A happy and blessed Monday morning to you. We pray this will find you full of hope and joy, and eager to step into this new week. We’re halfway to Easter in our passage through Lent.
PRAYER: (from the United Methodist Hymnal, #268)
O God our deliverer, You led Your people of old through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now the people of Your church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. AMEN.
SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)
“The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’” (Luke 15:28-30, The Message)
“Part of me is the prodigal; part of me is the other brother. But I think the heart of me is really somewhere between them…” —opening lyrics to Always Have, Always Will, by Avalon.
“Oh you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need…” —The Rolling Stones
Begrudging God’s Grace?
Begrudge. v.tr. 1. To envy or resent the pleasure, possessions, or good fortune of another. 2. To look upon with disapproval. Synonyms: ache (for), covet, crave, desire, die (for), hanker (for or after), hunger (for), itch (for), jones (for), long (for), lust (for or after), pant (after), thirst (for), want, wish (for), yearn (for).
Most of us will confess to being the prodigal at least once in our lives. We understand what it means to stand in need of mercy. Because we can relate, we know what it feels like to receive grace that we have neither earned nor deserve. All of us should come before God like this.
Yet we often gawk at the Prodigal’s brother. Who was this guy? Why was he so sullen? Why did he begrudge his father’s unrestrained joy over his brother’s return?
Should it surprise us to learn it is he, not the prodigal, who we are most like?
What is it in our human condition that inclines us to resent acts of grace bestowed on others, who, by definition, are undeserving? Let’s call this The Other Brother Syndrome, or TOBS. (In the interest of being fair and balanced, we can label the prodigal as having Wandering Son Disorder, or WSD—but it is upon TOBS we will focus this Monday.)
How many times have we witnessed an act of grace that benefitted someone we know, and instead of applauding with a grateful and generous heart, we turned our eyes towards heaven and cried, “Hey, what about ME???” (“You never gave ME a goat so I could celebrate with MY friends!”)
Jealousy. Envy. A latent, unrequited sense of justice. The Monday Prayer introduces a word that expresses this unbecoming emotion: Begrudgery. [We coined this ourselves, then discovered after the fact that the same word is used in Ireland in roughly the same context—TMP].
Maybe we don’t want what someone else got, necessarily. But we do begrudge them if they got something good that we feel they didn’t deserve, or if they didn’t receive something bad that we’ve decided they did deserve. Then we preen and ask—well, what about justice? (Read: what about ME?) Sometimes grace seems so—well, so unfair. Like with the prodigal.
In this parable, Jesus is addressing a group of people that included some Pharisees and Hebrew scholars full of begrudgery that Jesus was hanging out with “sinners and tax collectors”. If any of these esteemed religious leaders had ever had WSD, they were cured now. Wild living and cavorting with godless foreigners were for other, lesser, people, thank you very much. The Pharisees meant to keep WSD and anyone with it far away from their synagogue (you see, that just isn’t done in this synagogue…). In their quest for righteousness, they had become blind to the always-subtle sin of pride.
Jesus wasn’t trying to contradict or undermine the Pharisees’ desire for holy living. But He was trying to warn them away from their pride, to open their eyes to the full scope of God’s grace, to remind them not to resent grace meant for others.
TOBS is not limited to this parable.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Matt. 20:1-16). At sunrise, the landowner sends a group of workers into his vineyard to work for that day, and he agrees to pay them a full day’s wage for their labor. At 9:00 a.m., he hires some more laborers for the same wage. He hires more at noon, and still more at 3:00 in the afternoon. He hires some just before quitting time, at 5:00. When it’s time to pay the workers, everyone gets paid the same amount. And the early birds begin singing a tune of begrudgery:
“These who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
But the landowner answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?
Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Even Jonah begrudged God’s mercy on the Ninevites. Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what the Ninevites did, and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Jonah replies in words that could have been uttered by The Other Brother (Jonah 4:1-4):
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
The truth is, and our point today is, we are all tempted by the same begrudgery that The Other Brother succumbed to. Being gracious, or being generous about grace, just isn’t part of our human nature. But it is God’s nature, and it is part of the new nature He is laboring to build within us. In this week’s Prayer we ask God to, “Guide now the people of Your church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come.” Amen.
One of our first steps in this new nature, towards the glorious world to come, is to celebrate what God celebrates. Look at the Father’s response to TOBS:
1. “My son.” [beloved, trusted child in whom I take great pleasure]
2. “You have always been with me.” [It is not your work that I cherish–it’s you]
3. “All that I have is yours.” [I have made available to you all of my resources]
4. “You and I had to celebrate and be glad (the original Greek verb tense is imperative), because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” [The celebration is for MY joy, not for his benefit. Please share it with me…]
We repeat, for emphasis—it was the father’s celebration.
The Gospel of Luke records three parables in quick succession where there is great celebration over something of value has been lost and is now found.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-7):
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”
The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10):
“Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’”
In the first story the lost item is a lamb; in the second it’s a coin. And then there’s the Parable of the Lost Son. The Prodigal Son.
You see, the Other Brother had everything in the bag. Fighter pilots use the expression “suitcased”. He had patiently waited for his reward while his impatient brother had demanded and then squandered his. He had been obedient where his prodigal brother had been disobedient, respectful and not disrespectful, faithful and not unfaithful.
And then he compared himself to his brother.
He was proud of his relative goodness. He became blind to anything but his own feelings. He justified that in the language of who deserved what. And anytime you start talking about what you deserve you exit the realm of grace. What a short step from patience to impatience, from respect to disrespect, from faithfulness to unfaithfulness. Who had WSD now?
TOBS Christians are big on keeping rules. They’ve been working hard in the church and think they deserve recognition or reward for their service. They don’t bring “sinners” to church. They don’t bring them into their home, either. They probably don’t even know any hard-core lost souls. But we should.
This is what Jesus was warning the Pharisees about. This is what Jesus is warning us about.
The Lectionary scriptures this week can be summarized in three short points.
1. We continue to misunderstand the nature of Grace.
2. Our struggle still boils down to pride vs. humility.
3. There but for the grace of God…
It’s Monday Morning. Our prayer for you this week—and we hope your prayer for us—is that you may walk through this wilderness free of begrudgery, with an attitude of joy. Be happy. Walk smartly into the new week with an expectation of celebration.