Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe - the best one - and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And the began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been workingn like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who had devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'
Ah, the story of the prodigal son. A story that is well- known by most Christians and yet one that I find gives new insight every time we hear it. Jesus had a way of doing that with the parables he told.
This week I find myself focusing on the elder son in the story. His younger brother has returned home after squandering his entire portion of their father's money, and not only is he welcomed back with open arms, he is celebrated. I empathize with the older brother at this point. He reacts the way I think a lot of us would have - the way I know I would have. He basically screams "That's not fair!" I mean, he's not wrong. The older brother stayed home, he worked hard, he was loyal to their father and dedicated his life to him. And what did that get him? Well, a pretty decent life. But not the fatted calf, not a party with his friends, not early access to his father's money. Clearly, if we are calculating what the older brother deserves against what the younger brother deserves, the older brother deserves a heck of a lot more.
In today's world, I think we do this calculation of what other people "deserve" a lot in our conversations about how society should work. We want to reform welfare because people who aren't "deserving" might be getting something they shouldn't. We don't want to have universal healthcare because then people who don't "deserve" it (for whatever reason) might get it and that's just not fair. We want to drug test people who receive food stamps because if you use drugs you don't "deserve" help with food. We all, like the older brother, want to make sure we are getting ours and that the younger brothers of the world aren't getting more than they deserve.
And yet. This story from Jesus shows us that that's not how God works. With God, it isn't about what we deserve or don't deserve; God's love, grace, and mercy are poured out on all of us regardless. Which is a good thing, really, because we could never do enough to "deserve" what God gives us. When we accept this gift, part of becoming a follower of Christ means turning around and giving that gift to others. It means stopping these discussions about who deserves what and instead giving all that we can to all those in need regardless of whether or not we think they deserve it. And it means helping to shape a society that operates that way as well.
God of us all, undeserving as we are, we give thanks for all that you give us. We accept your love, grace and mercy poured out on us, and pray that we will allow it to change our lives. Part of that change is for us to turn around and pour out that same love, grace, and mercy on all the people we encounter. Help us to do so, in Jesus' name. Amen.