Last week I came across the news that a leaflet titled, “Leading Practices: Unpacking Privilege” had been found in a bigbox-outlet store in Calgary, Alberta. It had been posted in an employee lunchroom at a Home Depot where it was photographed and then shared widely via social media. The notice to staff explained the concept of “white privilege,” including a privilege checklist for employees who are white, male, Christian, cisgender, able-bodied and heterosexual. Later, Home Depot issued a statement saying that while it supported diversity at the company, the worksheet had not been created nor approved by its Corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department. On the one hand, many people wondered how Home Depot could post such a notice since it is generally accepted that a capitalist corporation usually does not promote justice or equity in the public arena; others applauded Home Depot for addressing the topic of “white privilege” in the workplace.
You may be wondering how “white privilege” is related to today’s lectionary reading, the prodigal son. Today I want to look at it from a different viewpoint, a view of privilege.
In most cases going home is a joyful occasion, since home is usually the first place we experience feeling safe, comfortable and welcome. With this in mind, I am wondering how the prodigal son felt when he decided to go back home. He must have wondered how he would be treated by his parents and his older brother. It may be argued that the prodigal son’s return home has nothing to do with loving or missing his family: he comes home just because he is dying of hunger. We may cite how the father forgives him before he ever gets a word of repentance out of his mouth. We may say, “Life is not fair;” that the older brother is being asked now to share what is left of the family fortune even though it has already been shared with his younger brother.
Today’s story raises many questions. This story has been an offence for two thousand years. Tertullian (160-225 C.E.), an early defender of the faith, insisted that the parable of the prodigal son did not apply to Christians. If it did, he said, then not only “adulterers and fornicators” but also “idolaters, blasphemers, and renegades” would use the parable to insist on a pardon for their sin. “Who will worry about losing what can so easily be regained?” he asked.
How, then, do we understand this controversial story? Let’s first think about the younger brother. Having dishonoured the family, emptied his trust fund and all but starved to death. He had weighed the alternatives: stay where he was and starve to death or go home and beg his father to take him back. When the father surprises him by running to meet him, there is no doubt what forgiveness looks like, nor how much it costs. The younger brother now lives entirely by his father’s grace. Will anyone judge him wrong?
The older brother, meanwhile, lives entirely a life of total obedience to his father. The theological word is righteousness. The older brother has devoted his entire life to being the very best – the most right – son he can be. He has never left his father’s side. He has never gone against his father’s wishes. He has been loyal, respectful, hardworking and honest. Will anyone judge him wrong?
No, we can’t blame the first son; he is a righteous, hardworking person. I want to understand this parable in the cultural, social and religious context in which the parable was told. The concept of the firstborn son is of the utmost importance in Judaism. The firstborn son carries a significant privilege in that culture; he is entitled to receive a double portion of his father’s inheritance compared to his siblings. From the first day of his life the first son lives with the special right, advantage and privilege granted only to him. By birth, he will inherit double the amount of fortune without doing anything on his part compared to his other siblings. Do you think is this fair?
In the parable, the father has nothing but words of love and grace for either of his sons. In the face of his younger son’s remorse, he orders his servants to dress the boy like a prince. In the face of his older son’s disappointment, he says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The father refuses to choose between his children. All of his energy is focused on getting them back together again since each of them has something the other badly needs. There are no heroes or villains here, just two brothers who have grown up as contradictory images of each other. During their lives, they have defined themselves by their differences from one another including a privileged and underprivileged life. While this polarity has provided the family with a perverse kind of balance, the father knows it is time to break the glass. He does this by tipping the balance toward the younger son not because the boy is better in any way, but simply because he has come home. “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father explains to his stung elder son, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
The father embraces the underprivileged second son. The father welcomes him home, even at the risk of losing the obedient older son who cannot or will not do the same. “Come on,” the father says to his older son, “stand here by my side.” God’s love embraces everyone, especially the underprivileged.
So, our God is not fair; our God is, however, gracious. In my opinion, fairness is a basic social value. We build relationships and social status based on fairness. Fairness is one way of seeing the world. This conventional world view is reflected in the following sayings: “You get what you pay for” or “Equal pay for equal work.” However, the God reflected in the parable is a God who cares for the vulnerable, the weak, the voiceless and the underprivileged. Without them, God cannot complete God’s creation. God cannot mend this broken world without breaking God’s heart.
As I said at the beginning, today’s story has not always gone down well with the church. We have argued about it for two thousand years and I expect we will continue to argue about it for two thousand more. We are so afraid of letting people off the hook, we are so resentful of unearned love unless we happen to be the one toward whom the father is running, with his arms wide open and tears wetting his beard until we learn once again that God is not fair. God is gracious. Amen.