I’ve spoken quite a bit from the ’Tale of Two Sons’ in Luke 15 over the past while and a few weeks ago I enjoyed reading Henri Nouwen’s reflection on the story: The Return of the Prodigal Son. While there’s the odd bit that causes me to raise my evangelical eyebrows, there are some rich and stimulating insights into the spiritual life.
Take the issue of comparison.
Nouwen reflects that while the father is glad to receive the younger son back, he does not forget the older son. However the older son is bitter and can only see that the younger son is getting more attention than him. Nouwen writes that the father’s heart ‘is not divided into more or less.’
As Nouwen points out, we live in a world that compares people, ranking them on various scales. So when we hear about someone else’s goodness or kindness, we are left to wonder if we are less good or kind than they are. We measure ourselves against others.
I cannot fathom how all of God’s children can be favourites. And still, they are.
I wonder how often we catch ourselves in comparison mode. More, I wonder those of us who are involved in some area of public Christian ministry fall into the trap. Why is that other preacher more popular than me? Why does that worship leader get invited to the big events? Why does God seem to send more people to that other church? Would I not have done a better job if I had been asked to write that series of magazine articles? Why does no one ever ask me to lead anything when other, less capable people seem to get all the opportunities?
Any of that sound familiar?
Nouwen connects this theme with the (puzzling?) parable (Matthew 20) of the workers who are paid the same amount even though they work for different amounts of time. It’s certainly a puzzle. Some people work all day, some work most of the day, some work half of the day and others only work an hour or three. But they are all paid the same amount. Hardly ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’, is it? Not in the eyes of the guys who have worked all day, at any rate. According to Jesus, they have nothing to quibble about: they agreed to work for one day for one day’s pay. Hard to argue with that. But their problem (and ours, probably) is that they don’t think it’s fair that the one hour brigade should get the same amount of pay. What the landowner criticises them for is that they have allowed themselves to be envious because he has chosen to be generous. It’s not that he has been unjust towards them, it’s just that he has been very generous to everyone else!
Nouwen wonders what if the landowner had supposed that the workers would have been grateful to have had the opportunity to work and ‘even more grateful to see what a generous man [the landowner] is’?
God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little bit are as much loved as those who accomplish much.
Which leads on to a quotation I posted a few weeks ago, on bitterness and resentment.
As long as I keep looking at God as a landowner, as a father who wants to get the most out of me for the least cost, I cannot but become jealous, bitter, and resentful toward my fellow workers or my brothers and sisters.
Which in turn leads us back to the story of the elder son in Luke 15. His confrontation with his father at the end of the story carries echoes of the ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ mentality. ‘I’ve slaved away for you, what have you ever done for me.’
And as long as you and I think like that, we are unlikely to revel in God’s grace. Instead we will be in danger of becoming resentful and closed-fisted, score-keepers and traffic wardens.
Hardly stunning representatives of the Lord Jesus!