jesus, politics, justice, mission & life

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the older son in luke 15 and the sense of entitlement that comes with it.

I’ve been sitting on a new revelation from the Prodigal Son story for the past couple weeks.  I’ve processed it with a few people to get their opinions and I think I’m ready to type this thing out.

The sense of entitlement is destructive to followers of Jesus.  I find especially invasive among upper and middle-class believers.   It’s this attitude that says “I deserve this because…[I went to college, I worked hard to get where I am, I don’t do that, etc…].  I’ve known that this sense of entitlement is detrimental to the advancement of the Kingdom of God here on Earth and to the poor, the hopeless, misunderstood and socially unacceptable in the eyes of the world, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on any scripture that particularly addresses this.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

The story of a Father running out to welcome back his rebellious and estranged son isn’t new to anyone.  Whether you are a believer in Jesus or not, you have most likely heard the story.  Many major religions have their own version of this parable and the story has appeared numerous times in literature, music and art.

When the younger son, who has run squandered his inheritance from his father returns home, he is given a new robe, a ring on his finger, sandals, a fattened calf and a huge party to celebrate his return.  The elder son, who has lived to please his father and always acted accordingly, becomes upset that his younger, undeserving brother is to be celebrated.

Most people in the church have asked if they are the younger son.  Have we gone astray from our Heavenly Father?  Is he chasing after us?  Are we being irresponsible with the things our Father has given us? Furthermore, if you stick around a church long enough, the question will be turned and asked if you may be the older son.  Are you jealous of someone?  Are you pitying yourself when you should be celebrating the return of a prodigal son or daughter?

Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

All good questions but not ones I want to focus on.  My conviction is that the oldest son who stayed home and was obedient to his father in this story exemplifies this sense of entitlement and the younger son, who ran away, is representative of the oppressed.  I think of the offense the older brother felt when his little brother came back and his father threw a party for him and welcomed him home.  The older son believed his little brother didn’t deserve the fattened calf, the ring, the huge party and his father’s overwhelming love.  But the father doesn’t care that he is denying cultural normalcies, he’s just happy his son is back.  And it’s not even just that his son is back, it’s that his son will never be poor again, he will never be hungry again, he now has a roof over his head, etc.  The father says to the oldest son, that “…everything I have is yours (Luke 15:31),” but I would think this promise is for every child in the Kingdom.  As Bill Johnson says sometimes, “It doesn’t matter if you start working at the beginning of the day or the end of the day, you get payed the same (paraphrased).”

I also realize that the Prodigal Son parable and Johnson’s words are about the salvation Jesus offers, but I would say that they are applicable to this scenario as well.  All the Luke 15 stories (The Good Shepherd, The Good Woman and the Good Father) are demonstrations of how the Kingdom of God operates.  And if we are to pray “on earth as it is in Heaven,” then we also ought to be about Kingdom work and carrying out the narratives of Jesus here on Earth.

Anytime the argument that Jesus spent his time with the ‘least of these’ or anytime it’s pointed out that God always hears the cry of the oppressed, the issue of of fairness comes up among the offended.  For example, “Why should I have to pay more taxes so others can live better?  It’s not fair.”  Or the infamous “I worked hard all my life to get to where I am and others could have my success if they …fill in the blank… as well as I did.”  This argument comes out of a misunderstanding of what justice looks like in the Kingdom of God.  We view justice as we see it on Earth.  Our view of justice says that people get what they deserve.  And the people that don’t have what I have must not deserve it because …they haven’t worked as hard as I have, they don’t have the education I have, they don’t come from the family I come from, they squandered their wealth, they blew their chance… you get the idea.  But Jesus’ view of justice is different.  In the Kingdom of God, the one that doesn’t have the good education, the one that blew their chance or the one that didn’t work as hard toward a better life and failed because of it gets everything the Father has.  That’s how justice works with Jesus (plus he loves redemption stories).

I’m convinced that this is a bigger problem amongst believers that any other issue.  More that abortion or gay marriage…health care or spending.  Before any of these issues can be addressed in a Christ-like manor, the issue of entitlement, primarily amongst middle and upper-class believers, must be addressed.

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