Having recently had my grandchildren stay with us for a number of consecutive days, I am reminded again of the way that little children are competitive and keep score about everything. It probably doesn’t help that they are from a competitive lineage! But everything that is done is being carefully watched by the two oldest ones who have a highly-refined sense of equity radar.
What is equity radar (besides a phrase I coined about 15 seconds ago)? When you pour each a cup of milk, the grandkids don’t just look at how much they got, they evaluate how much it is compared to the other. And both of them generally felt they were on the short end at the same time. And if you give them a bowl of cherries, they are going to count them to make sure that each had the same number.
But it is not just children who think this way, so do adults – especially American adults who really believe that a certain amount of hard work should equal a commensurate amount of reward. Hard work should be rewarded; laziness or irresponsibility should come at a price. And the Scriptures do condone diligent and responsible work and fault slothfulness.
And so we can readily commiserate with the older son’s offense in the story of the prodigal son …
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The older brother is so angry with his younger sibling, that he had disowned him, calling him “this son of yours.” And the father picks up on the dig and returns the snarky statement back over the net by referring to him as “this brother of yours.”
If true to the culture of the day, the older brother probably was to get a two-thirds share of the estate; so the younger brother probably walked away from home originally with only one-third of the wealth. So, when keeping score, is that really fair?
Of course, the difference in the two sons is related to the issue of work diligence and faithfulness to the family. The older son does this, and the father acknowledges this to be true. And dad reminds his boy of the continuous ongoing blessings that were his on a daily basis to be used and enjoyed.
But the restored relationship of the genuinely repentant younger son was a joy to celebrate that was larger than any factoring of fairness and equity. This calls to mind another of the parables Jesus told about rewards – that parable of the workers in the vineyard who each work for an agreed upon wage, only to have those who work longer resent those who were equally paid for a shorter time. The application is that the issue of rewards is not as big as the issue of faithfulness. Each person should be faithful to their task, letting the rewards be the prerogative of God. Nobody is going to come up short or lacking in blessing or reward for faithfulness.
But still … it just doesn’t seem quite right! However, think of it this way: If God were to be truly fair with us, none of us would receive reconciliation with him. He would have been just to leave us in our sins and under the curse. But Jesus took that curse and paid the penalty, securing release of the consequences of eternal death. All of this was of grace, and we contributed nothing to it. So, how’s that for fair? If we are pleased to receive this grace, we should be pleased to see it extended to others, even those whose tally of sins may be larger than our own.
Discussion questions: Do you find yourself prone at any time to keep score and in some fashion saying to yourself, “I’m not perfect, but I’m certainly not as bad as that person?” What is your heart’s motivation for serving God – rewards, or gratitude for the one who first loved you so much?