“To be is to do.” — Socrates
As we continue with our theme of converting from grievance to gratitude, I’m reminded of the story of the prodigal son. In general, the parables that Jesus used in the gospels are rich with lessons and jumping off points. This story might be one of the most complex and misinterpreted in the Bible.
For those that aren’t regular church goers, essentially the second son in a rich family demands his portion of his inheritance early. He squanders it and eventually returns home prepared to be a servant. Instead, his father showers him with gifts. The other son is pissed off because he always followed the rules. Why didn’t he ever get these gifts?
It is common to talk about how the world wants us to be. This is usually a way to separate all of us into an us vs. them paradigm. So, anything negative must be of the world and everything positive is of the church. In this case, I think many forces within the church are actually pushing us into behaving like the older son. I’ll start with my own experience within education and hopefully we can expand from there.
The hardest thing to overcome as a teacher is the notion that are ultimate goal is to get students across the finish line. When students do the wrong thing we want them to either be punished or suffer some kind of consequence. We often don’t feel good until something punitive happens. This can be true in literal cases of behavior or simply students that fulfill their academic obligations.
This is admittedly a delicate balance and one I have been working at for 25 years. I’m not sure I’m where I should be and don’t know if I ever will be. A kid doesn’t do their homework or classwork. What should happen to them? A kid is tardy to class. What should happen to them? They aren’t paying attention and they wake up midway through class. Should we call them out for their lack of attention or simply meet them where they are at?
Fast forward a few years or more and they are working minimum wage jobs because they didn’t do what they should have done in school. Do we continue to put up road blocks because they shouldn’t have done that? Do we limit their access to assistance or prevent minimum wage workers from earning more because those jobs should only be for teenagers?
Suddenly you realize our entire outlook is based on being the older son. Our little brother squandered his inheritance. He was foolish and he should be punished. Maybe he or she did. Maybe they did the wrong things when they were young. Maybe they could have paid attention and done their work. Maybe they could have followed the rules and avoided the mistakes we told them not to make.
What’s also possible is that they might have been a victim of circumstances beyond their control. We can’t assume everyone in a bad way is in a bad way because of their own life choices. However, let’s assume they are. Are we really supposed to withhold assistance because of previous mistakes they made? Do we withhold our compassion and care or do we simply meet them where they are and go from there?
The older son exists in a place of grievance. It isn’t fair that people get free stuff. I worked hard. I deserve that stuff. I followed the rules and now you are giving your time and energy to that good for nothing miscreant? They should be punished. You should let them bask in the soup of their own transgressions. Gratitude cannot accept such an outlook because gratitude does not assume we did anything. It assumes we were the recipients of our fortune and not its architect.