4 min. to read.
Today is the 26th day of Lent. Luke 15:11-32 is the scripture today, the story we call “The Prodigal Son.”
Today we pause in our walk toward Jerusalem to reflect on Jesus’ greatest parable. It may be the most important religious text in all of history. We most frequently refer to it as the parable of the prodigal son. It would be more accurate to call it the parable of the two lost sons (for both sons are lost in different ways), or even the parable of the generous father (for it is the father’s choices in this story that overthrow everything we thought we knew).
I won’t summarize the story here because to recount it well means to tell the whole story. You ought to just go and read it. Find it here in the NRSV for a solid academic translation or here in the Message for a vibrant paraphrase. Read it slowly, and then come back here for one short thought.
This story does many things, but I’d like you to consider just this one. In this story, Jesus turns our ideas about merit upside down.
Merit is of grave concern to most of us and has been ever since as toddlers we learned the word “Mine!” We want to know that people deserve what they have and that they deserve what’s coming to them. We want to make sure no one can take away what we’ve earned. When others are in need, sometimes we focus on whether or not they’ve earned or deserve help. When we tell stories about who God loves and why, or attempt to explain God’s judgment, we often work hard to make sure it’s quite clear that, in the end, people get what’s coming to them. (Even if that runs counter to our official theology!)
The two sons in this story believed this same thing. They both thought that what matters most is merit. The son who took his inheritance and ran away believed it. When he returned after embarrassing himself and shaming his family, he knew he deserved nothing from his father. He was sure he had disqualified himself from even being a son. The son who worked hard in the fields believed it. When he saw that his brother was getting something other than punishment, he was bitter and angry. He was unwilling to even participate in a celebration his brother didn’t deserve.
The father saw things differently. For the father, the most important thing was love, and in this case, love manifested in reconciliation. Love does not take its cues from merit. It’s not portioned out and awarded to those who deserve it.
The runaway son was surprised by love. He came home convinced his choices disqualified him from receiving his father’s generosity. He knew in his heart that he didn’t deserve it. He expected to be treated as he deserved. The hard-working son was surprised by love. He was convinced his faithfulness and effort had qualified him to receive his father’s generosity. He knew in his heart that he deserved it. He expected to be treated as he deserved.
Both sons were wrong. They both believed what mattered most in the world and to their father was merit. They made their choices based on their ideas about merit. Their emotional reactions were a result of what they believed about merit. For both of them, these ideas about merit impeded intimacy with their father and even with each other.
Merit wasn’t on the father’s mind at all. What was? Love. The father loved his children simply because they were his children. He wanted to be in relationship with them, regardless of their choices.
Lent invites us to stop looking at ourselves and others through the lens of merit. This way is life.