Let me introduce you to the people in our story this morning:
First, we have the younger brother. This younger brother has been living in his brother’s shadow for awhile now and is ready to get out. He knows he doesn’t hold the responsibility for carrying on the family business like his older brother, and he wants to find out what life is all about. So he asks for his inheritance early, collects everything he owns, and takes off to make his way in the world.
At first, everything is great. He’s got cash on hand, he’s meeting new people, he finds that by spending lots of money he’s making all kinds of new friends, and he thinks that he was born for this life. But the money goes faster than he expects. And then his friends begin to disappear. And then a famine strikes. And the younger son has to figure out how to survive. What once was a dream of his— to live on his own, to buy whatever he wanted, to have all of the fine things of life, becomes a nightmare as he finds himself wanting to eat the food that he is now feeding to the pigs that he has been hired to take care of.
Next, we have the older brother. He’s the responsible one, of course. The one we don’t hear a lot about. He has a small group of friends in the neighborhood, but little time to spend with them. He takes care of what he has— works long hours in fact— and never takes a day off. He lives in resentment of his younger brother, who left to see the world, and he tries hard to never disappoint his father. He puts everything he has into the fields.
One day he has been out all day working to fix some equipment. He is tired, he is hungry, and he is looking forward to a good meal and his bed. But when he approaches the house, he hears music and dancing. In fact there is more joy exuding from that little home than he has seen in a long time. When he asks a servant about it, the servant says that his little brother has returned home and that his father sent for the fatted calf to be killed so that they could have a feast. The older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and pleaded with him to join the party, but the son refused, yelling about how much he is the one who deserved the party for his obedience all of these years.
It’s hard to believe this parable was told by Jesus more than 2,000 years ago, isn’t it? It’s a story we know well— whether we are the younger sibling or the older one; whether it has literally happened in our family or in someone we know— we know this story. And we also know that while we don’t often talk about it, money— and the way we perceive it— has a huge impact on this story.
The younger son views money as a way out. He wants immediate gratification. He’s willing to borrow from his future. He wants the things and the life that he hasn’t had up to this point. In reality, he is a model of what has become the American dream. To have everything we want sooner than we can save for it. As Dr. Suess says, “to keep biggering and biggering and biggering” our lives so that we have bigger and better stuff than our neighbors— or at the very least, to keep up with our neighbors.(1) Did you know the square footage of our homes has doubled in the past thirty years? And as of 2005, more than ten years ago, there was 1.9 billion square feet of self storage space in America?
You know, in the 1950’s there were experts who were concerned about how Americans would fill our free time. The thought was that with all of the new technology, people would only need to work 20-30 hours a week. They were concerned about how people would fill their time.
And then in 1958, US Bank sent out 60,000 cards that people could use to buy anything they wanted up to a limit of $500. It was an experiment— the first credit card. In the first year, US Bank lost 20 million dollars because of fraud and because, to their surprise, people didn’t pay their bills. So they created a fraud dept and collection agencies and increased interest rates, and within the next two years they were making 13 million dollars a year, which of course has only grown exponentially. Today the average person who owns a credit card owes $8,000. The average person who has a car loan owes $10,000. And of course if you add in student loans and mortgages, the numbers go way up from there. And part of the problem, is that attaining stuff has become not only a status symbol, but a habit. We have been encouraged to take up shopping as an American past time. It’s even considered patriotic to shop.(2)
No one asks the question of whether it’s patriotic to be so far in debt that we can’t ever actually attain our dreams. No one seems to be asking the question of whether we as a nation could be healthier, more creative, more able to live full lives if we weren’t so far into debt. If we didn’t look at the world and always want what we don’t have.
My colleague, Adam Hamilton, says, “The devil doesn’t need to tempt us to do drugs or steal or to have an affair in order to destroy ous. All he needs to do is convince us to keep pursuing the American Dream— to keep up with the Joneses, borrow against our futures, enjoy more than we can afford, and indulge ourselves. By doing that, he will rob us of our joy, make us slaves, and keep us from doing God’s will.” (3)
That’s what happens to the younger son. He borrows against his future. He decides to indulge in all the things he has never had before. And then when famine hits, and he hasn’t saved a dime, he finds himself feeding pigs for a living, and wishing he was one of the pigs so that he would have enough to eat.
Our spending is a spiritual issue and God invites us into a different way of living.
And lest you think the older son is the model of what God wants, let’s break down his attitude for a moment. The older son has saved every penny. My guess is that he finds security in his money. He’s not going to do what his brother did, so instead he does the opposite and he builds bigger barns and he stores it all up. And when his brother finally finds his way back home, it is the older brother who will not come in and celebrate. Who cannot stand the thought of spending a dime welcoming his brother back home. And we get a glimpse into his thoughts on the matter when his father asks him to come inside and the brother’s response is, “I have worked for you all these years and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” This older brother, who seems to have it all, is crippled by his wealth. Because he has not been able to find the joy in generosity, but instead has been amassing his wealth, finding security in it instead of in God, and hoarding his resources for himself.
How we hold on to money is also a spiritual issue and God invites us into a different way of living.
Gratefully, there is one more person in this story for us to look to, and that is the Father. This Father does not use his wealth to control his younger son. He may disagree with it, but he generously gives him what he would’ve given him at the end of his life. This Father does not hoard his money for security, trying to keep everyone safe and under his care. This Father also does not use the money in excess— competing with his neighbors or his older son for that matter. He has been a good steward of all that he has, working the fields, providing for his family, being generous in every way he can, and living a life of gratitude. How do I know all this? Because it is only a person who practices gratitude that could look up on a dusty afternoon, see his son who had basically taken half of all he had, and welcome him with open arms— calling his workers to throw a party before he even knew why his son had returned.
Each day we have an opportunity for our hearts to be changed and open to God’s direction. Each morning as we wake up, we can ask God “Lord, help me to be the person you want me to be today. Help me to make decisions that will be helpful for me and my family. Silence the voices that are constantly telling me I need more.” (4)
By looking at our spending, our credit, our saving, and our giving as a way that we serve God, we can build into our budgets what we need to be able to live generously and faithfully. We can choose to live counter-culturally— living below instead of above our means. And we can find freedom in the joy of being able to be generous, watching our money do good in the world.
You may feel lost today, like that younger brother, but it is never too late to recognize the ways in which money is ruling your life and to begin to make different decisions. You may feel stuck today, like the older brother, wondering why you’ve been working so hard and find so little meaning in acquiring wealth. It is never too late to recognize the ways in which being generous with all that you have will change your life. May God help all of us to see that the way we understand money affects our faith, our families, our communities, and our relationship with God so that we can let go of the messages that cripple us and instead be freed to live out the dreams God has given us.
- The Lorax by Dr. Suess
- 99% Invisible podcast with Roman Mars, Episode “Fresno Drop”
- Enough by Adam Hamilton, page 69.
- Enough by Adam Hamilton is a resource I consulted for this sermon for some of the statistics as well as this prayer.