I rarely post excerpts from books, but Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son has been rearranging my thinking and my theology lately. Enjoy.
The elder brother compares himself with the younger one and becomes jealous. But the father loves them both so much that it didn’t even occur to him to delay the party in order to prevent the elder son from feeling rejected. I am convinced that many of my emotional problems would melt as snow in the sun if I could let the truth of God’s non-comparing love permeate my heart.
How hard that is becomes clear when I reflect on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Each time I read that parable in which the landowner gives as much to the workers who worked only one hour as to those who did “a heavy day’s work in all the heat,” a feeling of irritation still wells up inside of me.
Why didn’t the landowner pay those who worked many long hours first and then surprise the latecomers with his generosity? Why, instead, does he pay the workers of the eleventh hour first, raising false expectations in the others and creating unnecessary bitterness and jealousy? Those questions, I now realize, come from a perspective that is all too willing to impose the economy of the temporal on the unique order of the divine.
It hadn’t previously occurred to me that the landowner might have wanted the workers of the early hours to rejoice in his generosity to the latecomers. It never crossed my mind that he might have acted on the supposition that those who had worked in the vineyard the whole day would be deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to do work for their boss, and even more grateful to see what a generous man he is. It requires an interior about-face to accept such a non-comparing way of thinking. But that is God’s way of thinking. God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little are as much loved as those who accomplish much.