This is a response to Tony Campolo’s recent article.
Tony Campolo, the much-respected pastor, speaker and sociologist, recently wrote an article drawing a parallel between his feelings about President Obama’s stimulus package and the story of the prodigal son. He writes, “‘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.”
He continues, “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.”
There is no doubt that this quasi-redistribution of taxpayer obligations is, at first blush, “cool”, “Robinhood like”, even “noble”, but the fundamental flaws are rooted in selfishness and not selflessness. In the second book of Corinthians chapters 8 & 9, Paul describes the phenomenon of sacrificial giving prompted not by the redistribution of resources (that was a by-product of hearts trusting God and looking forward to an eternal treasure in Jesus Christ and an eternal home in Heaven) but by a desire to see others thank God for the message of the Gospel because their needs were met by others. Not by compulsive gifts of others, which would make a recipient not as thankful when received by an unwilling donor, and likewise the resentment of the giver towards the receiver, but through the honest pursuit of a pleasure that makes someone willing to sacrifice their own needs so that someone who is struggling more may experience a love that flows not from a law but from a changed heart.
This radical, love-infused, ridiculous and reckless giving is what Nehemiah lived, David displayed when he gave all of his son’s inheritance to the Lord, the widow experienced in giving every cent in the offering, the early church did in Acts 2&4, Paul discovered and expressed in his words that he trusted God to take care of him but he assured them that the gifts given to him would actually be tallied, secured, and subject to doubling (sometimes daily) in an eternal bank account (see Phil 4:17).
It’s true that we can get jealous of generosity (I do, for sure) and the unconditional forgiveness of others when we think that someone else has received something that we worked for. But I believe the parable is about a lost son who is offered the love and forgiveness of a father. He wasn’t offered the bother’s inheritance as God wants us to want to share and be generous, but not under compulsion. Compulsion will bred dissension instead of love. As Gandhi said, “If you give up a thing out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied desire will make trouble for you.” It would not be a fragrant offering but a detestable sacrifice – one begrudgingly made not even with our own contributions but with OPM. Imagine the children of the recipients and the taxpayers who see the ledger, the results – unchanged hearts from just throwing money at a problem that requires a lifestyle change. A lifestyle change that begins in the heart.
It reminds me of the parable of the owner who employed one person to work the day for a fare wage, and than another a few hours later for the same, and still another a few hours later for the same exact wage. At the end of the day the ones employed early on complained that it was unfair to pay the employees who worked less hours the same as those who worked a full day. The owner said, “You greedy employees! I paid you exactly what I promised you and what is it your business what I pay someone else?” (see Matt 20:1-16).
If the question was sharing, or voluntarily paying with someone’s resources, I would see the parallel and the pastor’s point. But I don’t believe the “redistribution of wealth” or “Thesis on Feuerbach” is the same as the parables. The parables spoke of generosity and forgiveness (the Prodigal), and the parable of the laborers spoke of contentment and the idea that the first shall be last, and the last first.
It is a dangerous game to make the government the place for benevolence.