Today’s sermon from Luke 15:11-32… the passage from the Bible against wish I reckon anything else we say about God should be tested!
Anne and I have always raised our eyebrows when we hear people use the word ‘deserve’ or talk in ways that use the concept. For us the idea that we deserve anything is anti-gospel… it is the opposite of grace… it is ungodly. The idea that we deserve or merit anything defies the teachings of the scriptures, of Jesus and Paul. There is nothing you can do to put yourself right with God, they say… nothing. That is what we believe is at the core of the Christian Faith. For us, the idea of deserve is the opposite of how God is and how we are called to be. Deserve is de-serve… the opposite of serving. Deserve is another form of me-first… the me-centred life that the gospel won’t have a bar of. Life is a gift – a grace. We don’t deserve it – it just comes at us. We don’t deserve an easy life, a healthy life, or a life free of pain and suffering… as nice as these things are and as grateful as we are when things are going well, we don’t deserve them as such… life is a privilege not a right, we don’t deserve, we serve. We are called to give thanks to God in all things and to live our lives as a gift. Grace is the only show in town.
Interestingly, most of us, one way or another, seem to regularly slink off to the outskirts of the town and practice other ways of seeing. The language of deserve creeps into our psyches:
‘I deserve a break.’ (Why? Why you? Are you more special than someone else?).
‘He got what he deserved.’ (And you don’t get anything for your nasty vengeful thoughts?)
‘You deserve a pat on the back.’ (Deserve… have you had to prove yourself to warrant my favour? Wouldn’t a better way of putting it be ‘I would like to give you a pat on the back because you did so well – good on you!’?)
When I was at university living in a hostel I was doing phone duty one evening (we each took a turn to answer the phones and use the intercom to call a person to come up and take their call – it was the olden days before mobile phones, texting, emails and Facebook). I was also being a bit noisy on the intercom… I was using the excuse of legitimate use of the intercom to make noises, and one time I even relayed one of the messages that there was a phone call for someone in the form of a horse-racing commentary. Soon afterwards one of the dental students strode down the corridor in a fit of anger and frustration… he saw it was me and softened a little, but he still conveyed his feelings about how my noise was disrupting his studying. I apologised and let him know that I would be more careful – he was right to be cross (sometimes we entertainers get unappreciative audiences!).
But it is what he also said that has stuck with me. He said: ‘Look, if I don’t pass this exam, my girlfriend will dump me.’ I couldn’t believe it! I was stunned. Why did he have to do things to deserve her affections? Ooohh! I didn’t say anything even though I wanted to shout at him as he retreated back down the corridor that he should get out while the going was good. Dump her! Or at least try to reason with her, for the last thing he needed in his life was a woman for whom he would always have to jump hurdles! If he kept jumping then she would simply keep raising the height of the bar – that’s how it works! Of course, she too needed to be jolted out of this land of unrealistic expectations – what kind of man would she create? Life is not show-jumping and he was not a show-pony! People like this need help! I wonder where this way of being has got them thirty years on?
Love – pure God-filled love doesn’t insist on hurdles to be jumped… it runs the gauntlet of undeserved grace.
Of course that is not the experience of many people. I suspect that more people than not have to operate in a world of conditional love and affection offered on merit. We are brought up on it from an early age. Think of the Father Christmas mantra that we instil in the children… ‘Have you been good? Remember that Santa only comes to good children.’ Just think for a moment what this does to kids. They get the idea that they have to prove themselves in order to receive gifts. They get the idea that Christmas – the season that celebrates the grace of God where ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ – is not really about grace at all but rewards for good behaviour. The fact that the presents come even if the child hasn’t been good kind of hints of grace but actually uses a device of deserve/undeserve to get there, and therefore undoes the Christmas story because it is based on untruths. And, I wonder what the ‘have you been good’ mantra does to kids who do not get much because of their family circumstances…
I have to tell you, I really dislike the Father Christmas thing because of the way it undoes so much of what is the essence of the gospel… undeserved unconditional grace. Not only is the ‘have you been good’ mantra anti-gospel, good old jolly Santa has almost completely usurped the place of Jesus Christ in the Christmas story. Honestly, I cannot think of a better devilish scheme to rob the season of its reason than what the western world has done with the Santa Claus tradition!
How often do we hear the word deserve used in our culture? After today just keep your ear to the ground and reflect on how often you hear it and in what context it is used. I struggle to think of a way it can be used in a healthy way – maybe just this way… every person deserves to be treated with dignity because they are children of God. I can live with that, but any conditions reek of something that is anti-gospel.
The Christian writer Frederich Buechner says this about ‘grace’: “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace.”
To underline grace and expose the notion of deserve as the anti-grace thing that it is, there is no better place to go than Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son/waiting father/grumpy older brother.
Let’s look at what these characters think they might deserve… the younger son thinks that he deserves the right to his father’s estate while his father still lives (!) and that he can use it for whatever he wants. The father should probably think that he deserves better than a selfish little brat who basically spits on his generous love. The older son thinks he deserves his father’s favour because he has worked hard and kept his head low.
The idea of ‘do not deserve’ also plays out but in different ways… the younger son from the pig sty believes he does not deserve anything and only goes home to beg for a job as a hired servant so that he at least has a meal or two a day, and the older son is resentful of the younger son and his father’s generosity towards him and if he had had it his way his brother would not have deserved anything – especially not a party and the fatted calf!
The father is the only hope… he lives by a different mantra and does his mathematics all the wrong way around… there is not a whiff or hint of deserve in his actions… unmerited grace is what drives him and there is no calculated equation that he uses to decide how little or how much grace is enough. With the father his love is everything – no strings attached. No one deserves this or that, there are no limits. He gives to his younger son and he waits and hopes and he runs down the road in an undignified act of joyful exuberance when he sees his son returning. He refuses to listen to the excuses and the mantra of how I can now be good. He calls for the cloak and ring and throws the party. The lost has been found, that’s all that matters. He even goes out to reason with the sulking older son who like the younger one just doesn’t get what a commitment to unconditional love really means. Hopefully one day he will.
That’s how the parable is left. We don’t know what happens. We don’t know if the father lives to see the older son learning forgiveness and reconciliation and growing to be like his father. We don’t know if the younger son learns this important life-lesson and grows and matures to be like his father. The true test will come when these boys have their own children! But we don’t know.
But we do know a few things. We know that the teller of the story was abandoned and crucified by a graceless crowd of people who did not give him to him what had been given to them, and that even when they had done their worst to him he still cried out ‘Father forgive them…’ And we know that the church – his church – with its call to live his way, truth and life, has committed and sanctioned horrible graceless acts over the ages. And we know that we who claim to follow him do so with various degrees of carelessness and that we too readily jump to the tune of deserve in the way we speak and treat people. We know, don’t we, that we need to keep hearing this parable because we know that we need to be reminded and re-reminded of the sheer magnitude and shockingly amazing nature of God’s grace made known to us in Jesus Christ, and that we need to eat from his table and drink from the well of his love in the hope that we might change and be changed. For we still have some way to go. But he comes to us by his Spirit anyway – not because anything is deserved but because God’s love is just so completely giving.
‘Sir please give us a drink of that water! Then we won’t get thirsty.’ [paraphrase of John 4:15]