The parable of the prodigal son has a lot to teach us. It can profoundly impact how we view relationships, forgiveness, repentance, pride, and the nature of God’s grace. But it should also instruct us in another way, by making us consider how we should think about money.
In Jesus’ parable, the younger son asked for his share of the family’s inheritance and, subsequently, traveled to a foreign country and squandered it on “wild living.” The younger son believed that wealth would allow him to escape from his circumstances and be freed. This reflects our own dominant cultural view that the surest path to freedom is money: those with the greatest financial means can exhibit the most freedom.
Misperceptions of Freedom
However, the prodigal son’s view of money and our culture’s view of money are rooted in an incorrect understanding of freedom. Contrary to popular belief, true freedom is not the absence of all constraints. Instead, it is about having the right constraints. This becomes obvious when we think of people or situations that tend to embody freedom.
Consider the great American road trip. It symbolizes the essence of freedom, but it’s not at all accurate to think of it as an escape from all constraints. Your car is not going to go far, and you are never going to experience much, if you don’t adhere to the confines of the road itself and basic traffic laws.
Even the most creative work is dependent on limitations and constraints. Budgets, deadlines, or highly specific restrictions around the process all help in managing energy and executing ideas. The projects most likely to fail are those which are completely open-ended with no deadlines. As Scott Belsky contends in his book, Making Ideas Happen:
“Brilliant creative minds become more focused and actionable when the realm of possibilities is defined and, to some extent, restricted.”
Watching great jazz musicians improvise together gives the appearance of total freedom from any limits. But even as they create beautiful music on the fly, the individual musicians are actually all adhering to the same basic rhythmic and melodic structures. Those structures are essential in order to play together.
The point is, even in these situations that seem (on the surface) to exemplify freedom and a lack of limitations, there are healthy limits and a certain framework that must be adhered to in order to be truly free.
The Centrality of Grace
It is also true, however, that most religions hamper true freedom because they are based on systems of rules and behavioral practices. They are about an endless pressure to perform; to earn God’s favor.
The prodigal son’s elder brother exemplifies this mindset. For his entire life, he has diligently obeyed his father’s orders, worked hard, and did what was expected of him. He believes he has earned his father’s favor, and he is furious when he learns that his father is planning a costly celebration in honor of his irresponsible younger brother’s return.
Unlike all other religions, the Christian faith is built on grace. It is not about being bound by an ever-growing set of rules but about God’s boundless grace and love for us.
When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus said it was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” And then, secondarily, “you should love your neighbor as yourself.” Christ declared that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. Notice they are not negative injunctions; these commands are positive visions for humanity centered around love as the defining action.
Leviticus 25:10 instructed God’s people to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” by returning all land to the original owners every 50th year. This was referred to as the year of “Jubilee.” In The Upside-Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill makes a strong case that the concept of Jubilee infused Jesus’ self-described identity and mission and cites Luke 4:18-19 as an example:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jubilee is meant to remind us that we are forgiven debtors. We were once oppressed. We were once captives. We were once slaves who are now freed. And our response, in turn, as followers of Jesus is to extend that grace and forgiveness to others.
Ultimately, the immense grace bestowed on us – as reflected by the father’s response toward his younger son – should propel us to show the same spirit of forgiveness and grace to others. This is evidenced when Jesus instructs us to ask our Heavenly Father to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” As Kraybill points out, “The Jubilee Principle of reciprocal forgiveness pervades the New Testament teaching.”
The more we are animated by the abundance of God’s grace and love for us, the more we will be motivated to extend generosity to others by following the pattern of God’s people who throughout history forgave debts, freed slaves, and returned land.
It is instructive to consider that Jesus had an entirely different economy than we do. He is not easily put into a box. The same son of God who did not have a place to lay his head and seemed relatively unconcerned about basic provisions beyond his daily needs was also one who encouraged feasts and celebration. His first miracle, after all, was to turn water into wine at a wedding that was already well underway. His frugality co-mingled with his extravagance.
Jesus showed us how to live in such a way that money is stripped of its power over us. In a culture obsessed with all of the trappings of wealth, he offers insight for how to smash the idol of money.
The beginning of Matthew 26 recounts the story of a woman who pours a very expensive bottle of ointment on the head of Jesus. When she did this, Judas Iscariot became indignant and asked why she would “waste” it like that and went on to lament how it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor instead. Jesus rebuked him and said she had done a good work for him and prepared him for his burial. How many of us would react similarly? (“Think of all the things we could do with that money!”)
At least part of the lesson here is that we should guard ourselves against the impulse to always have to maximize our returns on generosity. The giving in this story, much like that which Christ showed throughout the Gospel accounts, was grace-based. The woman understood the depth of her debt to Jesus and the extent of his grace and, as a result, she gave out of that same sense of grace – overflowing and uncalculating.
The minister and family wealth counselor Jay Link contrasts the ideal of “generous giving by faith” with a “legalistic giving by math.” He says we should avoid the three pharisaical inclinations: giving with guilt, giving legalistically to the penny, and giving with pride.
Instead, we need to be radicalized by gratitude. Father Aquinas Guilbeau explains that gratitude uproots us “from pride and self-centeredness.” It “requires a recognition of the debt we owe to others, which, touching the most important things in life – like life itself – is a debt we cannot repay.”
Freedom is evidenced when we voluntarily limit the amount of money we will spend on ourselves out of love for others and a life-shaping desire to be more generous. This is very different than asking how much scripture requires of us to give away in a law-based mentality about giving.
If you look at the myriad books and educational programs even from Christian financial gurus, they teach you to follow certain financial principles because… it will allow you to be debt free or financially secure or live your best life now, etc. Like the elder brother, they all adopt a law-based approach.
A gospel-based approach to money, on the other hand, says you follow certain financial principles because the story of Jesus Christ has so gripped your heart that your grip on money is loosened in ways that benefit you and others around you.
We don’t need more teaching about personal finance that sprinkles in Bible verses or Biblical principles; we need more teaching that starts with the gospel and, consequently, reshapes the way we relate to money. Ultimately, we don’t need good advice that informs us; we need the Good News that transforms us.
This excerpt is adapted from Chad Hamilton’s book Redefining Financial Freedom: A Gospel-Based Approach to Money (PFI Publishing 2016).