I haven’t actually read the book Women Who Love Too Much, but when I saw it on the shelf, I knew I didn’t want to. The person who made up that title—I understand that it might not have been the author—has a notion of what “love” is that I want to stay away from. How can anyone love too much?
You can, in your attraction to or your care for another person, make bad choices. You can put his or her values at the center of your life where your values ought to be. You can concede the point in conflicts where sustaining your own commitment is necessary to your integrity. You can be boundlessly tolerant when only clear rules and consistent behavior will make the world clear enough to live in. Certainly you can do all those things. You cannot love too much.
The combination I am looking for is love and savvy. Love and street smarts. Or if you like the Greek notion, love and metis—practical craftsmanship. It isn’t too much love that drives us to pursue our goals in ways that guarantee their failure. Craftsmanship without love isn’t very attractive either, of course.
In a relationship like marriage, metis is what enables you to know how the other person sees things, what she cares about, what expectations he has. If I set out to love my wife and offer her the things that mean most to me (not that mean most to her), I do not have a shortage of love. I have failed in savvy. If I know what would mean the most to her and don’t care enough to offer it to her, I have failed in love. You can’t love too much and, in the service of love, you can’t know too much.
There are situations that must be managed, just as there are relationships that lay their claim to our attention. You have to know, sometimes, “what will work.” It might not be what you like most to do, but if it needs to come out right and if you know what it will take, that is what you need to do.
I have an illustration in mind. It is a story Jesus told. Mostly, we call it “The Prodigal Son.” I call it, “The Hothead, the Tight-ass, and Their Father.” It is the father who shows the combination of love and savvy that I find so attractive. In a lifetime of churchgoing, I have heard this story told dozens of times and even preached on many times. Usually, the emphasis falls on how much the father loved his itinerant son. He didn’t wait for him; he ran to the gate of the city. He didn’t bargain with him; he restored him to the family. He didn’t chastise him; he rejoiced to have him back.
Yes, he did. He was a loving father. But why did this old man, the patriarch of his family, hoist his robes up around his knees and run out into public view? Let’s start there.
Ken Bailey is the author of Poet and Peasant, one of the best books on the parables of Jesus I have ever read. Here is a comment by John Nordin on how Bailey works. I found it on the Amazon.com page under comments.
Bailey’s unique contribution is that he sat down with a number of trusted Palestinian nomads and listened carefully to their take on the cultural issues behind various parables. He contends, with some justice, that this group of people have something in contact with the original culture that these parables arose in, and thus can help us understand the unstated assumptions and cultural implications of the texts. He invested many years in this and did it with care and precision. On top of that, he has explored the early translations of the New Testament into Syriac and related languages. The result is nothing short of stunning. His analysis of the puzzling parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13) is worth the price of admission alone, and even on the well-trod parable of the Good Samaritan, he has much valuable insight to share.
The whole parable is worth attending to with the tools Bailey makes available, but I want to talk about how savvy the father was. Everyone knows he was loving and I don’t want to diminish that in any way, but if he hadn’t been street smart—or, in this case, “gate smart”—it wouldn’t have mattered much.
Why did he run to the entrance to the village? I once wrote an extended celebration of Bailey’s account of the story. You can read the whole thing here, if you like. The answer to the question goes like this. The villagers would be really hostile to this former member of their village.
The younger son comes back to town, broke and hungry. The prodigal returns, Bailey says, “to face … the slander of a whole town and certainly the gathering of a mob. As soon as the prodigal reaches the edge of the village and is identified, a crowd will begin to gather, He will be subject to taunt songs and many other types of verbal and perhaps even physical abuse.”
So one reason for hitching up his robe and dashing for the village border was to get to the son before the villagers did. Something like a gauntlet would be in the process of forming, remember, as village children alerted their elders to what was dragging itself into town. A second reason is that the father needed to make a spectacle of himself to assure a good‑sized audience for his next several actions.
So the son’s safety, first. Second, the son’s status. The father kisses the son because he knows what he wants to say and how to say it. The son knows neither. The son wouldn’t know whether to kiss his father’s hand or his feet or some…well…other place.
The father, by kissing his son on the cheek, indicates his forgiveness and his wish for reconciliation. The son would not have dared to kiss his father on the cheek, but the father preempts the son’s self‑abasement by his own quick mercy. And by doing so, he sets in motion a quite different sequence of events.
Next, he directs the servants to put his own robe on the son. Here’s Bailey again: “the best robe”…would be the father’s robe; the feast day robe. It would be the finest robe the villagers had ever seen. The father does not put this robe on the son. That would not teach the servants what the father wants to teach them. “You put it on him,” he tells them. “He is my son, just as he was before.”
And he tells the servants to put shoes on his feet. The shoes are a sign of being a free man in the house, not a servant. Telling the servants to put shoes on his feet was telling them that he was returning to his status of their master.
And he tells them to put a ring on his finger. This isn’t quite as clear. A Lucan scholar named Derrett speculates that the ring they were to put on his finger was a signet ring. It means he is to carry the authority of the master in his actions. He does not carry the economic resources, remember. He received his share of the inheritance and spent it making whoopie. He is, as a practical matter, a pauper and will be a pauper the rest of his life. His brother will no doubt remind him of that fact many times a day for many years. But there will be a limit to what the older brother can do, because both brothers wear the ring.
This old man, so often portrayed as foolish, admirable only in the exuberance of his love for his son, is seen here as quite deft. The “restoration to status” is clear to the servants (serve him) and to the villagers (lay off him) and extends to the older brother (he wears the same ring you do; back off a little). Whatever arrangements the father makes will have to continue to function after his death. This is a supreme exercise in “generativity” for those of you who have been following the Erikson posts.
Are the villagers going to go along with all this? Maybe. The chances are not hurt at all by the huge party the father is throwing to which they will all be invited.
Finally, the father orders the killing of the fatted calf. Bailey says this is an occasion for the whole village; that to kill a calf and not invite the village ‘would be an insult to the village. And, having already seen so many of the father’s actions as strategic, it is tempting to add this one to the list. At the party, under the influence of a celebrative gathering, good meat, and free‑flowing drink many villagers will have an opportunity to accustom themselves to the presence of the younger son, who will be the guest of honor.
If there were a book called Fathers Who Love Too Much, this father would not be in it. He’s too savvy for that.
 From Spanish, possibly: sabe (usted) = you know. Or from the French savez (-vous) = do you know? Many years of wasted scholarship have gone into deciding if Tonto really knew the Sabe in “Kemo Sabe” meant. Some scholars have suggested that it meant “the one who thinks he knows.” It is, in any case, a West Indian pidgin borrowing and Fran Striker, who wrote the Lone Ranger books and invented Kemo Sabe never made it west of the Mississippi.