I’ve been thinking a lot about the Prodigal Son’s brother lately – you know, the guy who complained to his father that he had done everything right in his life but had received zero recognition for it, whereas his ne’er-do-well sibling had squandered his inheritance away yet somehow had merited the red-carpet treatment after having an 11th-hour epiphany.
Ken Langone, the founder of Home Depot, reminds me of the ruffled brother.
Langone took umbrage recently when Pope Francis reflected on the deification of money and the “economy of exclusion” in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium.” By extension, Langone seemed to believe, the pope was failing to recognize the good works performed by him and his friends, when they were doing everything right!
Langone, a devout Catholic, daily communicant and major donor to Catholic causes, feared the Argentinian-born pope was lumping together all the world’s wealthy and was unaware of how historically generous American Catholics were. But watch out, Langone said. That generosity might evaporate overnight if the pope continued on his track of challenging people of means; American Catholics might think twice about making donations to the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral – and presumably to other Catholic endeavors – if the Holy Father didn’t let up.
How powerful is the human craving for credit and attention!
Funny. It is socially acceptable to paint the working poor with a broad brush – to say they are a monolithic group of “lazy” or “unambitious” people. No one says a peep. But broad-brush the economically successful – suggest they are anything less than benevolent or could be doing even more with their wealth – and people get prickly.
Langone has nothing to worry about, because he is a faithful and generous man. Also, the pope never said he wanted to dismantle capitalism or punish those who benefited from it; he was merely asking the faithful to reflect on the types of business dealings in which the quest for larger and larger profit margins slashes workforces, denies a just wage to employees and endangers the environment. These concerns are nothing new, given that the dignity of work, a fair wage and care for God’s creation are all tenets of Catholic social teaching.
Home Depot’s employees seem to be a happy lot who enjoy superior working conditions and adequate pay, so why was Langone so vocal about his concerns that the pope is lumping him in with insensitive tycoons?
Perhaps it is because all of us – not just the super wealthy – continually need to be reminded of two difficult Christian teachings:
In Matthew 6, Jesus addresses the human craving for earthly recognition by giving us a stunning lesson on almsgiving: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them” or “blow a trumpet” to win the praise of others, Jesus instructs. If we go public about the good we have done, we have already received our reward. Rather, Christ says, do good “in secret,” and your heavenly Father will reward you.
If the teachings in Matthew 6 are hard to swallow, how much more so is it for us to emulate the actions of the poor widow in Mark 12, who placed a couple of coins into the treasury? Although the well-off people in the parable had contributed larger amounts, Christ contends the widow put in “more” than all of them combined because “she from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood,” while the wealthy had “contributed from their surplus.”
We’re supposed to give – to give until it hurts, to give even when we don’t get a gold star for it.
These are challenging lessons for all of us, not just Langone. There are always opportunities to do more for the least of our brothers and sisters and to perform those actions quietly. The path to holiness is a lifelong one and we must push ourselves further even when we think we’ve done our good deed for the day or the year.
At the end of the day, you can say this about the pope who has taken the world by storm: With all the blowback he’s been getting by simply preaching Jesus’ message, you get a small sense of the blowback Jesus received during his time as rabbi – teacher.
It is always jarring when someone holds up a mirror to the human condition. When Christ did this, it made people so uncomfortable they nailed him to a cross.
So, may we always listen to the messages of our prolific Holy Father with open hearts. Let us be humble enough to find the merit in his teachings, which most assuredly will always be 100 percent Christ-based.
Sure, we should continue to dig deeper into papal teachings among ourselves; but please, let us never reflexively nail Pope Francis and his message to a cross like some gaggle of modern-day Pharisees.
Beth Donze can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.