I spend a lot of time thinking about what I deserve and what other people don’t deserve.
I deserve money – I work hard.
I deserve recognition – I do great things.
I deserve affirmation – people should see what I do.
So much of what I feel I deserve comes from what I do. If I am being honest, most of my self worth comes from the things I do.
The books I help create.
The things I accomplish.
My spot on a flow chart.
I even get upset when I see someone with something I don’t have if I feel they haven’t earned it or don’t “deserve it.” And, the really twisted reality, is that a part of me – dare I admit this – I think that by doing more I can deserve God’s love, care, and providence more. I can earn something by doing something.
I’ve spent time a lot of time lately reflecting on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, at least, that is what we commonly call it. Older authorities referred to it as the “Parable of Two Brothers.” After all, there are three main characters in the story – the father, the younger son, and the older son. And I am realizing that I can learn as much from the older as I can from the younger. We usually focus on the younger brother in the story – the one that runs away, blows all of the money his dad gave him, then comes crawling back. We are like him.
We focus on the father and the great mercy he shows – desiring the same for ourselves.
But there is a lot to be learned from that older brother. The younger brother leaves, takes what is given by the father, and lives his life spending it all on sin. Meanwhile, the older brother dutifully stays home. He works the land. He obeys his father. He does all the right things. You could say that he is defined by what he does. All seems well – and with the younger brother out of the picture, the older brother is free to win all the praise, affirmation, and affection of the father.
But something happens. The younger son returns and the response of joy from the father is overwhelming. A party begins, but the older brother is left confused. He has been out in the field and hasn’t seen what happened.
Interesting – the younger brother was far away from home when he realized he needed to return, and the older brother is also away from home when he realizes something is happening. Both aren’t where they should be.
The older brother is frustrated when he finds out what is happening. He has spent years doing the right thing while the younger brother did all the wrong things. I bet he thought exactly as I would if I were in the same situation:
He doesn’t deserve it.
The older brother then gets angry with the father. He demands to know why he wasn’t even given a small party for being obedient to the will of the father but the younger son gets this massive celebration.
Then the father mic drops this line on the older son:
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
The sin of the younger brother is that he rejected the father’s heart. The sin of the older brother is that he never knew it to begin with. He spent years in the father’s house, but if he really loved the father he would’ve noticed a few things.
He would have seen the heartbreak of the father as the younger son asked for his inheritance, the father surely knowing what would happen next.
He would have observed the father often looking off in the direction of that “distant country” where the younger son traveled.
He would have taken note of the way the father would leave dinner only to stand at the front door waiting, sometimes for hours, every night, and how he rose early every morning hoping to see his son coming over the hill.
Instead, the heart of the older son never saw the heart of the father. He never really pursued it. The father, by his own words, had given his heart to both sons. He loved them equally and gave them everything. One took advantage of it and one neglected it. One tore the heart of the father out and the other never cared to learn more about the heart of the father, anyway.
The older brother was seeking a material reward and affirmation. But he wasn’t seeking the heart of the father. If he had been, he would have had a broken heart over the loss of his younger brother, because the father’s heart was broken. He would have stood waiting next to his father every night and every morning, praying that God would send his younger brother back safely.
Instead he reveled in his supposed righteousness as the good son. Until he learned about the love of a father the day his younger brother came home.
It is easier for me to be the older son. I want to follow the rules, go to Mass on Sunday, do nice things for God, perform acts of service. But it isn’t because I want to know the heart of the Father – too often I am trying to earn something.
After all of my work, I feel I deserve something.
Yeah, of course our reward is heaven but we also deserve something more tangible than that.
I deserve money.
I deserve prestige.
I deserve a comfortable life.
I expect a lot but I am quick to forget, like the older son, that I already have access to all that I could ever really need. I am in the father’s house. His words to the older son are also his words to me, “All that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). God the Father gives everything to us, and often we only need to ask (Matthew 7:7). But I don’t. I want to fulfill the motions but never know the Father’s heart. Because there is safety in just going through the motions but not entering into a relationship.
If I enter into relationship with the Father, then my heart would be transformed. My heart would become merciful like God the Father’s heart. I would suddenly begin to see people and desire their good, just like God. I would see those far off and hurting and react the way that God the Father does – with compassion. There is something dangerous there because knowing the Father’s heart means an end to my complacency. I would start to hurt with the father. I would stop talking about what I deserve or what someone else does not deserve. I would simply rejoice in God’s mercy and desire to share it. It means less of me. That is terrifying, but also liberating.
Because in the end, I don’t deserve God’s mercy. Neither do you. Yet, there it is – waiting.
To know the heart of God is to show God’s mercy, just as it has been shown to us (Matthew 5:7). The story of the Two Brothers ends with the older brother outside of the house, now he is the one that is lost. Just like you and I, he has a choice to make. Does he let go of pride and anger; does he stop trying to decide who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t, or does he embrace mercy? Do we embrace the heart of God, a relentless heart that desires all be saved, and become merciful ourselves? Our answer will determine if we step into the great feast, or remain lost outside in the cold.