It’s Not Fair
There’s a parable about a lost sheep. The boy is gone from home for a long time. His father rejoices when he returns. The parable is not about the wayward son, lost for years, welcomed home. The parable is about the wayward son’s brother. He is the indignant one: he worked so hard, all his life, to be a good son, and now his brother is rewarded for his years of waste and sloth and greed, simply because he comes home. It is this good son who is the center of a lesson. It is about being on a righteous path for a very long time, an unblemished past—no mistakes, except, in the midst of a joyful occasion, a bitter heart, and a sharp tongue.
He makes sense to my kids. They are vigilant for unfairness. This is how God asks us to come to him: like children. Not like perfectly behaved teacher’s pets, saying only the right thing. But as we are.
My God has a way of saying “No. I don’t want to hear your fixed speech. I want to talk to your heart.”
For me, the good son has a point. What did he do all that for? It is more vital a question than “When someone is gone for a long time, is utterly lost to his Mama and his Daddy, and then returns, what else is a proper response besides joy?”
What do we do it all for?
Why be good, when we can be forgiven on our deathbeds? All sin is washed away, not because we deserve it, but because grace is just like that: powerful and unmerited, even in the moment before death.
For me, the good son was nursing resentment in his heart, a bitter and idealistic thought my children carry, one I do too. It is the innate sense that life is fair. Perhaps it is not “in the bones” but it as ancient an impulse as this parable, at least.
Where does it come from, and why do we carry it? It pains me when I learn that I have been mis-appreciated, or that some are born with prettier bodies or more money, or into a group of people accorded more deference than others—because they have been taught not to wear five-inch turquoise heels or a t-shirt or a white shirt over a black bra to the courthouse or the dentist, or because they wear belts and their pant legs brush the middle of their heels, or because they have no tattoos or strange piercings, or because they are white, or because they drive expensive tasteful vehicles. They are privileged in a quickly ascertainable way. Mental short hand says: treat him well.
It isn’t fair.
The good son in the parable was privileged, too. Yet he had a sense of fairness at least as deep as mine. My brother should not be treated as my better. It isn’t fair, he more or less said.
Why are we good?
Are we good so that we can increase the good in our lives? SO that we can make more money, or at least be treated as the ethical stalwarts we have proven ourselves to be?
The teacher’s pet knows the correct answer, of course, is not that we are good to get. We do not give in order to receive. The Golden Rule: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You, is not even the perfect student’s answer. That too, is to be good in order to get. The A+ answer is that goodness is its own reward. It brings not only a sense of peace and equanimity, but is good outwardly, to others. It is not just to live more in balance in the painful place that is the world that we are good. It is to help the world be less painful.
But the good son knows better. He has been disciplined in a way. For a long time, he has been trustworthy, humble, generous, industrious, and obedient.
Until he is tested. The greatest test may be the one when he realizes that his path is longer, more difficult, more tiring, than his brother’s path ever will be. Then he is given the opportunity to show his lucky brother that he is trustworthy, humble, generous, industrious, and obedient.
He can’t do it. And the trouble is, his earthly father will not see him, in the midst of his failing, as a lost sheep. He will not fall, with his heart of darkness, into a wilderness, lost from his family for years, and enjoy a homecoming later. He must turn to his Creator, for that is the only Father who will mourn how much in the wilderness his heart exists in, between the dark brambles of envy and poisonous ideology.
How truly we need God. Is that why He teaches us to wish that life were fair?