It is easy to forgot that there are two sons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and that one of the sons is the opposite of prodigal.

Non-prodigal son is cautious and frugal, obedient and hard-working, patient and, at times, long-suffering. But he is snubbed by his father, while his younger brother – the wayward, dissolute one – is given a lordly welcome when he returns home with his tail between his legs, having absconded with and then dissipated half their father’s wealth.

From the point of view of the non-prodigal son matters only get worse when his father throws a great celebration in honour of the lost-and-found son. He has a fattened calf killed, leaving the non-prodigal son gawping in disbelief at the apparent unfairness of it all. ‘You never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends,’ he whines.

I can’t decide whether or not I have time for non-prodigal son. While it’s easy enough to empathize with his chagrin – so much do-gooding and so little recognition!  — his lack of generosity, disguised as righteous indignation, is distinctly unappealing. Isn’t non-prodigal even slightly happy that his brother has returned home? Or, if he isn’t, then can’t he at least take some selfless pleasure in his father’s joy at their unexpected reunion?

In the midst of the family celebration, non-prodigal is a party pooper, bitter, surly and self-pitying. He is righteous, to be sure, in a thin-lipped, holier-than-thou kind of way. But he is not Good. It is no wonder that we’d rather forget him. His flaws, though less showy than those given to his gregarious brother, are perhaps more reprehensible. He is mean and he is selfish. Most egregiously, he lacks charity.

And that brings me to a strange accident of timing. For while my reading group was comfortably ensconced in its tent off Bishopsgate, debating the finer points of how justice gets meted out in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, police in Essex were (with High Court blessing and the help of Tasers) forcibly evicting gypsy families from Dale Farm.

Parable and eviction. The two have become linked in my mind for reasons that go beyond coincidental timing.

For many weeks now Otis has been giving up his days to protest at Dale Farm in peaceful support of the gypsies’ being allowed to stay. That he was with us this week, and not with them, had nothing to do with any flagging commitment on his part. Rather, Otis has had some unpleasant run-ins with the law and any tussle with police was to be avoided at all costs.

The righteous folk of Basildon have the law on their side. There’s no disputing that.  Yet by almost any other moral measure they fall short.  While the legal battle over land use has served as a handy foil in the eviction hearings, it is clear that local residents do not want in to live with a micro-community in their midst whose members do not subscribe to the basic rules of society –- neither its overt rules, like making sure your children attend school regularly, nor its tacit ones: clearing up your own litter, not taking a swing at someone who happens to disagree with you.

As ever, the rule followers have little time for people who break rules, still less for people who break the rules and then appear to get rewarded somehow. It’s too much like having your cake and eating it.

In the event, however, non-prodigal Basildon has triumphed. The eviction order is a happy victory for landowners and a victory for common decency (for definition of common decency cf. almost any ranting feature in the Daily Mail). But the lack of charity displayed, and the fear of Difference which the battle against Travellers betrayed, lines its hollow insides.

If the Travellers and Basildonians shared a single father, I’d be happy to place a bet on whose side he’d be taking .

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