Privilege and the Art of Receiving

Last week I mentioned how I am leading a group through the parables of Jesus on Wednesday nights. I’ve probably read these stories hundreds of times, but I am amazed how often I find new insights and at their ability to speak truth into my life.

A few weeks ago we discussed the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant from Matthew 18:23-35 and it’s stuck with me ever since. If you’re not familiar with the parable, the short version is this:

Servant A owes a huge debt to the king and he cannot pay it. Begging for mercy and promising to pay it back, the king has mercy and forgives the debt. Servant A then goes to Servant B who owes Servant A a much smaller sum of money. When Servant B cannot pay, Servant A has Servant B thrown into prison until he can pay. When the king is informed, he calls Servant A back in, calls him evil for not extending the mercy he had received to others, and throws him in prison to be tortured.

So yeah, a feel good story 🙂

This story has bothered me for the last few weeks because what in the world is wrong with the first servant? It doesn’t even seem logical. He’s just been given this amazing free pass on his debt and he turns around and the first thing he does is act like a miserly jerk? Who in the world react like this in the face of such generosity? I just couldn’t understand what was going on with that guy. Until it hit me —

He’s still attempting to pay back a debt that’s already been excused.

That’s why he’s demanding money owed to him by someone else. Because maybe he can get back some pride and dignity by paying back whatever he can. Maybe he feels guilty or undeserving. So he wants to feel like he’s done his part. He’s trying to save face.

The servant didn’t receive well the gift he was given and it causes him to mistreat others around him and act like a enormous jerk.

So let’s talk about privilege for a moment. As Trevor said yesterday, he and I are both educated, Christian, heterosexual, American, middle-class, married, white males. What does this mean? That I have had more advantages in life than most. These are far-ranging, including economic and educational factors, but include all kinds of advantages I never really think about.

In fact, Barbra Applebaum says that most privileged people take their benefits for granted and are oblivious to their privilege. And that’s me. I admit that I haven’t given much thought to my advantages in my life. For the most part I have just assumed that this is the way the world works. But it’s not.

I have received advantages I did work for.
I have been given grace that I did not earn.
These are facts.

When faced with the reality of my privilege, I can choose to respond in several ways. I could deny that the reality exists. I could argue that the privilege has little to no real effect on my life or others. Or I can feel guilty that I have received benefits others have not.

I don’t think any of these responses are particularly helpful. And in light of the parable above, all of them can be destructive.

Open Hands

The best response is to simply receive what I have been given well. To acknowledge that I have been granted advantages that others have not. To admit that the hand I have been dealt has been a good one and others have received much worse.

And I can be thankful.
Because gratitude is always a good look.

The message of the parable is to receive grace well so that you can truly understand what you’ve been given. If we don’t understand this gift, we end up acting horribly (and can we admit that Christians can act horribly at times?).

If we can acknowledge our own advantages then we are much more apt to listen than to speak. We are much more able to treat others out of grace ourselves.

Receiving is the first step. And it’s an art because it doesn’t always come naturally.

Because I prefer to believe that I have made my own way.
That I have earned what I own.
That I have done my part.

And while I have certainly contributed to my own success, I have had so many advantages along the way. I don’t have to turn a blind eye to them.

Instead I need to receive them well.

Because receiving is an art and I need to do it better.


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