March 6, 2016

Gain and Loss


Just about the first lesson a seminarian learns in the first class on preaching is the mistake in the name of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The mistake is very simple: The Parable of the Prodigal Son is not about the Prodigal Son. It’s about the father, that man who seemingly accepts without argument his impetuous son’s request to cash out his half of dad’s retirement fund early in order to go seek his fortune in the world—and then accepts his wayward son back home with joy and celebration when he returns full of humility and penitence.

The very center of the story is the moment that young man turns around and heads back home to his humiliation, his repentance, and—as it turns out—his acceptance. But the beginning and end of the story are mirror images of each other.

The story begins with grumbling that needs to be addressed, and it ends with grumbling that needs to be addressed. The first grumbling is the Pharisees, who are in high dudgeon about the fact that Jesus keeps company with a low and suspicious group of people, and yet the people seem to follow him; the second grumbling is that of the elder son, who is in high dudgeon because his wastrel brother has kept company with a low and suspicious group of people, and is now being celebrated by his father.

That brother is angry, and he’s alienated. He’s outraged that someone he thinks beneath contempt—his own brother—has been not only forgiven, but welcomed home with a party. He’s mad as hell, he feels mistreated and neglected, and he is filled with righteous indignation. These days, we would call him a presidential candidate.

Maybe because that elder brother sounds a lot like our own political discourse these days, we might be well advised to pay a little more attention to him than we usually do when this story comes around again in the life of the church. For example, consider this: Even though the brother has exactly as much coming to him at the end of the story as he did at the beginning, he feels very deeply that he’s lost something.

After all, he is the Eldest Brother. His share of the inheritance is larger to begin with than what his younger brother took, and squandered. But what he had coming to him is still coming to him. He’s lost nothing.

The father really has lost something. First of all he’s lost all the inheritance that he cashed out to gave to this feckless son. He won’t get that back. But much worse, much more than money, he thought he’d lost his child.

So here is the conundrum of the parable. The man who has really lost something responds with generosity; the man who has lost nothing responds with resentment. How can we make sense of that?

The scientists of behavior teach us that our brains work very differently when we think we’ve lost something, and when we think we’ve gained something. We’re much more likely to choose a course of action when it is described to us in terms of the potential gains; if it’s described to us in terms of the potential losses we go searching for alteratives, even if the mathematical odds are exactly the same. If you tell us that we’ll get a discount for acting early, we generally don’t respond; if you tell us we’ll pay a fine for not acting by a deadline, we’re much more likely to hit the deadline.

Here’s something else. Our sense of gain and loss is significantly shaped by whether we see the world, and our place in it, in terms of abundance, or in terms of scarcity. If we see it in terms of abundance, we are more likely to see the absolute value of what we have. But if we see things in terms of scarcity, we are much, much more concerned with relative differences between ourselves and everyone else around us.

Here’s where the science and the theology connect. We are Christians. Jesus said that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly; and that is exactly what he gave us. We have life in abundance, because we have the gift of grace, and we have the blessing of the Christian community to sustain us.

The Christian view of the world is that we have been provided for abundantly. But more often than not we do not see the world through that perspective. More often than not we are afraid. We sense scarcity, or the prospect of scarcity. And when that happens, we become obsessed with relative differences instead of absolute value.

We fixate on the small increments between what we have and what someone else has, and we are completely blind to how much we actually have. In a world where hundreds of thousands of refugees are desperately seeking safety from war, where nearly a quarter of all children in our country are born into families living below the poverty line, we get more bogged down by whether our salary is higher or lower than the next-door neighbor’s.

This is how Elder Brother sees the world. He may not be a presidential candidate, but the Elder Brother is, in a lot of ways, the character in the story who expresses our current take on life. He is keenly aware of what someone else has gained, instead of what he has never lost. He is resentful, instead of generous. He is angry, so angry that he can no longer see his own potential for error in the mistakes his own brother has made.

If Elder Brother has the perspective closest to our own, then it is the words of that patient father to him that we should give particular attention to. And it is no accident that what the father says to that boy is to exactly to remind him of what he has—“all that is mine is yours.” We are in his place. We are inheritors of all the father has; we are inheritors of God, because we are children of God. And there is nothing more we could possibly have.

The needs of others are pressed upon us; the claim of those in need, whether or not through their own fault, is presented to us day after day after day. And if we see them through the mind of Christ, instead of through a mind attuned to scarcity, then nothing we give them takes anything away from us; we already have all we will ever have, because we have already gained the abundance of our inheritance as God’s own. The Christian perspective is the one that sees abundance; and because that is the Christian perspective, Christian disciples—you, and me—are meant to respond with generosity, with profligate love. Amen.