Today in our continuing effort to talk about our financial well-being in the midst of famine, to use the parable’s metaphor for our time, I want to talk about how we could think about our personal budgets in a way that not only feels good, but actually contributes to a more just social order. That is a tall order — and I will only have the time to outline the basic idea, but it begins by recognizing the nature of the problem.
We tend, of course, to not want to acknowledge our problems. And I wonder if this psychological tendency, is the reason that despite the volumes of ink put to paper about this parable, next to nothing is said about the famine. I suppose it seems obvious: several years of unsuitable growing weather and you have yourself a famine, those nothing we can do about the weather.
But one man, an economist by the name of Amartya Sen, has dedicated a good deal of his life’s efforts to studying famine. I am convinced, though I’m not going to go into details that his thesis is correct: famines are a product of injustice, not the weather (Cf. Development as Freedom, chapter 7). If the parable can be about more than the usual reading of the lost being found, and I think it can, there is evidence, in fact that that line from the parable is a Lukan addition to the story Jesus likely told, then one thing it might be about is the economics of two worlds — one in which injustice is perpetuated, and another in which justice is sought.
A parable, we must remind ourselves, is an extended imaginative exercise in which Jesus draws the listeners into a reality that is created in the telling of it, so that the hearer becomes a participant in it. The parable does NOT tell about God or about God’s world, so much as it allows you, the listener, to experience this world, in such a way that your present reality is shocked by the world the parable puts you in. In other words, a parable is more than a story — it is an event that demands some response from you, the listener — “which world will you choose?” If you choose the world of the parable, then you are invited to avail yourself of its reality and venture into its future — a future, I propose more likely to eliminate famine.
Let’s begin with the younger son. He is clearly reprehensible. The request he makes of his father puts them both at great risk. In Palestinian culture, shame could be conveyed from the top down, or across from peer to peer, but never from the bottom up, except in rare cases. The younger son knows what he is doing when he asks for his share of the inheritance. His intentions are honorable — like many a younger child, he is eager to prove, perhaps before he is ready, that he can be a responsible, honorable householder. The prodigal son and the father, are both aware that failure would bring shame on the son and something even worse than shame on the father for having come from beneath. If the son fails in his endeavor to find his fortune, he will be painted forever the prodigal son, and the father the fool who let it happen.
The usual interpretation focuses on the reunion of the father with the son — the prodigal child is utterly surprised by the gracious response of the father. He is a bigger fool than he thought. He has no honor, for if he did, thinks the young man to himself, he would make me his servant. That’s the system he bargained for when he asked for his inheritance. But the father greets him with a kiss thereby indicating the expansive grace of God. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but there is more.
The father invites the older, “wiser” son to join in the extravagant feast. Now the older son’s dilemma takes center stage. He is the only one in the family with any honor. If he accepts his father’s invitation that shred of honor remaining in the family will disappear. But if he refuses, he also dishonors himself for breaking the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. In other words, shaming his father who is without a shred of honor brings shame to himself. He is in a lose-lose situation.
The first thing that happens in the parable then, is that it paints the world of the sons, a world in which famine is a constant fear, as our world of competition for scarce resources and for wants, that no matter our level of wealth, are never met. Their world in contrast to the one the father offers, leads us to have to make a shocking realization: the injustice of this world is a function of our acting like the prodigal son. But wait — that’s not all. It’s also a function of our acting like the older son. The two seem to be logical opposites. On says spend, the other save. But this is why it is the better called, by the title Jesus gives it, the parable of the two sons. The sons present the same dilemma because they buy into the same arms race for stuff.
Jesus knew as well as we do today that famines are a product, not of the weather, but of a world in which the powerful name the rules, determine who plays, and how, and how close they can get to the finish line before they are dispatched. Will this be our world? Or shall we seek an alternative? Will we too, step into the dilemma of the worlds of the younger and older sons? Or will we, like the father, be able to choose an alternative world?
Classical western economics suggests that there is no alternative to the world of the two brothers. It argues that there is no other rational way for humans to interact than to look out for their own self-interest. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, expressed it first, and most succinctly:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self love. (11-12)
Economists since, steadfastly argue that the only world that makes sense, is the one in which agents act with regard only to their own self-interest. Charity is for churches, and for fools. But we have seen, in the intelligent parable of Jesus, just where that argument fails, how it involves its actors in a dilemma with no answer other than to periodically suffer the famines and then figure out ways to make their effects less severe.
I have shared the excerpt from Whitehead because his comparison of the two types of religions roughly parallel the two worlds of our parable. In one, marked by what he calls a social consciousness, the principle of right conduct is self-interested behavior, or at least tribal or group-regarding behavior. In a socially-conscious religion, there are always people who are in and people who are out; people who gain and people who cannot. Whitehead notes that as these religions lived out their useful function in bringing a society from chaos to order, they became a stumbling block to attaining to a higher ideal. It “became a religion of the average, and the average is always at war with the ideal.”
I think that one of the reasons that we keep on gathering for worship is that we have an abiding sense of the ideal and the intellectual capacity to realize that even when that ideal strains under our own betrayal of our ideals, as when we act selfishly, as when we live in ways that pollute our planet, as when we go to war because we our way of life is threatened, the ideal is yet worth pursuing.
Last week, I suggested that we could rebel against the prevailing economic ideology that puts you in the center of awhirl-wind of stuff, and never leaves you satisfied, and attempt to live yet again by our ideals, by practising skills that encourage us to live within our means, like constructing responsible home budgets and thinking long and hard about using credit and that if we bucked the trend by saving our money, we could level out the ups and downs that cause us, in the turmoil, to forget our ideals.
Today’s discussion of the parable of the two sons, will, I hope, help us to see that in constructing our personal budgets, we might embrace the alternative, non-contradictory world that the parable presents as the way to go. A generous world-consciousness is the exemplification of that other, justice-making world.
I haven’t mentioned the word yet, but I will now. Tithing. I hope that this discussion of the parable of the two sons has helped you to see that it’s not about a mathematical calculation, as I simplified it for the children with the 10 jelly beans. Instead tithing is the expression of our commitment to live in the alternative world presented by the father — where the jig is up regarding the competition for scarce resources, and the only satisfactory option, is to cultivate a generous world-consciousness with regard to our income.
So as you set your budgets for the coming year, perhaps the wisdom of the prodigal father could guide us. This coming week, our pledge committee will be sending you a letter that will include in it a pledge card. We hope you think of it as a tool — a tool that allows you to live into a full and generous world-consciousness. Amen.