A few years ago, when I taught at the downtown campus of our university, I participated in a Bible study group that took place at the church down the street.
I was the youngest member of the group (by a margin of about twenty years) and also the only one who was divorced (everyone else was either married or widowed) and one of two people without children.
Politically I was diametrically opposed to most members of the group, who were avid Fox News watchers and Tea Party sympathizers.
One day we had a discussion about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which illustrated the conservative mindset.
After rereading the story, the pastor asked each of us with which character we identified. Ironically, even though I was the only childless person present, I was alone in identifying with the father. I've been in situations where I was so happy to see a person again whom I had missed that I was perfectly willing to forgive and forget whatever had happened in the past.
The old ladies, without an exception, identified with the prodigal son's brother, who they believed had been wronged by the father. The poor brother had done everything right, yet the other one, the bad one, got the party. How was that fair? Why wasn't the good brother rewarded and the irresponsible one punished?
I pointed out to them that while the prodigal son had a brief time of debauchery, it was followed by a rather miserable life, during which he had to work as a swineherd -- not a pleasant occupation for a Jew. "Yes," a woman named Elaine replied, "but that was his own fault! He brought it on himself! Besides, the only reason he even came back was that he was broke and miserable. He probably wasn't even really sorry."
"So what would you have done if you were the father?" the pastor asked.
"I would have told him off, of course," Elaine answered. "I would have said, 'You made your bed, so now lie in it. Go right back to where you came from!'"
"But what if the father loved the son so much that he wanted to forgive him?" the pastor followed up.
"Well, but that's not love; that's enabling. Besides, the son did not DESERVE to be forgiven."
"That's exactly the point of the story," I chimed in. "The son didn't deserve forgiveness but received it anyway. According to Jesus, that's how the Kingdom of Heaven works."
"Well," fumed Elaine, "sometimes Jesus is just plain wrong."
The story illustrates how conservatives are obsessed with other people getting what they supposedly do not deserve. That's why they get so upset about people on welfare or unemployment benefits: they see somebody get "something for nothing," and that simply isn't fair to them.
This mindset also explains why they identify with the rich, a social stratum to which most conservatives do not belong. They believe that the rich are rich because they "worked hard" -- harder than everyone else. Well, if that were true, our cleaning lady would be rolling in dough. In most cases wealth is the result of inheritance, a special talent, a well-marketed product, sheer luck, or a combination of all of the above.
Non-rich people support tax breaks for the rich because they buy into the narrative that taxes "punish" people for hard work (the concept of taxes as punishment rather than contribution to society has harmed Democratic candidates for decades) and that people work harder if they are motivated by lower taxes. The "hard work" idea also comforts them because it gives them the illusion that they too can be rich one day -- all they have to do is work a little "harder."
With that in mind, it's not surprising that the "camel and eye of the needle" thing is another issue on which Jesus is "wrong." After all, the rich DESERVE everything they have. Also, we all know rich people who are really nice and do lots of good things with their money. As one of the ladies put it, "Jesus only said that because he hadn't met David Robinson yet."
Grace, mercy, and forgiveness are difficult concepts to internalize, even for those who claim to love Jesus. The concept of reward and punishment is much easier to grasp. Elaine and her friends would be much more comfortable with the tenets of Satanism, but they would be extremely offended if someone pointed it out to them.
One problem that the ladies had with the Prodigal Son is the fact that the obedient brother is not rewarded. "If God forgives anybody who is sorry, what incentive do I have to do the right thing?" asked Elaine, Jesus' most outspoken critic.
I pointed out to her that a virtuous life is its own reward. Those who practice a healthy lifestyle and stay out of trouble avoid the pitfalls that come with self-destructive behavior. Kindness leads to good karma. Caring for an animal results in a devoted pet.
For the likes of Elaine,however, intrinsic reward is not enough. They need a gold star from God and a tax break from the government.
At the end of the bible study, as we were leaving the room, one of the ladies gave me this "Don't tell me you're one of those liberals" look. The pastor put his arm around me and said, "She's alright. She gets it."