Sunday Sermon: Parables, Points of View, and the Nature of Infinite Love

The titles that we give to Jesus’s parables are important, Amy-Jill Levine teaches us in Short Stories by Jesus, because they covey assumptions about the point of view we should adopt when we read them. “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” is going to be substantially different than “the Parable of the Careless Shepherd,” even if everything else remains the same. Perspective matters.

The titles of parables, however, are entirely outside of the text. Jesus just told stories. He never gave them titles. Neither did the Gospel writers who recorded them. The titles emerged over thousands of years of people talking about these stories some of them–”The Good Samaritan,” for example, or “The Ten Virgins,” have become fixed parts of our language, which means that the point-of-view bias that they suggest has become a fixed part of our theology.

Nowhere is this more true than the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In my youth Sunday school class today, I asked the students what the word “prodigal” meant. Nobody knew, because they have never seen the word in any context not related to the parable. A “prodigal” simply means “somebody who is like the guy in the story.”

In a similar way, most people first read the story from the point of view of the prodigal son. Read this way, it is a story about forgiveness and grace. We are all sinners. We are all prodigals, whatever that means (n.b. It actually means “wasteful”). If we will only return to God, he will always return to us. It’s a good lesson, and we should all learn it.

But most people eventually realize that the story could also be called “The Parable of the Jealous Older Brother. Read this way, it becomes a cautionary tale that says “don’t be this guy.” Don’t, in other words, get jealous about what somebody else gets. That is between them and God.

This is the same basic message as we find in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. When the master agrees to pay those who have worked for one hour the same rate as those who have worked all day, the all-day workers complain, and the master tells them that they got what he promised them and they should mind their own business–or something like that.

Both the younger brother and the all-day laborers are exhibiting a concern for fairness that seems to be deeply embedded in human nature. Unfairness offends us, and when we feel that we have been treated unfairly in relation to somebody else, we tend to feel cheated, even if we would otherwise think that we have been treated well.

We can even prove this with math, with the famous game-theory scenario called The Ultimatum Game. In this simple game, two players are asked to divide a sum of money between them. One person acts as the proposer and proposes a percentage to use to divide the money. The other person, the responder, says yes or no. If the responder rejects the split, nobody gets anything.

Rationally, of course, the, the proposer should propose 99-1 and the responder should accept, since some money is better than no money. But this rarely happens. Most proposers propose a 50-50 split, and most responders reject any split less equal than 70-30. What this means, then, is that most people would be willing to give up $300 of absolutely free money if they knew that somebody else was getting $700. Because we are hard-wired to reject things that we consider unfair.

This makes evolutionary sense because we evolved in an environment of scarce resources and zero-sum games. Cooperation with other humans can be mutually beneficial, but only if it is carefully monitored to make sure that nobody cheats. A deep concern for fairness is a necessary and proper part of the human perspective.

But what about the divine perspective? How do we read “The Parable of the Father of the Prodigal Son and the Older Brother” or “The Parable of the Guy Who Owns of Vineyard and Pays Everybody the Same No Matter How Long They Work”? These, I believe, are the most difficult perspectives to adopt when reading these stories. They are also the most essential.

These parables are also allegories, and the Father/Vineyard Owner are allegorical stand-ins for God. More importantly, though, the commodities that they are distributing–grace, divine love, the Kingdom of Heaven–are qualities that, from the divine perspective, are neither limited nor part of a zero-sum game. These resources are infinite and freely available. In fact, they can’t be given in any proportion other than 100%, and everybody gets the same amount. That’s what “infinite love” means.

To get to this point in our understanding, though, we have to learn how to see the world, and all of its inhabitants, in ways that work against some of our initial human instincts. The ability to do this is a spiritual gift, the one that Paul called “charity,” and the parables of Jesus in the New Testament have been designed to get us to see–however briefly and imperfectly–through the eyes of God.

Comments

  1. Beautiful. I was thinking about perspective e changes in these stories the other day. It’s important to consider what we miss by adopting one way of looking at scripture (and people). Thanks for this perspective.

  2. Just like how the word prodigal is only used to describe a single person in one story, I feel other words have been reduced to just scriptural references.
    Like the word “manger”. We don’t use the word anymore outside of referring to Jesus’s cradle. We now say “feeding trough” to refer to a manger. We should rewrite the scriptures to say “feeding trough” instead of manger, to help sink in the situation to modern ears.
    We don’t really have kings or lords around anymore either. So when we refer to Jesus as king of kings and lord of lords it doesn’t convey the sense that we should. In modern terms we should refer to him as the president of presidents and the CEO of CEO’s. Even if it doesn’t roll off of the tongue as well.
    Retitling the parables is a worthwhile thought exercise.

  3. “It is with that reading of the story that I feel the grumbling of the first laborers must be seen. As the householder in the parable tells them (and I paraphrase only slightly): “My friends, I am not being unfair to you. You agreed on the wage for the day, a good wage. You were very happy to get the work, and I am very happy with the way you served. You are paid in full. Take your pay and enjoy the blessing. As for the others, surely I am free to do what I like with my own money.” Then this piercing question to anyone then or now who needs to hear it: “Why should you be jealous because I choose to be kind?”
    Brothers and sisters, there are going to be times in our lives when someone else gets an unexpected blessing or receives some special recognition. May I plead with us not to be hurt—and certainly not to feel envious—when good fortune comes to another person? We are not diminished when someone else is added upon. We are not in a race against each other to see who is the wealthiest or the most talented or the most beautiful or even the most blessed. The race we are really in is the race against sin, and surely envy is one of the most universal of those.
    Furthermore, envy is a mistake that just keeps on giving. Obviously we suffer a little when some misfortune befalls us, but envy requires us to suffer all good fortune that befalls everyone we know! What a bright prospect that is—downing another quart of pickle juice every time anyone around you has a happy moment! To say nothing of the chagrin in the end, when we find that God really is both just and merciful, giving to all who stand with Him “all that he hath,” as the scripture says. So lesson number one from the Lord’s vineyard: coveting, pouting, or tearing others down does not elevate your standing, nor does demeaning someone else improve your self-image. So be kind, and be grateful that God is kind. It is a happy way to live.”
    Elder Holland

  4. Anne Chovies says:

    I like this, Austin. It’s thought provoking.

  5. Something that caught my interest awhile back was realizing that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard refers to us. So often, we read parables as referring to others – or at the least, we’re the ones who need to be the long- suffering patient ones, seeking after the lost sheep, rescuing the stranger on the side of road, etc. But, we’re told in the Doctrine and Covenants that this is the 11th hour and we’re the laborers hired to come do the Master’s work now. So, that means we’re the ones getting paid more than we probably deserve!
    It just felt like that turned things on its head a little – we so often talk about how we’re the most valiant spirits reserved for the end. So, maybe we deserve the same pay because our work is harder? I’m not sure I believe that’s the case, but ultimately, it was interesting to be put on the receiving end of the “unfairness” of the Lord

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice, thanks!

  7. Thank you for a thought provoking post. And thank you Roy for quoting from Elder Holland. I needed this this day.

  8. Yes.

  9. Stephen Hardy says:

    I have also thought the youth Sunday school that I teach that we could speculate on other possible titles for the parables. This is part of a reminder not to pay too much attention to the chapter summaries in our scriptures. (Which I hate). Their consensus for the prodigal son: “The father who ran.”

  10. Stephen Hardy says:

    Let me take another stab at that first sentence: I have taught my youth Sunday school class that we can consider renaming the parables in order to help understand them differently.

  11. Eric Facer says:

    There is another perspective that can provide us with additional insight into the meaning of the Parable of the Prodigal Son and other stories Christ told: that of the reader.

    In their excellent book, “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes,” Messrs. Richards and O’Brien describe what they learned when they asked separate groups of American and Russian Christians to summarize the key elements of this parable. While there was considerable overlap in the synopses produced by both, the Americans invariably overlooked something that Russian readers find quite significant: the famine. “And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.” Luke 15:14.

    For a people who had survived the Siege of Leningrad—where starvation claimed more lives than actual fighting—and for whom scarcity has been a common occurrence throughout their history, the famine in this story was considered a divine catalyst that started the wayward young man on the path home to his family.

    When we take the time to understand these stories in their original context and seek out the perspectives of those different than ourselves, our understanding is augmented even further.

  12. Yes to all this. I like the idea of playing with titles. I’m very familiar with the different points of view one can bring to a parable, but skip over labels for myself and hadn’t thought how useful that would be in a discussion or classroom.

    One more point of view to think about is the god-view that knows we need the parable. Knows we can be petty and selfish, but also will respond to stories that test fairness and balance. I like the idea of a God who knows me that well.

  13. Kristin V Brown says:

    Thank you Austin. It is important to consider different perspectives when viewing a situation. Concerning the Laborers in the Vineyard- I always thought it was comparing members of the church who were born in the covenant compared to converts. I thought I would add that point of view to the conversation.

  14. One of my favorites is the parable of The Idiot Who Traveled Alone through Robber-Infested Regions.

  15. Mr. Schmidt says:

    Wally, I laughed at that re-titling.

    Though, interestingly, it does raise its own modern-day application: what of those close to us (be it family or friends) who do things that are manifestly stupid (whether it be with finances, or other more weighty life choices)? Sure, the “idiot who traveled alone through robber-infested regions” suffered a natural consequence – but only the person who focused on the injury itself (and in healing it) seemed justified in the story. That still packs quite the punch in terms of life lessons to me, even before adding to that the samaritan-jew cultural layers.

  16. Michael Austin says:

    Wally, my personal favorite is “The Fat Calf Who Did Nothing Wrong and Got Killed Anyway for No Particular Reason” (pure Kafka). My second favorite is “The Sheep Who Finally Escaped the Fate of Becoming Mutton Stew but Got Hauled Back into Captivity by a Shepherd Boy Who Thought He Was Helping. “

  17. I loved Dr. Levine’s book on the parables and how it helped me see new ways of understanding familiar stories. When I taught the parables in Institute I asked the students who they identified with in each parable and why. Then I asked them to pick a different person to identify with. This led to a great discussion with all the new insights they gained.

  18. Both the ideas expressed in the post and the alternative titles being proposed in the comments are great, good job all around everyone.

  19. Pure Calfka

  20. Superb Michael. I love how often the parables resolution of common conundrums that don’t make sense to our perspective (the laborers all being paid the same) but do make sense from the standpoint of charity. Our tendency to make things make sense can divide rather than unite us can lead to a fencing of the beautiful tides of creation with dogma. Perhaps the most and only relevant thing we are supposed to learn here is how to love, even if it does not appear to make sense in whatever little box we are trying to inhabit. Thank you for this Message.

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