Our Prodigal Sons

Acceptance of our Brothers and Sisters
Key to Ending Homelessness

David BrooksAs we work to end homelessness and ensure that everyone who needs permanent supportive housing is able to secure a place to call home, we are often confronted by NIMBYism and the ‘lecturing” of the older brother.

The Prodigal Sons by David Brooks, in today’s New York Times, articulates how we can “apply the father’s wisdom to social policy-making today.”

We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: “You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.”

The truth of the parable of the Prodigal Son is clearly outlined by Brooks:

But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.

The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.

The lesson is clear for us:

The father’s lesson for us is that if you live in a society that is coming apart on class lines, the best remedies are oblique. They are projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or a congregation.

The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship.

On our website we have often spoken about the contributions that those who were homeless have made once they have a place to call home.

Thus, this is the Festive Meal, when all of our brothers and sisters have a place to call home, that what we all desire. It is only when we are all accepted, that we have the opportunity to contribute and build a stronger and healthier community.