Meeting needs transcends rights-based thinking and is healthful for soul and community alike

The Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

For John Dominic Crossan

If we take the words of the New Testament at face value, we are led to believe that Jesus could not only draw large crowds but had inventive ways of handling them once they came.

The gospel writer Mark (4:1) says, “A crowd that had gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat on the lake and sat down [to speak] while the crowd arranged itself along the shore.” 

Once settled down, Jesus began to tell them stories called parables for, as Mark adds, “He did not say anything to [the crowds] without using a parable.”

And parables ought not be confused with fables, which the sixth-century B.C. Greek seanchaí, Aesop, made famous, where animals do the talking; in parables, only people speak — and always about some ethical predicament in which they find themselves.   

Jesus adopted the parable as his métier because he thought it the most accessible way listeners could grasp his lessons about what they must do to be a good human being. Mark says, “He taught them many things in parables.” 

New Testament scholars have counted as many as 50 different such stories — though undergirding them all is the same mandate: “Meet the needs of your neighbor as much as you do your own.”

There’s no way to know if Jesus composed his stories off the cuff or got them from somewhere else, but he could have known Psalm 78: “Attend, my people, to my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable, and unfold the puzzling events of the past.”

And the power of the parable is not just that it’s a mirror to see oneself in but a door to walk through and enter a world of deep self-reflection.

It’s pretty well agreed that the two best parables Jesus ever told were the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the parable of “The Lost Son” or the “Forgiving Father” or “Two Brothers.”

Both parables reflect the deep radical economics of personal responsibility for one’s neighbor that Jesus included in all his talks but the Prodigal Son goes a step further by laying out the ideological choices available to a person as to how he will treat someone in need, a view of economics as deep as Marx’s “Das Kapital.”

The story is about a father and his two sons who wind up in an ethical fix. Luke (15:11-32) says the younger of the two boys had grown unhappy with his life on the farm and decided to strike out on his own.

To subsidize the dream, he asks his father for his portion of the family estate — what would come his way once the father died. 

The father, not wanting to stand in his son’s way, divvies up the family’s assets: He gives half to his younger son and puts the rest aside for the older brother who has dedicated his life to the farm.

The peregrinator, Luke says, “gathers up all that is his and takes off for a far-off land” to live the life of a sport. But he parties so hard he “squanders everything he had in reckless ways.” One translation says he engaged in “living riotously.” The vulgate is: “dissipavit substantiam suam vivendo luxuriose.”

To make matters worse, the country where the penniless soul was living gets hit with a famine and he is reduced to starvation. Scrounging for work, he lands a job on a pig farm, which every Jew was forbidden to do by law: no pigs! 

After pouring foul-smelling slops into pigsties day after day, the prodigal starts to think: “This is crazy; the people working for my father are better off than me. I’ve made a terrible mistake, I’m going home to tell my father I sinned and beg his forgiveness; maybe he’d take me on as a hired hand.”  

The gospel says that, when he got close to the house, the father saw him coming down the road and “felt compassion for him and ran out to embrace him offering a kiss of reconciliation.” The boy confesses his sin.

But the father, overjoyed at seeing his son alive, tells his servants, “Go get the best robe in my closet and put it on the boy; get a ring for his finger, put decent shoes on his feet, then go out and butcher the fattened calf we’ve been saving for a grand occasion.” 

A celebration ensues while the older boy is still out in the field working. Hearing the hullabaloo, he asks one of the servants what’s going on. The servant says, “Your brother’s back! Your father is butchering the fattened calf in his honor!”

The father goes out to the field and asks his son to come in and join the party but, feeling dissed, the son snaps back [my translation] “Are you nuts? I’ve been working my ass off all this time; I did everything you asked of me and you never so much as roasted a goat for me and my friends. And that ne’er-do-well who pissed away the family fortune with whores and harlots — he gets a party with our prized calf? Is that all I’ve meant to you?”

The father, understanding his son’s hurt, says with a heavy heart, “My boy, my boy, you are part of all I am; everything I have is yours but today we must celebrate, your brother who was dead has come back to life; he was lost and now he’s found.” Thus ends Luke’s story.

But that’s not all Jesus had to say. He wanted listeners to know that the older brother’s thinking reflects an ideology of deserving, asserting that people who do wrong deserve nothing; punishment and exclusion should be their reward.

But the father says, “Son, this is not a matter of deserving and reward; it’s about needs. Your brother needs forgiveness, food, a place to stay, and to be part of a family again — and our family needs him to be whole.”

Luke also mentions that, while Jesus was telling the story, he saw a number of Pharisees dispersed among the crowd and reinforced to them that meeting needs transcended their legalistic rights-based thinking as well. The Hebrew scriptures forbade Jews from having anything to do with sinners: “Let not a man associate with the wicked; not even when it involves taking them to court for justice.”

In looking for a moral to the story, the scripture scholar, Howard Marshall — in his scholarly 928-page commentary on the gospel of Luke — feels compelled to bring God in as a deus ex machina saying the father is “meant to illustrate the pardoning love of God who cares for the outcast.” But the story has nothing to do with God. 

As an egalitarian humanist Jew, Jesus was talking about a human father who does not treat people in terms of what they deserve, saying — as he does elsewhere in the gospel — that meeting needs is healthful for soul and community alike — a concept Marx and capitalists never grasp.

But Pope Francis does; in April 2015 he told the world he was calling for a year of deep reflection on “Misericordia,” the practice of responding to those in need with compassion as opposed to treating them like a piece of their résumé.

For those who wished to take up the Pope’s invite, he opened the doors of cathedrals and churches throughout the world, even the Great Door of St. Peter’s. He called them “Doors of Mercy,” passages through which a person could go and reflect on how much he takes Jesus’s mandate at face value: “attend to the needs of your neighbor as much as your own, especially when the neighbor needs loving forgiveness.”