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The parable of the prodigal son is possibly the most well-known of the Gospel parables, and is the text from the Lectionary this week. A wayward son squanders his inheritance through selfish greed, and a gracious father accepts him back with open arms and a lavish feast. It’s a cute story that I fear is misunderstood. Often, when I’ve heard this parable discussed, the focus has been on the wayward son and the forgiving father. In this narrative, the son represents each of us who have gone astray due to our sinful nature, and the forgiving father is God (or Jesus), who is always willing to welcome us back (until we die, of course. #turnorburntheology). The message being, Turn from your sin, and God will welcome you back with love and grace every time. It is a nice message, to be sure, but I’m not sure it is the primary message of the parable.
Reading Luke 15:11-32 in context reveals the Pharisees and religious teachers as Jesus’ intended audience. You may recall that in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus frequently characterizes the Pharisees as self-righteous law-followers who misunderstand both his mission and God’s true desires. Reading the parable with that in mind allows us to see that the primary actor, the one the audience is intended to identify with and learn from, is not the son who left and returned but the elder son, who complains that his father is throwing a feast.
His jealousy and indignation is contrasted with the father’s grace and jubilation. He not only feels that the celebration of his brother is unwarranted but that he deserved the feast. In short, he was saying, “This ain’t fair! Why does he get rewarded for leaving when I’ve worked my butt off with no recognition?” The sharp contrast between the response of the father and that of the elder brother is purposeful and instructive. The message is that we should be cautious about allowing our jealousy and self-righteousness to get in the way of the love of God. I’ve not yet attended a church that doesn’t celebrate when someone wishes to be in relationship with God or repent from their sin, so how is this parable relevant today? If it is meant to be understood as a cutting rebuke of self-righteous religion, how might it speak to us?
If we accept that the older son was indeed saying something along the lines of, “This isn’t fair! I deserve to be celebrated, not him.” We can begin to look for similar messages in our culture, and we need not look far. They can be heard during family meals, barbershop arguments or cable news debates. Two of the more common examples look like this:
“Why raise the minimum wage? I worked hard for my money, and I didn’t get any freebies.”
“Affirmative Action is reverse racism. You’re taking spots that should be going to strong white students and giving them to students from urban areas just because they’re black.”
Do either of these sound familiar? The premise of each argument is essentially the same: What you’re doing is taking something that I deserve and giving it to them. They are not worthy. There is an implied “other” that is juxtaposed with the person making the argument. This other is fundamentally flawed and thus unworthy of the hypothetical benefit. Moreover, to offer the benefit to someone so undeserving is an affront to the hard work and, dare I say, righteousness of the primary party.
In the first example, the other is defined by economic class. People working low-income jobs, the most obvious example being fast-food workers, don’t deserve an increase in wages. If they want more money, they should work harder without expecting a handout.
In the second example, the other is black students. The assumption being that they get into colleges at the expense of academically stronger white students due to government policy. Thus the black students are taking something the white students deserve.
In each example we hear the same echo of self-righteousness that was present when the older brother objected to the fattened-calf being slaughtered for his sibling. Capitalism and white supremacy have invaded U.S. Christianity to the point we often forget our faith has no allegiance to economic systems or racial hierarchies. If we truly have our hearts set on the things of God, we rejoice when the low are lifted and destitute restored. If you don’t believe me, read the Gospels, any Gospel.
To put our Christianity before our capitalism means to favor economic policies rooted in generosity, grace and concern for the well-being of those living in poverty. We recognize that the selfish desire for more and more wealth and comfort, beyond what we actually need, is the norm in our culture and that it creates a system dependent upon wealth inequality.
Similarly, prioritizing Christianity over white supremacy motivates us to recognize the generational deprivation of opportunity that communities of color have faced in the United States and to rejoice in laws designed to level the playing field. Moreover, our faith must move us to honestly reckon with the history of chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining and mass incarceration while noting we are still a far cry from realizing the promise of equality.
I’ve only listed two examples of the way this parable might be used to critique our modern-day self-righteousness at the expense of those God cares for. Others include issues of gender equality, LGBTQIA inclusion (and ordination) and immigration policy, but I’ll save those for another article. As we come to the close of this Lenten season, reread the story of the Prodigal Son through this lens. May God show us where our self-righteousness gets in the way of the Spirit’s vision for the restoration of creation. Our political views, theology and cultural beliefs may be challenged, but that is nothing new.
If God can tell Peter, the rock, that his understanding of what is clean/unclean is too limited, shouldn’t we expect God to at least do the same for us? May we be uncomfortable, and in our discomfort may we recognize the true desire of God. So let it be.
Ben Tapper has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Manchester University, a master’s degree in public affairs from Indiana University and is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary. He serves as the faith formation coordinator for First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is actively involved in community engagement.
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