Ah this difficult parable that I have grappled and struggled with for so many years. This parable that wounds me because one of my greatest failings is an ever present tendency to envy. It comes back regularly to test me and I have been through all sorts of emotions- guilt that I don’t find the idea of grace in it all that beautiful, an unconvincing attempt to focus it on my prodigality and see it as unconditional good news for the “prodigal” in me (but why then the older brother at the end?). A feeling of sadness and guilt toward the older brother type people in my life, the people who have not as obviously received undeserved blessings as I have. A conviction that I do after all side with the older brother that the exploitative and cynical parasites of this world take advantage of the good nature of God and the labour of the rest of us.
Which lengthy battle shall I recreate in my blog this week? Which angst to plunge into.
Prayer has yielded a simple and clear truth. Envy is a defining sin in my life, it is a daily struggle not to be so consumed by it that I fail and make excuses because other people seem better off. But then I don’t think I am alone in the temptation to let envy rule my relationships and decision making. Look at how grudging we as a society have become, how keen to sniff out welfare “cheats” and refugees who may be trying to take advantage of us. Look at how bitterly we fight against a generosity which we might see as too much, try to protect our borders against prodigal brothers who might destroy our way of life which we deserve.
That word deserve, deserve, deserve….like the older brother who has risen before dawn daily and suffered the lines of weather and time on his face and his tired hands. All should be his, he is the only one who has been faithful and worked. And in faith, by our vocation we may feel like that too…why does God deal so kindly with those who squander what we work for and do not appreciate our labours and throw our faithfulness in our faces. Such as the patriarchal church. What a bitter pill to swallow at times that God still deals with them and forgives them.
I hated this reading for years for that, for showing me my own parsimonious meanness. I do not want to be taken advantage of. I want to reward I DESERVE and do not want some parasite taking part of it (ironic when you look at just how much I myself have been a recipient of other people’s free generosity). But it is lent a time for turning again to the apparently familiar and seeing it differently (repentance). A time of creativity and change a time of rekindling truth and love and growing toward God’s harvest.
So God turns me around to this reading and says “read it again envious one” and I read ti through to the bitter end to see the punishment to be meted out for my sin, the sin of envy. And that is precisely where I have not ever paid attention before! There’s no sort of punishment or cruelty here from God…no sort of bitter justice against my sin of envy. The “father” (not my favourite metaphor) says “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”. That is the unerodible reward that I have if I have (infrequently) got up before dawn and laboured according to my vocation, if I have tried to avoid sin and temptation and done what I think is better for God’s reign on earth or eternally.
God has already given, eternally conferred to “always” and the “everything” on our faithfulness just as much as God has already welcomed with open arms our unfaithfulness (and that is the other point of the story, that each of us is both brothers). So when the jealous stirrings see someone else’s need for grace as a threat to what we have, God gently consoles us reminding us of “always” and “everything”.
That is my challenge this lent, to avoid all the despairs of the world and of my life and to focus and refocus every moment on the “always” and the “everything” that is mine when I turn to God. Anything God asks of me is asked out of an infinite abundance, replenishing anything lost. My vocation to be kinder, more human, more just may seem like duty but inbuilt into it is the joy of God’s “always” and the wealth of God’s “everything”.
No place to be grudging, we have lost brothers and sisters to reclaim and feed!