Parables and Metaphors

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself pondering the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son.
If you aren’t familiar with the tale, it’s related in Luke, chapter 15. The condensed version is that a wealthy man has two sons, the younger of whom asks for his inheritance early and wastes it. Penniless, he works as a laborer for a while before returning to his father’s estate. He asks only to be allowed to work as any of the other laborers, but his father welcomes him home, sets a feast, and makes a big deal about his son returning.
The elder son is a little miffed about this. “WTF, Dad?” he says if we translate the tale into modern vernacular. “My brother abandoned us, wasted his inheritance, and now you’re treating his coming back like on a conquering hero. You never did this for me, and I’ve been loyal as hell the whole time!”
The father counters, saying “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (according to the New International Version of the Christian Bible).
Those with a Biblical inclination assert that this is a metaphor for the Christian God, asserting that the father is telling his eldest son ‘My love is not based on performance, but on proximity and the closer you are to me, the more I love and shall show my love’.
Perhaps, but despite the father’s encouragement and the possible religious interpretation, I find myself always sympathizing with the elder brother. His brother blew his inheritance and came home and is now being given more. This seems like it rewards selfishness and fails to reward the loyal, except with what the loyal (IE the elder brother) was already getting. And what he, the loyal son, was already getting is being lessoned now that the father is caring for the younger son.
Understanding everyone’s perspective – the father, the elder son, and the younger son – I’ve never come to a solution to this inequity that seemed fair, or just, and certainly not equitable.
I liken it with an old (though perhaps not as old) economics quandary: hiring three shifts of day laborers.
Perhaps not as famous as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, this puts forth that a farmer hires a dozen laborers in the morning to pick his crops. He pays them all $100 for the day’s work. At noon, the farmer decides he needs more workers to get the work done, so he hires another dozen laborers to help pick and he also pays them $100. At mid-afternoon, he hires a third set of a dozen laborers and pays them all $100 as well.
The full-day laborers are mad because they worked twice as much as the noon-time laborers and four times that of the mid-afternoon laborers, yet they’re being paid the same amount.
Some of my more business-minded/Libertarian friends would assert the simple defense of ‘you agreed to do X amount of work for Y amount of money, the fact that someone else negotiated a different deal doesn’t make yours unfair’. Maybe, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t seem extremely cold-hearted and unfair. I accept the possibility that maybe they should have just held out for more money or whatever, but no matter how you slice it, it still seems like it fails to reward hard work.
I find these two tales to be very similar, in that both fail to bring me the slightest comfort or ease. Quite the contrary, they bother me greatly. The moral of the Parable of the Prodigal Son is supposed to be ‘love is boundless’, but what I hear is ‘diligence and reliability go unrewarded’.

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Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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