“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” – Luke 15:21
“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. “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours…” (Luke 15:29).
“Deserving” is different when viewed within the paradigm of justice than within the paradigm of grace. Deserving in the paradigm of justice is dependent on what you have done, or the status you have attained. Deserving in the paradigm of grace – since grace is a completely gratuitous 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, in fact, all is grace.
This 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 of this misunderstanding 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 despair, because we are overcome by being unworthy and undeserving, or presumption, because we consider ourselves righteous and all-to-deserving (even as we beat our breast reciting the Confiteor). 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. In truth, none of us is “deserving” of the Father’s love (see Rom. 3:23 and Eph. 2:3). And Jesus took upon Himself anything that we really deserved, and it was nailed to the cross (see Col. 2:14, 1 Pet. 2:24, Rom. 6:23). No… all is grace, all is mercy. And “mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:13) for those who trust in Jesus and throw themselves into His merciful arms (see Jesus to St. Faustina, Diary, 1541). “How can we make a return to the Lord” for all the good He has done for us, the Psalmist asks (116:12). We can’t. We can only “raise the cup of salvation” (Ps. 116:13) – the cup filled with the precious blood of our Blessed Lord, shed for our sins.
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. Our days become filled with awe and wonder at the sheer gratuity of God. Then we obey less out of fear and more out of love (1 John 4:18, John 14:15). Then we can become merciful just as the Father is merciful (Luke 6:36) and reject self-righteousness and looking at others with contempt (Luke 18:9, Matt. 7:1). Then every day is a Thanksgiving and our lives exclaim, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his mercy endures forever” (Ps. 118:1).