Thursday, March 15, 2007

Losing out by envy

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the powerful parable of the younger son, who, having demanded and been given his inheritance, squanders it.  The young man indulges in dissolute behavior and ignores his father and his family. When the gift has long been spent and gone, he is caught up in a famine in the countryside, and in order to live must do things repugnant to him, including feeding pigs.  Finally, he is broken and repentent, and returns to his father's house. He asks for forgiveness; his father forgives and welcomes him with a celebration.
It's a very familiar story. And for many of us, the next lines are just as familiar: "Now the man's 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 [the elder brother] becamse 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 working 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.'"  (Luke 15:25-30)
With whom do you identify: the elder or younger son? We who have been nominally faithful -- baptized young, biweekly or weekly church attenders, givers of a portion of our income -- often find ourselves siding with the elder brother. The dutiful one. The one who has never left his father's side.  The one who does everything and receives nothing.
What cheek! What utter gall!  From our Father's perspective, we too may be said to have squandered our inheritance and chosen to live with pigs.  Have we used our gifts, fully and to God's glory? Is the earth unspoiled and clean? Are our brothers and sisters cared for? Are any in prison whom we have not visited? 
The envy we feel is a denial of our own sorry state of sinfulness.  How much better it would be for us if we identified with the younger brother, who was humble enough to return and ask for forgiveness, rather than the elder, who through his own envy nearly missed out on the party!

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