Maybe I Miss The Mormons
By David Metcalfe
July 14, 2019
Friend of Sinners
The Pharisees were accusing Jesus of being a “friend of sinners”. What they thought was an insult was actually a title Jesus welcomed. He responded to them by explaining it in three parables. The one I find most interesting is the parable of the lost son.
A very wealthy man had two sons. The younger one asked to get his inheritance right away, and the father obliged and gave it to him. So, the young son left home and lived a “wild life”- prostitutes, drugs, alcohol, etc. But soon he burned through all of his money, and there was a famine in the land, so he had to get a job working with pigs. He was so pathetic he envied the food that the pigs got to eat. Then he remembered, “oh yeah, my father is still super rich! I can go back and apologize and maybe he will let me live with him again.” He returned home, and- much to his surprise- was met with a warm welcome before he even had a chance to apologize. His father then announced that they would have a massive feast to celebrate his return.
The older brother was annoyed, saying, “I’ve been faithful the whole time! And what have you given me? Certainly nothing special. But my younger brother wastes his inheritance and comes back and is treated so well? He doesn’t deserve it like I do!”.
The Pharisees would’ve liked the first half of the story a lot. Here is a guy who doesn’t follow the “proper rules”, and now he pays for it, while the guy who stayed following the “proper rules” is rewarded. They loved that idea- act good and you get rewarded, act bad and you get punished.
It’s the second half of the story that the Pharisees hated.
The younger son comes back and is rewarded with a feast!?!? No, no, no. Act good= reward, act bad= punishment, right? Apparently, Jesus isn’t big on that dichotomy. Within the paradigm of morality the Pharisees existed in, the story seems unjust. The story only becomes just when you switch your paradigm to the one Jesus is operating on; that paradigm is grace.
The reason Jesus was proud of his title as a “friend of sinners” wasn’t because he wanted to support or promote evil or brokenness in people’s lives- it’s because he recognized that people are on a journey, and the path is not always linear. And that path is not defined by your exterior works- but by your heart. The older son had better works than the younger son, sure. But where were their hearts at? The older son thought, “I’m awesome, I’m better than my stupid brother, I deserve great stuff.” The younger son thought, “I’m not good enough on my own, I need my father, I’m sorry for what I’ve done, I want to make things right.”
Which Brother Am I?
I can’t help but relate, in an uncomfortable way, with the older son. That attitude of “I’m awesome, I’m better than x people, I deserve great stuff” is a much better summary of myself over the last year than “I’m not good enough on my own, I need God, I’m sorry for my sins, I need to make things right.”
I can’t help but wonder if my greatest heroes- Paine, Thoreau, and Russell- are an extension of my ego, and if the resistance to the gospel in their own lives had to do, in a large part, to the fact that the gospel isn’t made especially for the intelligent, the morally righteous, or the independent. These three attributes are what enabled Paine to influence America’s separation from Britain and the formation of the Constitution, Thoreau to stand up against slavery, war, and corporal punishment and find his own path in life, and Russell to think beyond his own time and culture and envision what was to become the social advancements of the 20th century. But along with the great things their intelligence, righteousness, and independence achieved was a side effect. A side effect of an older brother who thinks he’s better than other people, and deserves to be rewarded for it.
I get caught in a similar web. I think to myself, “I’m really great, these people don’t understand how life works, they are all so stupid, they don’t care about the right things, I deserve to be rewarded for what I do, etc.” In social philosophy, that attitude seems to be fairly important (Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks kind of had to have an attitude that they were right and the culture was wrong, for example). And maybe sometimes there is a place for that in religion (Jesus himself criticized people to help them recognize where to improve). But, as a core concept of one’s identity, it’s not the gospel- it’s actually pride. The kind of pride that scripture constantly warns us about. The kind of pride that’s really a false self-aggrandizement built on a sandy foundation. The kind of pride that is inherent to the human condition, and creeps in very naturally, disguised as righteousness.
There’s Better Groups To Criticize Than Mormons, Anyway
Sheltered religious people often believe weird things about secular people and culture. They say that secular people are all horrible and unhappy and don’t have good relationships, etc. But, obviously, lots of secular people are very nice, happy, and have good relationships in their lives.
However, as I spend more and more time with people in secular culture, I come to believe more and more that while they might meet superficial criteria just fine, there is a deep-rooted lack of fulfillment- a void- in their lives. This void either gets attempted to be filled through career success, money, romance, children, etc., or is attempted to be distracted from with alcohol, drugs, sex, movies, social media, etc.
Don’t get me wrong- Mormons engage in most of this stuff too. But it’s different. It’s like the difference between dating a clingy and desperate girl vs. dating a girl who is confident and has her life together. For the clingy girlfriend, no matter how much she’s around you, it’s not enough. If you try to break up with her, she’ll go insane. She needs the relationship, because without it, she’s nothing. The girl with her life together, on the other hand, enjoys spending time with you and is fulfilled by it. She values and appreciates the relationship, but isn’t dependent on it. If it doesn’t work out, her life isn’t over.
Just like a clingy and desperate girlfriend, secular people tend to be extremely dependent- and still not fulfilled- by whatever fleeting thing they’ve based their life on. Mormons, on the other hand, have a more solid and everlasting foundation. Their worth is not based solely in what others think of them, or some material metric they or the culture has arbitrarily placed in front of them, but defined innately and permanently by the God who created them, and the saviour who died for them. The material, fleeting things are valued and appreciated for what they are, but no more is asked of them than that. Mormons do not base their existence on their career success, their money, their relationships, etc., but do engage in and appreciate those things in the capacity they are meant for.
Mormons Are Younger Sons
But while Mormons may have a greater fulfillment to attain to, and a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them that fills the void and inspires them to be better, they still cash out inheritances, go through famines, and live with pigs.
Mormon people live into their purpose in varying degrees at varying times. Some Mormons are selfish, some look at pornography and have sex before marriage, some pursue money excessively, some are bad parents, some are rude and unfriendly, etc. etc. But while only some will engage in each thing, there is one thing common to all of them: they all fall short of the glory of God, and all are in need of grace. It’s when we get out of the older brother/Pharisee paradigm and into the Jesus/grace paradigm that we can understand God’s perfect justice and how we fit into it. If it’s through our works, the fact is, we don’t fit into it. We don’t deserve a father who welcomes us home with open arms because we did all the right things. It’s a gift of grace, by a saviour who epitomizes it in his sacrifice on the cross.
Maybe I miss the Mormons. Maybe I didn’t find anything truly meaningful or worth pursuing in my Tinder dates or the bars or my conversations with university students. Maybe I appreciated the depth and scope of theology in the church and how it relates to my personal life. Maybe my annoyance with the church was the same as the older brother’s annoyance with his younger brother.
But, you know, that’s all a “maybe”. There are a couple more things I need to solve. Give me a little more time.