“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” – Luke 15:21, NJB
Deserve. This word automatically evokes a sense of justice. You get what you deserve: what is your right, what is coming to you. “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me” (Luke 15:12). You get what you have earned, what you have worked for. There are merits and demerits. “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours” (Luke 15:29).
Deserving is different when viewed through the paradigm of justice than it is through the paradigm of gift. Deserving in the paradigm of justice is dependent on what you have done, or the status you have attained. Deserving in the paradigm of gift is dependent on how the “giver” regards you, on the status he or she bestows. Perhaps, both sons in the parable suffer from the same misunderstanding. Both claim justice (later on, the younger son even believed he deserved a demotion for his sins), when for the father all is gift.
Their misunderstanding has practical consequences. The first consequence is that life becomes a burden. It can feel like slavery, a drudgery, as if you are trapped and held back. The younger son experiences this in his need to leave the Father’s house for “a distant country.” He couldn’t get far enough away. The older son experiences this right at home, in the bitterness of heart exposed by his contempt for his brother.
The second consequence is emptiness and alienation. The younger son winds up hungry, the older son alone. There is no joy, no peace, no experience of authentic community when one is stuck in the paradigm of justice. There are only the extremes of feeling unworthy and undeserving, or feeling righteous and all-to-deserving (even if one claims otherwise). In this paradigm, there is only judgment – either of oneself or of others. Here one only finds a dry desert, not a life-giving stream.
The son who feels unworthy of the father’s love, the father embraces and kisses, disregarding his words of being undeserving. The son who in his self-righteousness refuses to enter into the father’s love, the father urges saying, “You are with me always, and all I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). For the father, it has never been about deserving his love. It has never been about judging one as worthy of his love. All is gift. All is grace. And when everything is gift, everything gratuitous, then nothing is really “merited.” There is only mercy. And “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
Once we claim this truth and break free from the shackles of trying to be “deserving,” our response becomes one of spontaneous love and gratefulness, one of humility and compassion. In other words, when we claim the truth of our own belovedness, we are set free to live as the beloved and become like the Father, who is Love and Mercy (Luke 6:36).