Monday, March 7, 2016

Fairness & the Prodigal Father

Let me describe a typical summer day from my childhood.  I wake up and head down the street to “the park” – a large, undeveloped property in the center of our neighborhood where kids gather all day to play games.  We choose up sides and somehow all the big kids are on one team and all us little kids are on the other.  And do you know what we say:  “These teams aren’t fair!”  Now it’s lunchtime.  My mother fixes sandwiches and chips.  I get more chips than my twin sister.  What does she say: “No fair!  Keith got more chips than me.”  Flash forward to dinner.  I ask if I can stay out later at night.  “OK”, my father says, “you can play until the street lights come on.”  “No fair,” my older sister says.  “I couldn’t stay out that late when I was his age.”

Fairness.  Do you know that capuchin monkeys prefer grapes to cucumbers?  If you give a capuchin a cucumber it will eat it, but if given a choice it will choose the grape every time.  So a researcher set up a little experiment.  He put two capuchins in a cage and each had to perform a simple task to get a grape.  Both were successful, except one got a cucumber instead.  The monkey who got the grape devoured it instantly.  The other monkey was so annoyed it threw the cucumber out of the cage.  No one likes getting the short end of the stick.

Another experiment.  A five-year-old child is given a choice.  Either he and two other children can get two treats each or he can get four treats while the others get only one.  More often than not, the five-year-old will choose the first, fair option; bristling at possibility of getting the long end of the stick.

Here is the best description of fairness I came across this week:

Fairness means treating people equitably, without bias or partiality.  It means actively working to set aside self-interest or group loyalty when rendering a judgment.  In day-to-day life, fairness manifests itself in simple ways such as taking turns, listening intently, sharing, and not taking advantage of others based on their weaknesses.

Impartiality is a key part of fairness.  Being impartial doesn’t mean having no biases—rather it means knowing what those biases are, striving to set them aside, and requesting outside perspectives as needed.

While inspired by the ideal of justice, fairness is not sameness or always following the letter of the law.  Fairness makes room for us to generate solutions and compromises based on reason and circumstance.

In today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus tell a parable with three central characters: a father and two brothers.  While the lion’s share of the story revolves around the father and the younger brother, its main point hones in on the eldest.  He is the one who cannot welcome back his sibling and resents his father’s lavish celebration.  And to be honest, it is hard to blame him because it just does not seem fair.

Even in our culture, a sibling demanding his share of the inheritance is just wrong, but in the culture of Jesus’ day it was unthinkable.  No one, but no one, would ever have been so insulting to a parent.  One bible translation puts it this way: “The younger brother says, ‘Give me what I could have if you were dead!’”  No father would honor such a request and, if a father did, he certainly would never, ever, under any circumstances welcome back his son.  It just would not happen.

But in Jesus’ story it does.  The father not only receives the son, but he actually runs to meet and embrace him.  It is almost shameful behavior in the face of such an insult.  But parables as a genre have an over-the-top quality.  The exaggerations are there to drive home the point.  The only person in the story who behaves in a way we might expect is the older brother.  He stayed.  He worked.  He was faithful.  He was dutiful.  And then his wayward brother returns, is welcomed home unconditionally, and (to make matters worse) dad throws a party for him!  I know what I would say if I was the older son: “This is not fair!”

Not only is the older son unhappy about getting the short end of the stick, the younger son seems none too concerned about getting the long end.  The Christian writer Lewis Smedes observes, “our sense of fairness tells us that people should pay for the wrong they do.”  The renowned theologian Paul Tillich wrote a comment in the margin of his bible next to this story: When the prodigal came home, I hope he didn’t stay too long.” It is not easy to have sympathy for this young man.  What he receives is not at all appropriate to the circumstances.

I am not the first social observer to note there is a great deal of anger in our society right now, which we see being played out in the presidential primaries.  It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the anger, but I wonder how much of revolves around fairness.  The wealthy don’t believe the entitlement system is fair, while the poor and middle class believe the same about growing income inequality between themselves and the rich.  Women want a fair opportunity to compete with men in the workplace.  Minorities sense they are being passed over based not on performance, but rather because of skin color.  Hourly workers want to be paid a fair wage for their labor.  The average person believes his or her voice is not being heard.  This perceived lack of fairness – running across the board – spawns anger, resentment, and frustration.  It is especially challenging because what might make one person or group feel the world is more fair will only make it seem less fair to someone else.  There is no clear path to making sure three children each get the same number of chips for lunch.

I learned something this week.  Before this week I never knew the definition of the word prodigal.  I always associated it either with leaving home or returning after leaving on bad terms, but I was wrong.  Here is what I learned:

Prodigal: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.  Synonyms include wasteful, extravagant, and imprudent.

So the younger son is called the prodigal not because he returned home, but to describe the lifestyle he chose when he took off with his share of the family’s wealth.

Now here is what is really interesting.  Prodigal can be used in a second and more positive way, although it is one not often used in today’s English:

Prodigal: having or giving something on a lavish scale.  Synonyms include generous, lavish, liberal, bounteous, and unsparing.  

Given this definition, it would be accurate and entirely appropriate to thank everyone who worked so hard putting together the prodigal reception after church last Sunday.

Who in today’s story is a prodigal in this positive sense?  The father.  We see it in the lavish party he throws for his son, but even more in the generous and unsparing way he welcomes him back.  He is a prodigal when it comes to forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.  The great contrast of the story is not the difference between the reckless ways of one son and the dutiful ways of the other.  The great contrast is between the father’s prodigal heart and the older son’s heart, which is cold and closed.

And let’s be clear about this.  The father is being fair.  He says to his grumpy first-born, “You are always with me and all that I have is yours.”  Everything he has he gives to the eldest.  How much more lavish can he be?  The only thing he cannot give him is something he has never needed: lavish forgiveness and restoration.  But know this: if and when the older son needs it, the prodigal father will lavish it on him too. 

If you wanted to choose one person in this story to emulate who would it be?  Would you choose the younger son?  Would you like to run off, live it up for a while, and then return home with your tail between your legs – humiliated and full of regret, yet still deeply loved?  Or would you choose to be like the older brother: dutiful, dependable, steady, and grounded in a sense of fairness, and resentful of others who do not abide by your ethic?  Or would you choose to be like the father: so deeply aware of how blessed you are in life that you can give lavishly of everything you have – your heart, your love, your forgiveness, your possessions, your entire being?  Who would you choose to be like?

The father in Jesus’ story is a God-figure.  His actions reveal the nature of the Holy One from whom all things flow.  We worship a Prodigal God who is generous, bountiful, and unsparing in dealing with us.  In one sense it is not fair because it is not what we deserve.  We have not merited God’s prodigal love.  But it is completely fair because it is how God loves each of us.  We are all children of God lavishly loved. 

And just as the father invited the older son to join the celebration and thus receive the greatest gift he could have as an inheritance, so too we are invited to move from fairness to a prodigal lifestyle.  And while no faith community can do this perfectly, I like where we are at St. Paul’s right now.  Last week I told the Bishop I was going to present a fascinatingly diverse group of people for confirmation.  Twenty-five folks are now a part of our 374-year long journey as a parish.  Our newest members come from all walks of life.  What they share is a desire to be a part of this community where everyone is welcome and beloved.  I like how we are living as God’s prodigal people.  May God’s bountiful love continue to reign in our midst.  May it continue to well up in each of our hearts and direct our ways in all we do.