When You’re Not the Prodigal Child

“I’m just getting really tired of being so good.”

Those were my words to my good friend and spiritual advisor a few weeks ago.

She chuckled in reply and said, “Life can feel that way sometimes, can’t it?”

As she and I dug a little deeper, I outlined for her (with extreme humility, of course) all the things I’d been doing in the past weeks and months for others…family, friends, church, school, etc. and how very little thanks or reward I felt I was receiving in return.

“It just doesn’t seem worth it!”  I exclaimed to her, frustrated and exasperated.  Desperate for something to break through to me and help me see differently.

Then it came in the simplest and sweetest of words.  A thought she shared aloud, expecting no reply in return,

“Why is the reward so important, Lisa?”

Well, if that didn’t jar me awake, nothing would.

Had I not been needing that comment so badly, I’m sure I could have supplied any number of responses…

Why?  Because we’re Americans!  Hard work equals rewards (usually monetary rewards, but at least lots of praise and recognition)!

Why?  Because according to the law of averages, all this hard work is bound to pay off big eventually!

Why?  Because doesn’t what goes around come around?

But no.

I knew this question was an invitation to go deeper.  So I had to spend time with that question and answer the question for myself…why is the reward so important?

That evening, I saw something that helped a little.  It gave me hope at least.  It came in the form of a “tweet”  from Iyanla Vanzant and said simply this,

When you do what you can for the sake of doing it, the reward is an improvement in your skills.

While this was not exactly the ticker-tape parade thrown in my honor that I was seeking, it certainly was balm to my wound.  I was encouraged to think that perhaps even if no one had given me a gold-engraved plaque with my name on it for “Greatest Sacrifice of Self to all of Humanity,”  I could at least find comfort in the fact that I was getting stronger in an area where God saw I needed it most:  humility.  (I don’t know why he would feel I needed this exactly, considering I did not expect that plaque to be 24K gold…only 18).

Still.

It made me think about the kingdom of heaven as Jesus taught it.  And, I thought about the “thanks” given to him for all he did for humanity– death on a cross.   (And, suddenly, in comparison to  that, I realized that perhaps receiving less thanks than I was hoping for maybe wasn’t the worst thing ever.)

I thought of something else, too.  I thought of this blog, and how it’s only fair that when I’m feeling less than loved by God, less than appreciated, or just less than, that I need to be honest with you about that.

Because I think it happens to all of us, at least from time to time.

And what I’ve come to believe most recently, is that there’s yet to be anything I experience in my own life that isn’t biblical.  And this event is no exception.  In fact, right now, I think I’m standing in the shoes of one of the most empathetic characters in all of the bible.  You want to know who it is?  It’s the older brother of the Prodigal Son.  (And if you need a refresher on that story, check out Luke 15: 11-32)

But also know this:  that brother and I are one right now.

I’ve been sitting here for weeks now feeling smug. (Well, not exactly, “sitting here.”  There was a nice family trip squeezed in that was lots of fun, and is partly the reason for my missing my Monday blog deadlines.  I hope to write about that event in the near future.) (The other reason was  a bad computer virus that wiped out nearly all I had on the computer. But that’s a story for another day, also.)

But I digress.

My point is this:  though I’ve been carrying out a fair amount of my regular parental and social duties, my heart has been stuck in the same place as the older brother in the story of the prodigal son for probably months, now.  Like him, I’ve been seeing all my own “good deeds,”  making mental lists of others’ “squandering,” and wondering when God is going to scoop in and let the world know that I have astounded him with my kindness and generosity.  When will he kill the fatted calf in my honor to celebrate?

(With this kind of modesty, it’s a wonder I’m still waiting, isn’t it?)

Then some words from the story about the older brother catch my eye as I re-read them, “Then he became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28)

And I’ll admit that’s me right now.

Still holding on to anger, and resentment.  Still upset that the “lost brother” (or in this case, everyone else), is getting all the attention.  Still standing “outside,” trying to will  (or guilt) everyone else to where I am, and make me the center of the celebration.

And do you know what happens next?

“His father came out and began to plead with him.”  (Luke 15:28)

And I’m certain God’s been pleading with me, too.  To change my heart.  To let go of my anger.  To just come inside already and celebrate.

But, also like the older brother, I don’t even listen.  I insist instead on my being heard, and shout.  ” ‘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.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ ”  (Luke 15:29-30)

Ha!  Take that, God!  Open your eyes!  Now, surely you’ll see how good I am!

And to that, the Father–who has left the party to tend to the older brother’s (a.k.a. my) needs–responds with this, ” Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31)

Well, you’d think that would be enough to straighten out that older son and bring him inside.  But, I’ll be honest and let you know that right now it’s not enough for me.

I’m still standing “outside” and holding on to my anger and resentment.  I’m willing (or guilting) everyone in the party to want to come outside and move the party where it should be…outside in my honor!

But, I also realize that Jesus has very cleverly left how this story ends open for our own interpretation.  Does the brother join the party?  Or does he hide out in the barn until it’s over?  Or does he, too, then pack up and decide to leave?  I’d like to think Jesus knew that all of us (or at least me) would come to relate to this older brother in their own way.  And so the choice of the older brother…to go back “inside” or not…is really the choice of each of us.

And I know how I want my story to end.

Because the longer I stand “outside,” the more the light and laughter from “inside” softens my heart.  And the music takes over my spirit.  And I pray that the last of my pride will fall away soon, so that I can turn around and make way for that door.  And step inside.

And when I do?

Well…when I do…my life will become one big celebration again.

I believe that’s the kingdom of heaven that Jesus wants for us all.

And how could we ask for a greater reward than that?