I Wish You Were Dead
A recent article in Men’s Health Magazine entitled Six Tricky Money Talks Every Man Must Have stated the obvious, “MONEY. IT'S A TABOO TOPIC in polite company and rarely even broached among friends. At home, conversations about the green stuff can torpedo family harmony. In fact, a recent T. Rowe Price survey discovered that parents find it easier to talk to their kids about drugs and alcohol than about the family finances. Why are we so touchy that way? Confrontations about financial success or failure, or even stray comments about spending habits, can put people on the defensive and make them feel judged.”
Accordingly, Money Chat #2 is “So How Much Am I Going to Inherit?” This is the mack daddy of all awkward money talks. So just be warned, writes the author: Unless you've received explicit promises of inheritance, you should not think of your parents' money as your own. Assume from the outset that you'll inherit nothing. There's a reason a will is read after death.
It’s like saying to your parents, “I wish you were dead!”
Which leads us to consider again the story of the Prodigal Son. I say again because most people are so familiar with this favorite parable in the Jesus lexicon. We all know the outlines of the story. Two sons, one father, a fortunate squandered, a fatted calf, a party invitation left unopened. But do we really know the story and what it is all about?
We are in the midst of our Lenten study based on Kenneth Bailey’s book, “The Cross and the Prodigal.” The book takes an extended look at Luke chapter 15 and the story of the prodigal son. But long before the climactic return of the prodigal, the embittered response of the elder, and the impassioned plea of the father, there is the mack daddy of all awkward money talks, “I wish you were dead!”
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to the father, “I wish you were dead.”
Well not exactly but that’s what he really meant. He said, “Dad, give me the portion of property that falls to me.” Perhaps his father would have appreciated a more direct approach. If only the son had said, “Give me my inheritance.” Two words in the language of the day.
But instead the soon to be prodigal works his way around a difficult conversation. Uh Dad, can we talk, uh, about, you know, about when I can I, uh, my stuff, my money, the things that I deserve?
As Jesus tells the story, “Give me the share of property that falls to me.”
So why the run around? The word inheritance is never used. And that’s the way that Jesus told the story.
Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel and the rest of the New Testament the word inheritance is frequently used. Inheritance, the goods and property that pays off for all those years of being a good son. But to accept an inheritance goes far beyond money, it goes to responsibility. The money and the property are secondary to the duty that is explicit in taking responsibility for the entire family, caring for the old and sick, arbitrating family quarrels and community disputes, defending the family name and honor, and maintaining the most important asset of the family...the well-being of all. A heavy responsibility in our culture but monumental in Jesus’ day. To accept the inheritance is to build the house of the father, the name of the family.
So here, in Jesus’ parable, we should not be surprised that the younger son asks for his “ousia”, money, wealth, his stuff. His share in property that can be easily turned into cash. Later on the story tells us that he disposed of the property, “ousia”, quickly and left the country.
In his commentary Kenneth Bailey states what may not obvious to our modern ears: A request for the property means that the son was impatient for his father’s death. It was like telling dear old dad, “Isn’t it time for you to get on with the dying so I can get on with the living?”
But more than that, the younger son is telling his family that while he doesn’t want them dead, he doesn’t care if they die. To make such a grab for property is to imperil the family. To impoverish them without enough land, animals, or other resources to support the family.
The prodigal doesn’t seem to care how much others in the family will suffer because of what he demands. Not only will he hurt his father but also the entire family clan. The wealth of a village family was not in a bank somewhere, not in money stuffed in a mattress or an investment porfolio, but rather in the village itself. Homes, animals and land. To suddenly lose one third, the younger son’s rightful share, would mean a staggering loss to the family. When the son liquidated his assets, a fire sale without the fire, the accumulated economic security of generations went up in smoke.
Rather than accepting the responsibility for the family, this son is actively working for the demise of his father, his mother, his brother and the rest of his family. And in cutting off his family, he cuts himself off from his roots and his true inheritance. The very inheritance he refused to ask for is now taken away. Family is everything, nothing else matters when it comes to middle eastern security. His family is his social security (as he will realize later), and his insurance, his old age pension, and his future. His tie to the family and the land and to his father’s house is lost in one little request. Bailey points out that in Middle Eastern cultures, last names don’t matter, only whose child you are and where you are from. When one person asks another where they are from, the real question is who is your family. Where are your roots, what clan or people would claim you and defend you? The son belongs to his father’s household, there he is accepted and loved, completely and without condition. He is welcomed. All of this the younger son throws away for a man without family is considered a transient, fit only to feed pigs, and not trusted. He will lament the loss and come face to face with the reality of his situation when he says, “I’m not fit to be called your son, make me a hireling.”
But at the request, the father gives him what he wants. Culture would dictate that the father should refuse. The division of the family wealth would come only at the very end of the father’s life, as he lay on his deathbed, giving out his blessing (remember the stories of Abraham and Jacob?) and providing for the future of the family. NT scholar Joachim Jeremias points out that there were orderly, prescribed, legal procedures available if the father chose to divide the family property. Each son, given his portion, based on birth order. Two sons, a cultural rarity, would demand a two-thirds, one third split. More sons, and the older still receives his portion but other sons increasing less. To be born last in a large family was to have limited prospects outside of the family structure. Even a second son would not receive enough to survive unless the estate was vast. Perhaps enough for a party-filled sojourn into a foreign country but not much more.
But if the father choose, the right of possession could be passed on but not the right of disposition. That is, while the younger son could demand that the father give him his inheritance while he was still living, only the father could allow him to have everything without condition. Surely there were cases where the father was alive and chose to make his wishes known early, to read the will so no one would misunderstand after he was gone. But it would been assumed that the father was still in control, making decisions on behalf of the family.
At the very least, the father should be angry and upset. What had he done to deserve such treatment? One foot in the grave, according to his son, and here’s a good push to get you there. Of all the things a father can hear, this had to cut right to his heart. How could his son, this son, say such a thing?
Or at least the father should be disappointed. Sometimes in spite of best efforts, children grow up and walk or run away from the very best of their upbringing. We try but in stubborn rebellion, they turn away. And we hang our heads, wondering what we should have done better.
But more than anything the father should refuse the request! No way! How could you say such a thing? A good box of the ear, a shoe raised in anger, that’s the only reasonable response.
But this father, this father is different. He is willing to give it all, without condition. Jesus understates this reality when he says, “And he divided his living between them.” His living? All that he had. Later he would tell the older son, “All that is mine is yours.” Not strictly true. Because the father could always decide differently.
But not this father. This father seems to be willing, to point of death, to give and give and give. He simply gives the younger son what he wants. No argument ensues (and perhaps that’s what upset the older son), no discussion, just a request fulfilled. If that’s what you want...the father says.
In the 1960’s Nietzsche wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Thus began the Death of God Movement in modern theology and our attempt to free ourselves from God. God, give us what we have coming. God we appreciate all you’ve done, all you given, but now is our time. God, I wish you were dead.
The cover of the April 8, 1966 edition of Time magazine screamed "Is God Dead?" and the accompanying article addressed a growing atheism in America. But this was not really about atheism, at least in the strictest sense. It’s more like a practical atheism.
It’s not that we don’t believe God existed! Instead there was the growing sense that we Americans did not need God anymore. Theologians argued that modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of God’s providence and purpose. Simply put, for the modern mind God is dead. An Emory theologian Thomas Altizer offered a even more radical theology of the death of God, concluding that God had incarnated in Christ and imparted his Spirit which remained in the world even though Jesus was dead. Unlike Nietzsche, Altizer believed that God truly died when Jesus died on the cross.
Some years ago British theologian Anthony Townie wrote a satire on the Death of God called the Dairy of the Late God. In his book, he asks us to imagine that after God died, killed by contemporary theologians, a diary was found among God’s belongings.
The entries in God’s diary are a wonderful satire on theology or perhaps the lack of it. The notion is that for some people one of the characteristics of our time is arrogance: the unabashed arrogance and the smugness which has so much and has been blessed beyond measure and yet is so unwilling to give God the credit. To put in it another way we live in a time which has a very difficult time giving God any glory, not that we have any power over that. Instead we just wish God dead.
In Exodus God asks Moses to tell the Israelite to remember what God had done for them and not take His blessings for granted. It is so easy for people to forget and so hard to remember. A lot of the lessons of God are about remembering, not because God needs our praise but because we need not to forget.
One entry in God’s diary reads: "In spite of my people’s transgressions no one else could have ever been more long-suffering and forgiving than I have been and am. I gave them all I could, a grand and a glorious world in which to live, a world filled with beauty and rich resources. God continues, “I stood by them and in their adversity I even gave them my own Son and yet in their own blindness and in their own arrogance and ingratitude, they committed the ultimate presumption. They presumed that their ways were superior to my ways, that in the scheme of things I was no longer necessary. That humankind had now grown up and that humanity didn’t need to be burdened down or to be inhibited or held back any longer by such primitive and superstitious beliefs as God.”
“Sadly,” he says:, “many people were not interested in believing in a God that one could not control or manipulate, who didn’t run things they way they wanted. For so many people the kind of God they wanted just did not exist and if a God did exist he was completely irrelevant to them & their needs.”
We can wish God dead, but God cannot be put to death, controlled, or manipulated. Instead it is God’s love that overflows into the world, even the darkest places and the darkness of our very hearts. It is in such a world that our God continues to reign and that God’s people continue to manifest love in spite of the evil that tries to grip and to overcome the world and which fiercely tries to deny God, even to kill God off in favor of something else.
Yergeny Yevtushenko, a Russian poet, writes in his autobiography of a moment in 1944 when 20,000 German war prisoners were being marched through the ice and snow on the streets of Moscow. Defeated, the once proud soldiers now stagger on the edge of death. And then an elderly Russian woman pushed through the police line and went up to the column of ragged German soldiers and shoved a crust of bread into the pocket of a soldier who was so exhausted that he was tottering. And then suddenly from all sides women were running to these enemy soldiers, the very ones that had killed their loved ones, pushing bread, cigarettes, and whatever they had into their hands. A rare moment in human history. Instead of wishing them dead, giving them life. The things they offered were quickly gone but the meaning, the message stayed on. The God-imaged love and concern that freed those soldiers to live again.
If we are make anything of our faith it must be the very opposite of the arrogance of wishing God dead: thanksgiving, gratitude, and compassion. The acknowledgment that we came from God, that all that we are is of God, and all that we have is the gift of God. Rather than arrogantly declaring the death of a God who is no longer needed or relevant, Christians emphatically proclaim their dependence upon "The One in whom we live and move and have our being." The one who demonstrates in the love of father how we also love.
Jesus told the story of the prodigal to tell us something about God surely. About God’s boundless passion for us, love that knows no end and gives to point of death. Love that counters open rebellion with still more love. But also, I think, Jesus wanted to tell us something about ourselves. The prodigals, wishing God dead so we can assume the throne on our lives. Ready to reject God and yet having the capability to respond to God’s amazing love. For in the end, the younger son “comes to his senses.”
Men's Health Magazine, February 10, 2013
The Cross and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey
Excerpts from The Diary of the Late God by Anthony Townie
Yevtushenko's Reader: The Spirit of Elbe, a Precocious Autobiography