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The Case of Prodigal Job: A Closer Look at Grace and Faith

 

Piety and truth must never be considered separable, for honest and genuine piety will never come into conflict with truth.(1)
Jean Mabillon (1632-1707)

[T]he biblical canon names the primary collection of ancient documents with which Christians are to be in continuing dialogue. This continuing conversation is definitive and constitutive of Christian identity. … Thus the authority of the Bible is its status as our primary ancient conversational partner.(2)
Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

An important reason for declining biblical literacy, I believe, is spiritual starvation caused by the marriage of fundamentalism and materialistic capitalism in evangelical churches. Many Americans describe themselves as spiritual, not religious; thereby rejecting inflexible moral and religious guidance by churches that measure divine approval in dollars and attendance counts. There are lots of Americans who recognize the difference between genuine piety and marketing success tracked by congregational growth, donations, and merchandise sales.

Discovering better ways to use the Bible as a resource in spiritual quests may help reconnect Millennials and other generations to the variety and depth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Marcus Borg pointed the way for the spiritually undernourished when he recommended the Bible as a “conversational partner,” making today’s quest a continuation of a long dialog that has not been content with inflexible answers.

The focus of conversation within the Judeo-Christian tradition, as found in the Bible especially, is on the search for truth. A requirement for our time, I believe, is to remove blinders that shield us from the direct light of evidence-based discoveries that upset traditional views. For example, science has explained creative operations of the universe which were described poetically in Genesis for a theological, not scientific, purpose. Why insist on turning Genesis into phony science when the primary theological points don’t depend on specifics of creation? Also, our documented understanding of gender orientation and addiction shows they are not moral issues curable through repentance. Why insist on clearly outdated approaches to morality?

To remove blinders, we must also cast out the poisonous distinction between conservative and liberal views. Screening opinions into either category to determine acceptability leads to new forms of fundamentalism that undercut spiritual explorations. Blinders also need to be removed when discussions of grace and faith rely on fairytale endings of biblical stories because they are traditional or conservative interpretations.

Adults know that “happily-ever-after” endings are good for children’s stories and movies but do not convey deep realities of life. The parable of the Prodigal Son, an essential part of Jesus’ teaching, is an example of how incomplete endings too often go unquestioned. It may be unsettling to probe deeper into traditional views on grace, forgiveness, and faith; but spiritual adventures are not genuine if they ignore the dangers that can become significant experiences when they are faced.

Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son was not intended to be a novel. It makes dramatic points then ends with a party and an effort by the father to reconcile the faithful brother to the return of the prodigal. This ending is incomplete because of two unanswered questions. First, how did the faithful son behave in the days after the father’s efforts to smooth over hurt feelings? Amy-Jill Levine, in Stories by Jesus, pointed out that the older brother was upset because his father forgot to invite him to the party.(3) Traditional interpretations that the elder brother stayed away because of jealousy are not faithful to the story. Second, what happened to the prodigal after the party? The younger son no longer fitted in because the father’s remaining wealth belonged to the older brother. How did the father resolve the problem of determining the status of the younger son in the household? Abounding generosity created issues that were left hanging.

Emphasizing the happy ending of the prodigal story leads to rosy theological claims about grace and unconditional love. These claims that make us feel warm inside are easily challenged by comparing them to laments in the Psalms, Lamentations, Jeremiah, and of course Job. The problem of reconciling optimistic New Testament interpretations with other biblical stories has been neglected, showing another use of blinders that avoid hard questions arising from serious discussion of scripture. The desperate fidelity and trust found in the book of Job make an especially appropriate comparison to the theological claims based on the happy ending of the Prodigal Son.

In the remainder of this article, we will examine Job and the story of the Prodigal Son together, then consider what the comparison tells us about God and grace. We will end with a brief justification of such conversations as a method for encouraging biblical literacy in our time – an approach that is respectful, not subversive, and increasingly in demand in a time when false reality too often is chosen over the search for truth.

Prodigal Job.

The experiences of Job and the Prodigal Son are comparable. Jesus’ story parallels Job in reverse, probably unintentionally.

Job is like the righteous elder son. At the beginning, we are told he enjoyed great prosperity, as would be expected, because of his fidelity. When the tide of fortune was suddenly reversed, he experienced calamity and despair far greater than the prodigal. When Job hit bottom, his wife and friends said repentance was the cure. But Job did not “come to himself” by realizing he had offended God. Rather, he asserted innocence while continuing to affirm trust in God, even as he felt sorry for himself; and asked for judgment because he was confident of his innocence and God’s ultimate justice.

When God responded from a tornado, Job’s legal standing was challenged by the incomprehensible difference between humans and the God of all creation. Job responded by acknowledging the vast difference between God and humanity and accepting the answer in a context of trust even though the desired justice was not given.

The Prodigal Son, on the other hand, judged himself, then encountered love and forgiveness of an overly generous father who is considered a representative of God. Jesus told other stories describing God as a judge who required considerate treatment of others. At the heart of Jesus’ message was the nature of a sovereign God who could be understood through comparisons with human examples. This is quite a contrast to experiencing a non-anthropomorphic power speaking from a tornado about human inability to expect accountability of the power behind creation.

The book of Job presents two views of God, both of which are very troubling. The heart of the book is poetry through which we experience the depth of Job’s torment and his encounter with God in a tornado. Prose sections were added to the beginning and end in an apparent effort to give the story a better ending and a more sympathetic view of God. However, prose efforts to improve the God of the poetry made everything worse.

The beginning tells us how righteous Job was, to the extent that spiritual forces became jealous. Satan in this case was a prosecutor who doubted the character of Job and wanted to subject his righteousness to extreme cross examination. The explanation of hard times as God testing us has long been accepted for understanding the difficulties of life. But in Job’s case testing is not what happened. God made a wager with a spiritual power, a mere game in which no consideration was given to the collateral damage of death for children and financial ruin of a family. The phony ending restoring Job’s wealth and children doesn’t eliminate the betrayal of fidelity that results when the prose bookends are added to the story.

Disregarding the prose sections leaves a troubling but realistic picture of a blameless person coming to grips with life’s injustices without a guarantee of eventual understanding or a happy ending. The God who speaks out of the tornado is one who is beyond human comprehension. The God of the prose sections becomes understandable in human terms that make him seem monstrous.

In the Prodigal Son, Jesus ignored the God of the tornado as he overruled the slanderous picture of an anthropomorphic God at the beginning of Job. The Prodigal Son is one of many times Jesus described God as comprehensible in human terms even though God himself is not anthropomorphic. Some stories used fatherly love at its best to understand God, even to extending the analogy to care for birds and plants. Imagining God as like a shepherd or a judge at the end of time maintained the view of a God whose standards are comprehensible to human beings.

Underlying Jesus’ analogies is the belief that relationship with God is possible. Jesus asserts his own relationship with God and claims that disciples have access to that kind of relationship as well. But this ignores the God in a tornado – one that is as incomprehensible as natural processes.

There is an unavoidable paradox in the views of God in Job and Jesus’ parables. Both are true. Today we enjoy increasing scientific knowledge of impersonal processes such as storms, earthquakes, genetics, diseases, and economic cycles. The God responsible for creative processes in our universe is far beyond the capabilities of human understanding. Yet the reality of relationship with God as a personal experience is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition and remains a primary goal of the spiritual journey.

The God imagery of Jesus and Job are paradoxical because they contradict each other, yet our tradition affirms both are true.

Straight Talk about Grace.

Traditional interpretations of the Prodigal Son emphasize the father’s greeting as demonstrating a combination of love, forgiveness, and restoration. To some extent, the parable format encourages a truncated view of life by making quick, usually stinging, points without going into details. But “true life” demands looking at circumstances ignored at the end of the parable. That means putting Job and the prodigal together for realistic understanding of love, faith, forgiveness, and grace.

In What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey used a story like the Prodigal Son to demonstrate “God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached.”(4) A rebellious underage teenager ran away from a home she found too restrictive. She was lured into a life of drugs and prostitution that felt liberating at first but soon became a prison of abuse. Eventually she realized, like the Prodigal Son, that risking going back home was her best choice. Failing to reach her parents by phone, she left voice messages of her plans to return by bus. The climax of the story was when anxiety upon arrival turned to joy when she went into the terminal and saw a crowd of extended family welcoming her with party hats and a banner. Like the prodigal, she walked into a celebration – and then the story ended.

Such a happy ending is not insignificant. Parental love that is steady through disappointments, betrayals, and personal disasters is a form of grace on which we all depend. However, the initial reception is only the beginning of a long process through which everyone in the story needs ongoing strength built on love, forgiveness, and sometimes difficult decisions to avoid destructive enabling behaviors.

Yancey’s story has implications easily understood by modern parents. A young rebellious girl tasted freedom, addiction, and prostitution. She was also sick, perhaps dealing with AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. Do we believe she will return home as a compliant daughter, fitting into the world she previously rejected? What dating limits or curfews do you place on a daughter who is sexually active, addicted, and unhappy with any limits on personal freedom? How does the forgiveness of the welcome continue into the challenges of daily life in this all too common scenario?

There is a lot this teenager could learn about grace by understanding the poetic sections of Job. She can’t say she is blameless for suffering, as Job did. Her challenge is to turn the grace of the welcome into strength to face inner torments of daily struggles with addiction and other consequences of premature freedom, especially depression and despair.

Let’s change the story to a man who sees his family after returning home from military service in a war zone. The family is overjoyed he survived a bomb, even though it took both legs and left him with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This veteran is apprehensive before the family sees physical and mental changes, so he is relieved at the joyous welcome. But in the following weeks everyone around him must adjust expectations because physically and mentally he is no longer the person they once knew. How do you show love, ongoing forgiveness, and understanding without enabling destructive PTSD behaviors?

“Happily-ever-after” endings are followed by daily trials. Where can we find strength needed for those battles? Job provides an example of someone maintaining trust in God’s faithfulness when everything goes wrong and friends accuse you or recommend turning on God. Job represents faith of the most difficult kind.

Enduring faith has nothing to do with beliefs, as seen in creeds or doctrinal statements. At its best, faith is about commitment and personal trust in God – that God is the source of truth and meaning when our beliefs turn out to be false; that God loves and intends good for us when life’s events and our emotions appear to contradict it.

Both Job and the Prodigal Son imply ongoing circumstances that make forgiveness difficult. Are natural consequences of his previous actions eliminated by forgiving the prodigal? Details within the story show that he squandered funds that can’t be restored. He seems reconciled to treatment as one of the household servants, but would any demotion in status compromise the love extended in the father’s greeting?

What about the need for the elder brother to forgive his father’s negligence as well as his brother? The faithful brother will have to play a role in whatever arrangements are made for his brother, necessitating his participation in carrying out forgiveness in action. Will the older brother continue to trust the love and fairness of the father? Will the older brother forgive his father’s abundant generosity? Odd as it may sound, human acceptance of forgiveness often means willingness to forgive God for disappointed hopes.

Job’s situation is less complicated. His response to God’s speech from inside a storm is a remarkable capitulation of his own cause. The kind of trust asserted in Job’s final speech could only happen if he gave up the validity of his case, which means he had to forgive God for violating reasonable expectations of justice.

I have known several people who openly discussed anger at God that led to deconversion experiences. Their anger was not about trivial events. It expressed resentment that faithful Christians could have children with severe birth defects, or cancer, or fatal genetic disorders. Unwilling or unable to forgive God for what they took as a personal affront, they held tight to resentment that often undermined family relationships. The trust of Job, which can only happen when forgiveness has been extended to God, would have improved these lives.(5)

Mother Teresa and Francis Collins provide modern examples of faith and daily grace amidst suffering in ways that link Job and Jesus. The correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual counselors over many years represented the interactions of a profoundly spiritual person with doubts and depression as she faithfully lived out what she believed was her calling. Nearly half of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light dealt with inner darkness, which was a sense of God’s absence as well as persistent doubt.(6) Her spiritual problems, in my view, likely resulted from depression which is typical for adults of advanced age. Despite doubt and inner spiritual turmoil, she remained faithful to her calling, finding strength by comparing her suffering with the torment of Jesus on the cross. This kind of fidelity and trust can only happen when someone doesn’t hold grudges against God for disappointed expectations.

Job sitting on a dung heap and Jesus hanging on the cross make an interesting comparison when thinking of God’s grace. Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 place the opening verse of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus as he expires: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This desperate cry fits with the suffering of Job and Jesus. Both are in desperate circumstances where God’s presence seems absent and both complain within a context of trust. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before him.” (Job 13:15)

Using the words of Psalm 22 puts Jesus and others in the tradition of laments, which are complaints to and against God seen in about one-third of the Book of Psalms, as well as in Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Job. In each case, the desperate complaints, true to Hebrew tradition, are within the context of unrelenting trust in God’s ultimate love and justice. Old Testament practice clearly legitimizes complaining to and even accusing God as acceptable prayer because the hope and conviction underlying such a prayer is trust in a God beyond human understanding.

Francis Collins provides another example of realistic grace in The Language of God.(7) Entering the third year of his medical education in North Carolina, his agnosticism was challenged by human reactions to suffering. He found the barrier of scientific neutrality crumbling as he had deeply personal conversations with seriously ill patients, many of whom held tenaciously to faith in God.

What struck me profoundly about my bedside conversations with these good North Carolina people was the spiritual aspect of what many of them were going through. I witnessed numerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they had done nothing to bring on themselves. If faith was … nothing more than a veneer of cultural tradition, why were these people not shaking their fists at God and demanding that their friends and family stop all this talk about a loving and benevolent supernatural power?

Even though Collins did not hear these patients talking like Job, you can be sure they experienced the depression and utter despair that are emotional components of serious illness. It appears they suffered the emotional depths of Job with the silence of Mother Teresa, who broke it only to her closest spiritual advisors.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s religious classic The Cost of Discipleship begins with an attack on “cheap grace.” When I hear people stop with the wonderful party for the returning son, I react like Bonhoeffer.(8) Cheap grace is equivalent to having a powerful conversion experience and thinking everything must go well ever after. Love and grace are free, but Bonhoeffer and Yancey remind us it doesn’t eliminate accountability for how we live. Life in Christ as a post-resurrection experience is not essentially different from standards of love and consideration of others demanded by the Torah. Jesus himself affirmed the centrality of loving God and others for anyone who truly honors God’s sovereignty. (Mark 1:30-31, Matthew 22: 37-39)

Daily struggles with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction are routine experiences in our time. As medicine helps extend life into the 80s and 90s, depression and dementia become normal in the last years. This is life after the party, yet it is a time when grace and faith can be our guide when they are founded on realistic trust in a God beyond human understanding.

My view is that we do not reject the essential message of the Prodigal Son when we recognize that homecoming parties do not lead to happily-ever-after endings. Christ on a cross and Job on a dung pile also point to grace when they are seen through genuine faith – not faith as statements of beliefs, but faith as unrelenting trust in God’s grace when experiencing the valleys of despair and death.

Biblical Literacy and Respect for Truth.

Juxtaposing the Prodigal Son and Job was intended to challenge overly simplistic interpretations of Jesus’ teaching with an Old Testament example. Jesus told other stories illustrating God’s love beyond the limits of the prodigal’s return, a love combined with accountability. Even so, comparing the Prodigal Son and Job may seem disrespectful, or even a betrayal of the ancient view that the Old Testament is preempted by the New Testament. However, I see this discussion as an example of removing blinders that interfere with probing for deeper truth.

Evangelical uses of the Bible, in my view, are among the major causes of decline in biblical literacy. Reading with evangelical eyes means seeking proofs for what ministers say is the way of salvation. It insists scripture is literally true by: interpreting poetry and symbolism from an earlier time as factual statements; clinging to interpretations that do not stand up to current evidence-based knowledge; and trying to enforce moral standards from earlier times despite scientific evidence and the inequities of those standards.

Clinging to beliefs that need serious revision and calling it faith leads to denial of truth as necessary for the Christian life. These Christians usually respond to scientifically backed information with “I don’t believe in that.” In short, they put on blinders to demonstrated truth as they hold on to discredited views.

The most disturbing aspect of this practice, in my opinion, is how it undermines faith in God as the source of all truth. Defining faith as fidelity to beliefs about Christ, or God, or the Bible inevitably leads to disappointment because they rely on cultural views that change as all cultural products must. It also indicates fear of committing to personal trust in a God of truth who inevitably stands behind discoveries of the day that shake traditional foundations. Faith as belief is a human attempt to put limits on God out of fear and resistance to discoveries that change our views of truth. Putting on blinders and denying current reality ultimately shows lack of trust in a God who underlies all truth even when it shatters our security.

I suspect that many of those who check “none” to questions about religion, or who say they are “spiritual, not religious,” are reacting to denial of reality using the Bible as an accomplice. Unquestioning obedience is presented as the key to pleasing God – obedience to exactly what ministers tell us is demanded in the Bible. For many Christians, normal signs of independent thinking (challenging rules, questioning authority, doubting that authorities know what is best) are sinful temptations leading from child-like faith; but they actually indicate a search for deeper understanding.

My view is that we can begin improving biblical literacy by removing religiously based blinders that hinder the honest search for truth. Doubt is a natural component of the quest. By reading the Bible interactively and skeptically, truth seekers can find a path to personal discovery of the God of truth, grace, forgiveness, and love at the center of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. Stationed in California, South Dakota, and then Georgia, he served in the Air Force. Following his military tenure, Dr. Simmons became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, during which he continued to teach history part-time at local colleges in addition to consulting for top-level managers in various state organizations. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study
 
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(1) Joseph Bergkamp, Dom Jean Mabillon and the Benedictine Historical School of Saint-Maur (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Thesis, 1968), 34-35.
(2) Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally (New York: Harper One 2001), 30.
(3) Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper One, 2014), 45-70
(4) Philip D. Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1997) 44 – 45. In this very popular book, Yancey probes deeper into grace, especially as forgiveness; however, he does not look beyond the celebration in the Prodigal Son parable.
(5) Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (New York: Harper One, 2008), 1-19. In this selection, Ehrman narrates his deconversion experience because he objects to suffering in the world. His account reveals deep emotions but does not emphasize anger. My personal experiences have featured people who deserted God out of anger, not because of rational exploration of emotions related to disappointed expectations. Forgiveness is involved in both situations before the person can believe in and trust a sovereign God.
(6) Brian Kolodiejchuk ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2007).
(7) Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 206), 19-20.
(8) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 43-56.

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