and still maintain his farm for however long his son was away; the fact that he had hired servants who could take up the work abandoned; the fact that he could afford to throw a party upon the son’s return. All of these point to a household that didn’t have to worry about money, even after giving half of it away.

The Prodigal Son recognizes the wealth available and the opportunities latent therein and decides to take a huge fucking bite out of the bounty to see what there is of life out there to be lived.1 Yes, it’s an act of profound selfishness and disregard, but my God, what a life he lived for a while.

Thing is, I think we so often focus on the sin of his acts that we miss the latent hint of salvation.2

Picture a boy, raised on a farm, now in the bed of a temple prostitute who has been trained, from a young age, how to pleasure a man. Picture the hard, trembling edge of inexperience enveloped in the soft, warm contours of fleshy bliss — her tenderness dulling the perimeter warmly, precisely, gracefully. She lulls, nudges him playfully towards surrender. And he complies. And it’s a revelation.

Imagine him pursuing the boundaries of human experience, testing the limits of ecstasy, extending each of his senses as far as his substantial fortune can stretch them — a deep study of his God-gifted body and the world through which it moves. And yes, there is much depravity there, but isn’t there also a kind of salvation? Because isn’t part of the allure of decadence the taste of paradise it both teases and fulfills, even if only for a moment?

And yes, his choices eventually lead to ruin, but the experiences — both bliss and desolation — will live in his body forever. When he returns, he is money-poor, but the stories! The sensate memories endure. He is both haunted and enlightened by them. The Prodigal returns with breadth and depth in him. How is that not a kind of salvation?

Study of a Male Nude (Althaemenes) in Despair Study of a Male Nude (Althaemenes) in Despair Artist:Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard

In contrast, picture the Good Son, back at home on his bed, alone with the fury of his imagination spinning endless narratives of his brother’s infidelities. Imagine him simultaneously titillated and inflamed.

In those moments, imagine him asking the question that terrifies him most: is there any for me? Because if the answer is no, then what the fuck is he doing here anyway? And if the answer is yes, then where is it?

But the Good Son resolves; tucks his envy away into hidden, overstuffed pockets of denial. Instead, he stores grains of honor, integrity, and loyalty into his storehouse of virtue — an endless room that never fills, his personal holy of holies.

Imagine night after night, weeks into years, this unwieldy dance of fondled desires and blunting righteousness. Every night, another dour deposit.

And then one day, out in the fields again with the servants and the livestock, the heat and the soil, he hears music. He hears laughter and celebration. He turns his head toward the house and sees smoke from the kitchen, smells meat stewing. He is confused. He looks again at the field before him, at all the work yet to be done. Last year’s harvest was slim and they need to make up for it this year. And yet, what the hell is going on over there?

He begins the long walk back home.

As he nears, he sees someone dancing at the center of the festivities, someone wearing his father’s ornate, ceremonial robe.

And then a jolt of recognition, a terrible epiphany. His brother is a thief yet again. His storehouse of virtue, his holy of holies has been ransacked. Consciously or not, he had been hoping to one day leverage his surplus of faithfulness for a concrete sign of his father’s love. But there, right there in front of him, his bastard brother: laughing, dancing, showered by the very attention and affection that should have been his.

Blood and betrayal reigns.

But while the Good Son is still a long way off, his father spots him, waves him over.

The son stands still. The father intuitively understands the weight of this (non)response and runs over to him, begs him to join the party.

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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

DP159897 Small Bust on a Plinth (Diego) Artist:Alberto Giacometti

He was never given a meal or a celebration.

And while it’s not explicit in the text, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that he never asked for one. Life, joy, food, festivities were all there to be had in abundance, but they had to be pursued, requested, the want made plain.

So if the Prodigal was guilty of asking too much, the Good Son was guilty of not asking at all. Both sins, and yet, only one son finds forgiveness and a kind of salvation.

And it’s important to remember that the father granted the Prodigal’s wish, probably with a good idea of what he intended to do with it.

And yet, scripture does not record any pushback or plea. The text moves from the Prodigal’s request to the division of the family’s fortune. And if the father personifies God in this parable, is it too much of a stretch to say that God allows us, even empowers us, to go out and experience all of what there is in the world, just as the Prodigal did? Is that too scandalous an interpretation? 3

In contrast, the Good Son lives a life of jealousy and resentment — refined by his brother’s departure, weaponized upon his return. His is a joyless, spiteful, trivial life, an insult to the boundless gift that life can be. This is his sin.

Given this rethinking of the story of the story, is there a corresponding rethink necessary around how we think of how God relates to us, about what sort of life God wants us to live?

I think so.

More on this in part 2.

  1. I think this is both sin and salvation, but that’s too much nuance for one blog post. ↩︎
  2. “Salvation” is probably too strong of a word, but it does get at the idea I’m trying to covey — that there are elements of life-giving good in the Prodigal’s choices. ↩︎
  3. And yes, I realize I have to address Romans 6:15. More on that in a future post, but for now, one of the points I’m trying to make is that the Good Son also sins by hoarding virtue alongside envy. ↩︎