We’ve all noticed the begrudging attitude that some people have toward those who gain an advantage without having paid the price that they themselves paid. Immediately they say, “Hey, that’s not fair! Why should they get that break without doing anything to earn it?” The fact that whatever the gain was in no way penalizes the complainer doesn’t seem to count for much. Actually it’s envy at work here — displeasure over someone else’s success. It’s a very limited concept of justice: Why should someone else get for free what I paid plenty for?
So what is it among us humans that we can so easily resent the good fortune of others? I do know that the question concerned Jesus; he addressed it in more than one of his parables. We just heard what could be the most famous of them all about the envy of an older son at his brother’s unearned reprieve.
What his younger brother got, without meriting it, was simply what the older brother had been enjoying right along in his life of faithful service to his father: it was the generous, tender love that that good man had lavished on both sons and which one of them shamefully betrayed. The older son was angry and resentful, not because their father forgave his wayward brother and opened his home and his heart unconditionally to him, but because no price was demanded of him, no penalty was imposed. It just wasn’t fair!
The older son failed to see that his brother had hurt himself more than anyone else. The father’s forgiveness was directed to a badly hurting son, no matter that the wounds were self-inflicted. (Maybe Jesus had his own approaching death in mind when he told this story: he would surrender his life, not only for the good and the blameless, but especially for those who were mired in their sinful ways.)
Jesus’ parables are better understood if we consider them under different headings or categories. Some (for example, those of the past few Sundays) belong under the heading of the cost of being a follower of Jesus. Today’s parable of the prodigal son and the forgiving father I would place in the category of God’s compassionate call to sinful persons, a title and an idea that might cause some people to grumble!
Jesus is a revolutionary; he says things that the world had never heard before. He confronts our normal ways of thinking and responding. What is acceptable to the world, he says, is not always a high enough standard for his followers.
When, just eighteen years ago, Carla Faye Tucker, the murderess, was executed by the State of Texas, even after the unquestionable conversion she had gone through in prison, many of us would have rejoiced had her life been spared and the mercy of God had been matched by the mercy of the courts. But then, how many others thought, “Good! She had it coming to her”?
The mercy of God far surpasses our human compassion. The lesson of Jesus’ touching story, it seems to me, is that we must learn to be happy whenever anyone, no matter his or her background, accepts God’s merciful forgiveness and tries to live a more human life of goodness and love. Whether the person moves toward that fuller life in God by an unbroken series of steps in the right direction, or at some point along the way is called out of evil to accept the gift of conversion, what in the end is the difference? All that matters is that eventually they – and all of us — consciously and deliberately live in the love of our God, as shown to us by Jesus.