POLITICALLY CORRECT PARABLES

FEBRUARY 22, 1998
R.M. FEWKES



Robert Martin Walker, a United Methodist minister, turned full-time writer, has written an amusing little book called POLITICALLY CORRECT PARABLES, published in 1996, which has been quite popular in religious circles. He no doubt got the idea from another writer, James Finn Garner, who wrote a best-selling book a few years ago on POLITICALLY CORRECT BEDTIME STORIES . The rationale for Walker's book is to show the contrast between the values of our presumably "politically correct" culture and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Walker notes that "in the mouth of Jesus, the parables are set against the primary form of first-century political correctness: Pharisaism." His book is meant to be "a satire of modern pharisaism (political correctness taken to an extreme)." What Walker does is to both re-title and recast the parables of Jesus in modern politically correct language. The result is both humorous and instructive. One sees immediately how absurd the "politically correct" point of view is when contrasted with the original intent of the ancient Biblical stories.

The story of the Good Samaritan becomes "The Generosity-Gifted Samaritan." The parable of the The Prodigal Son becomes "The Negative-Attention-Getting Son." The story of The Lost Sheep becomes "The Geographically Dislocated Sheep", while the story of The Unjust Steward becomes "The Ethically Impaired Stewperson." The parable of The Pharisee and the Publican becomes "The Humility-Impoverished Pharisee And The Marginalized Publican", while the story of the distribution of The Talents becomes "The Differently Abled Enslaved Persons." I think you get the picture. Walker also puts politically correct language into the mouth of Jesus so that he says things like: "Those who are aurally challenged, let them hear", or "Do this and you will never be terminally inconvenienced."

Let's take a look at what Walker does with some of the parables. Just as Jesus gave his stories a kind of surprise twist to show the difference between conventional morality and the justice and mercy of God so does Walker give the parables a new twist with politically correct endings that tickle the funny bone and show us the absurdity of our all too common cultural thinking and behavioral practice. In his retelling of "The Good Samaritan" Walker has Jesus ask the lawyer who was present, "Which of the three persons was the most sensitive to the male Jewish person's needs?" The lawyer at first answers, "I wish I could have found that injured person myself and sued those morally different persons", but then reluctantly gives the correct answer, "The one who was generosity-gifted." When Jesus tells him to "Go and do likewise", the lawyer immediately runs down to the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road and begins looking for victimized persons (potential clients) so that he could enhance his income. Which is exactly what Danny DeVito does in the film based on John Grisham's novel, The Rainmaker, by hanging out at the local hospital to talk to accident victims and their families.

In the original parable of "The Prodigal Son" the central teaching of the story was that God was merciful and forgiving like the figure of the father in the parable who was ready to forgive his wayward son just as soon as his son was ready to return to him with genuine penance. You will remember that the Prodigal's older brother who had remained behind and been loyal to his father for many years was really miffed that his father had killed the fatted calf (in Walker's version the "weight-challenged calf") and thrown a party to celebrate his brother's return to the fold. When the father pleads with his older son to come into the party he really lets the old man have it....(Here's the Politically Correct Version):  "Stop this rescuing behavior! For all these years I have been...obedient and morally responsible. Yet, you have never given me a scorched animal carcass so that I might party with my friends. But, when this negative-attention-getting son of yours comes home, after wasting your money on waged sex workers, you throw him a party! That's the most dysfunctional, codependent act I've ever heard of."

Walker concludes the parable by having "the chronologically gifted son" immediately make "an appointment for his father with a therapist specializing in codependency." From the point of view of those trying to get out from under the throes of codependent enabling behavior the parable of the Prodigal Son is not about the virtues of tough love, but rather about the foolishness of cheap grace. In this politically correct version the father needs to pay attention to the protestations of his older son and to set limits to the munificence of his mercy.

Do any of you remember the story of "The Rich Man And Lazarus" (here retitled "The Financially Exploitative Person And The Economically Disadvantaged Person")? Lazarus is a poor beggar at the gate covered from head to toe with herpeslike sores. The Rich Man, who gained his wealth "at the expense of the underwaged" is full of pride and is not willing to give even a few coins to the poor sick Lazarus. It so happened that the two died on the same day, Lazarus from an infection of his sores, the economically advantaged person from "a myocardial infraction brought on by cholesterol-challenged arteries."

As expected the rich man goes to hell and the poor man goes to heaven. The rich man lies in torment in the fires of hell and looks up into heaven and sees Abraham and Lazarus enjoying the comforts of heavenly cuisine. Calling out through parched lips he begs for mercy: "Ancestor Abraham. Be mercy-abled toward me. Please allow Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in his chilled chardonnay and cool my tongue. I am comfort-deprived down here." Abraham tells him that because he had once ignored "marginalized and differently abled persons like Lazarus" (who had formerly been "underhoused, food-deprived, and involuntarily leisured") their roles have now been reversed.

Up to this point Walker's politically correct version of the parable follows the biblical version fairly closely. But then he gives it a new twist. Here the formerly financially exploitive person cries out in anger: "What's wrong with this picture?! I, a productive member of society, am being eternally punished and Lazarus, a bum, is being rewarded!" Abraham tells him that "there is no need for verbal abuse or insensitivity." The rules governing the afterlife were not set by him but by the Higher Power who has established "a vast chasm" between them "that cannot be crossed." He then asks Abraham if he can have an audience with the Higher Power. "When can I speak to Him?" he pleads. Now here comes the zinger: "Probably never," replies Abraham, " since you just made an egregious gender faux pas by referring to the Higher Power in masculine terms! She has better things to do with Her time than listening to the whining of a chauvinist like yourself."

Feeling much abashed the exploiter chauvinist asks that Lazarus be sent to the male siblings in his family to warn them that the Higher Power is female. "It's too late for that", says Abraham. "Their social conditioning has already biased them against thinking of the Divine as having feminine qualities." Well, at least suggest to them they might "become gender-neutral in their image of the Higher Power." Finally, Abraham says sadly, "Gender-neutrality isn't good enough. They must be cured of their masculism if they are to have any hope." As you can see, Robert Walker enjoys making fun of the new theological fads in our society and milks them for all their worth. As if God/Goddess/ or the Eternal Ground of Being really cared enough about our gender images of the divine to send us to hell for not getting it right.

Let's take a look at the parable of "The Talents" or "The Differently Abled Enslaved Persons." The Master of the House, a capitalist, is going on a long journey. He gives to each of his three servants a sum of money--to the first he gives five coins or talents, to the second three talents, and to the third one talent. He asks them to take care of his money and to invest it wisely so that he may be recompensed upon his return. The first servant or five-talent enslaved person invests it in the Jerusalem Commodity Exchange and "trades futures contracts on the carcasses of nonhumyn animals." The pork-belly market goes wild and he doubles his investment. The second servant also doubles his money by investing in metal futures just before the price of gold shoots up. The one-talent servant was risk-averse, having had a difficult childhood and parents who were negative savers, and so she hides her talent under the mattress, "not even trusting an interest-bearing bank account insured by the FDIC."

When the master returns he is over-joyed at the wise investment of his talents by his first two servants--"Well done my financially abled and loyalty-gifted enslaved persons!" he tells them and generously doubles their wages. When the one-talent servant reports that she took no chances of losing her master's single coin and returns it to him just as she had received it the master capitalist hits the roof and exclaims: "Are you mentally challenged as well? Haven't you heard of the concept of 'opportunity cost?' Take her talent and give it to the enslaved person who is now investing ten talents for me. As for this value-impoverished womyn, throw her out! She can see what it's like to be non-waged."

That's where the original version of the parable ended. But Walker adds a new chapter to the tale:  "The one-talent enslaved person wasn't as mentally challenged as the capitalist thought. She immediately went to the ACLU and filed a lawsuit against the capitalist for sexual harassment. She eventually won a settlement of eight talents and used part of the money to buy her freedom. She used the remaining talents, still a large sum, to set up a consulting practice specializing in helping risk-averse enslaved persons maximize their investment returns."

I've always felt sorry for the poor servant who didn't want to take chances on losing his master's money and thought it grossly unfair that his single coin be given to the one who now had ten. It violated my egalitarian sensibilities and seemed like it was advocating taking from the poor and giving to the rich much like certain politicians who support a tax-break program that favors those in the higher-income brackets, a redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. Walker helps to balance the ledger on this score, but I'm not sure I like his method of using the charge of sexual harassment as a way to get rich quick at the expense of capitalists or presidents who make the mistake of mixing sex and politics. I wonder what Jesus would say.

Just for the fun of it let's do one more, the parable of "The Laborers in the Vineyard" or "The Differently Waged Persons." This is another one of Jesus' parables that I had problems with similar to the one above. In this story the owner of a Vineyard hires some migrant workers to pick his grapes. The workers agree to work from morning to the end of the day for the usual daily wage of one denarius. Later in the day around noon time he hires some more workers and agrees to pay them a fair wage even though they won't be working a full day. He makes the same offer to some workers at 3:00 in the afternoon, and then again to yet other workers at 5:00 P.M., only one hour before sun down. At the end of the day when it comes time to settle accounts and pay his workers, the owner of the vineyard decides to pay all his workers the same wage--one denarius, whether they worked the whole day, part of the day, or only an hour.

As you can imagine, "this especially galled those who worked from sunrise to sunset." So, "they organized a delegation and approached the owner."   Walker continues his version: "'We wish to lodge a grievance. You paid us the same as those who worked only one-half hour! Where's the economic justice in this?' The owner calmly replied, 'Where did you acquire this entitlement mentality? Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? I haven't done anything unfair. If I choose to pay those hired last the same, that's none of your business. Or, would you restrict my right to use my money in the way I see fit?' But the workers complained, 'If you want to throw away your money, why don't you throw some our way? What's equal isn't always fair!' They started to invade the owner's personal space by getting in his face."

So the owner defended his choice by saying, "What do you know about fairness?" He argued that the workers whom he had hired later were "differently abled with various physical challenges", some were even "chronologically advantaged", while others were "undocumented residents" who almost never got hired. "What I have instituted", he declared, "is a system of economic equality based on need rather than merit. I call it, 'the last will be first and the first will be last'."  Here is where Robert Martin Walker adds a new twist to the ending of the parable: "The disgruntled workers backed away from the owner, regrouped and held a meeting. They discussed the various possibilities for resolving their grievance with the owner, ranging from violent revolution to passive acceptance. Finally, they came to a consensus. 'We have carefully considered your "last will be first" philosophy and have found merit in it. We will show up for work at five o'clock tomorrow afternoon. See you then.' The owner was rendered speechless by their clever manipulation of his system of economic equality. Unfortunately, he had no recourse, as he had no intention of picking the grapes himself."

Of course, the point of this parable when Jesus first told it was not about the economic practice of the owners of grape vineyards, but about the grace and mercy of God which is not based on merit, but on divine forgiveness and compassion. Universalists used to argue that salvation was for all regardless of merit. Life is pure gift both here and hereafter, whether we are saints or sinners or a mixture of both, whether we realize early or late that we all have inherent worth and dignity, no less at the beginning of the day than at the end. As a formula for doing business, however, and giving workers their just due, this parable is surely a formula for labor troubles and grievances and cause for the formation of unions versus management.

I think I enjoyed Robert Martin Walker's "Politically Correct Parables" almost as much or even more than the original parables. In any event they should give us pause to reflect that what is politically correct is not always the best moral or spiritual practice. Sometimes it may be better to be politically incorrect with the other Bill and his circle of impolitic guests than politically correct with a gaggle of holier-than-thou self-appointed Pharisees who know they are right. Remember, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, or to put it another way, "all who are humility-impoverished will be equalized and all who are humility-gifted will become self-actualized."

Give us a sense of humor, O God. Teach us to laugh at ourselves and our pretensions of self-importance. Laugh at us and with us. Let the medicine of thy mirth heal while it stings. Dispel the humidity of our self-concern. When our thoughts grow tiresome, teach us to laugh with thee, until we shatter the tinkling goblets of our ego and pride, and we find ourselves at last at home with ourselves and thee. Amen.