I have noticed over the last few years that there is a prevailing narrative in how many people view the world about who “deserves” certain things and who does not.
Whether it is conversations health care or public policy or success or second chances or corporate mobility or even the favor of God, a line is drawn in the sand. One one side (usually the side of the person presenting their opinion) there are the people who have “earned” their current status. The criteria of what it means to earn this status is rarely the same, but there is always a recognition that a person is where he or she is because they have earned it and worked hard for it. Therefore, their present position entitles them to think less of those who do not or cannot occupy similar positions of status or power.
On the other side of the line are the undeserving. There is little consideration for how they came to be in their current position, but it must be due to their own bad decisions. Had they worked as hard as the people on the other side, they would not be on the wrong side of the line. Getting on the right side of the line is earned.
I have heard this from a broad spectrum of people.
I have heard it from people who have turned difficult circumstances into positive circumstances. I have heard it from people who have literally come through the school of hard knocks. I have heard it from people who have had little difficulty in life and caught lucky breaks. I have heard it from people who have had everything handed to them. It is a narrative which cuts across many different lines.
But the bottom line is this: Having “earned” my current position, I am entitled to things other people aren’t. I put in the work, so I deserve things more than those who haven’t. Or even if we both deserve it, I am entitled to more or should be first in line to receive it. Because I am a self-made man or woman, I am entitled to what being on the right side of the line gets me and the people who are on the opposite side of the line deserve to be there.
Since this is a bit of a caricature, it is easy to read through and say: I never think that way. But watch some of the narratives you tell in your life. Watch them in other people. What story is being communicated? One where everything we have is a gift and human beings are all equally worthy of love and value? Or do we allow the narrative of earning the right to be human to slip in?
Even as I write about this perspective and want very specific people to know how I feel about it, I know I allow this same kind of natural selection to invade my own thinking on how the world should work.
And this narrative is devoid of grace.
The grace-less narrative of our culture says you only get to be considered human if you earn it.
Grace says we are given things we don’t deserve.
Grace says we give that which other’s don’t deserve.
Yet grace also says we are all entitled to love and hope and mercy just because we exist and are human.
Jesus’ parable reminds us that when we step into the kingdom, we step out of the “earning” game. Not only are we freed from trying to earn our way to God, we are asked to stop demanding that other people earn their right to be human.
And I think deep down we all know there is no such thing as a self-made person.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell outlines how the most successful and impressive people became successful and impressive. All of them are geniuses who worked hard and overcame a lot. But he compares them with similar geniuses who worked hard and overcame a lot and whose life didn’t turn out the same way.
The important, successful people were all given “chance” opportunities others were not.
Important, successful people do not become important and successful by hard work and determination alone. There is always an element of receiving something they did not earn along the way.
We can tell ourselves we got to where we are all by ourselves and by the sweat of our brow, but hard work and perseverance are never the only factors.
Someone saw us. Someone took a chance on us. Someone forgave us. Someone gave us a helping hand. We got an opportunity out of the blue and for no good reason.
These are acts of grace. These are a part of our story.
Now, I am not against hard work. Following Jesus is hard work. Grace is actually hard work. But hard work is only part of the story.
Jesus’ parable forces the question: What am I working hard for? Am I working hard so that I can be more loving and gracious? Am I working hard so I can live the best kind of life possible and be more like the God who made me?
Or am I working hard so I can project the illusions of being self-made? Am I working hard so I am entitled to more and can set myself over and against other people?
We like grace when it is extended to us. We like it when we get things we don’t deserve.
The sad thing is that we often don’t accept these things as acts of grace, and we don’t allow or extend that grace to others.
We live in a world where the dominating narrative is one without grace. As Christians, we need to be speaking this narrative of grace to the world. We should be the ones who are advocating for the rights of people who don’t deserve what they are getting. We should be the ones acknowledging the people and circumstances which have been grace in our own rights.
We should be the ones who make the grace of God a visible and tangible reality by how we treat those who “aren’t deserving” and by how we tell our own stories of grace.
What about you? Where have you seen these narrative pop up in your life?