The Common Good

I'm the Older Brother

When it comes to President Obama's stimulus package and its provisions to help those Americans who are having great difficulty paying their home mortgages, I have come to realize that I'm like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.

As you probably recall, Jesus tells about a younger brother who takes half of his father's wealth and spends it irresponsibly in a "far-off country." Finding himself impoverished, he takes a job feeding pigs (and you know how the ancient Jews would have reacted to even getting near pigs). He becomes so hungry that he actually wishes that he could eat some of the slop that the pigs were eating. In dire straits, this younger brother decides to return to his home and ask for a job on his father's farm. But, as the Bible says, "While he is still a long way off," his father sees him, runs out to meet him, welcomes this wayward son back into the family fold, and invites him to share in bounty of family fortune.

Then there's the older brother! Jesus tells how this older brother is filled with resentment, and complains that he had worked hard on his father's farm for many years, and now the money he helped earn for his father was being spent on this younger brother who had wasted the family's wealth. We can almost hear him saying, "This brother of mine was irresponsible in the way he lived and spent his money, so why should he now get the benefits of money that I helped earn through my hard work, day in and day out?"

That, I am sad to say, is much the same attitude that I, along with most of my conservative evangelical brothers and sisters, have had in reaction to President Obama's announcement that taxpayers' dollars, earned by hard-working, responsible citizens, would be given to help those irresponsible Americans who bought houses that they couldn't afford, while embracing a lifestyle that was beyond their means. With resentment, I, along with most of my rugged individualistic Christian friends, now sound like that older brother in Jesus' story, and call for those irresponsible spenders to get what they deserve. With an air of self-righteous indignation, we declare, "They didn't do what's right and now we're being asked to rescue them from the financial mess they've created for themselves!"

The gospel is about grace and we all know that grace is about us receiving from God blessings that we don't deserve. But now, I, having received grace, find that my voice is blending in with a host of other older brother types who are reluctant to grant grace to those desperate home-buyers who were seduced into lavish living they could ill afford.

I've got some repenting to do. I doubt, however, that those who have wedded Christianity with laissez-faire capitalism will see things this way. I can just hear them saying, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Tony Campolo is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.

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