Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.
-Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.
I’ve known for years that resentments don’t hurt the person we resent, but they do hurt us.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.
My dog ate my English muffin.
I had placed my breakfast plate on the coffee table to watch the morning news. I turned to switch on the light and in a nano-second, the dog jumped up, grabbed the muffin, ran into the other room. I was mad. I was looking forward to that English muffin. After all I had done for him, this is how he treats me? For the rest of the day, I didn’t talk to the dog. No treats. Nothing. In the evening, it occurred to me: I was actually harboring a resentment against a dog. While the dog of course was oblivious, I was holding on to my annoyance at the ungrateful cur. I knew that I had been pretty gifted at holding on to resentments, but this rose to a new level.
Today’s reading in the Gospel of Luke (for those following the schedule of the Good Book Club) features the story of the Prodigal Son. This rich parable has three main characters. There’s the younger son who goes away, messes up and sheepishly makes his way home to find a welcome home party waiting for him. There’s the father who welcomes that son home before the kid can even open his mouth in explanation or self-defense or apology. And there’s the elder brother, who apparently feels unappreciated, annoyed and you guessed it, resentful.
Where do you see yourself in the story?
If you are interested in an answer, a recommendation for Lenten reading. Henri Nouwen wrote a book called The Return of the Prodigal Son, based on a painting by Rembrandt hanging in the Hermitage, a painting on which Nouwen meditated for a while. In the book, Nouwen asks the reader to identify with each of the three characters. With resentment on my mind, in the wake of the stolen English muffin (a real-life parable for one of my deeper spiritual struggles, and possibly yours), I focused on the older brother.
Note what this brother says to his father when he realizes the grace lavished on the younger ne-er-do-well: “All these years, I worked as a slave for you.” He goes on to complain about the party being given for “this son of yours”, failing to acknowledge his brotherhood. My guess is this guy has been harboring resentment for a while. He had in mind that if he worked hard enough, he could earn his Father’s love, that he in fact needed to earn that love, with the suspicion that all he had done would never be quite enough. So tragically, he confused sonship with slavery, love with duty. That world-view blinds him to good news, the celebration of the return of his brother, once lost, now found. It prevents him from celebrating grace which had surrounded him the whole time.
Parables are not allegories. The older brother does not symbolize just one type of person. But as I read the parable as a kind of mirror, for me he represents really religious people, maybe clergy. Have you ever met any resentful folks in church? Maybe we’re talking about people who work really hard in churches, people who feel like all that activity hasn’t touched their hearts, people whose defining life principle may be the way they’ve been under-appreciated, people who may have drifted from the foundation of a relationship with God: the willingness to open one’s heart to God’s grace and love.
I was told years ago that the Bible is just a story of sibling rivalry. It starts with Cain and Abel (who fight over worship of all things), moves through Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers up to the parable before us. Our conviction that love is a scarce commodity provides fertile ground for resentment in families, in the whole human family.
So maybe prompted by the story we read today, we can simply think about letting resentments go. Maybe we can practice (and it takes practice) forgiveness. Maybe we can send those ancient hurts down the river. Yes, they happened. But forgiveness is giving up the hope of a better past. Maybe we can hear again the reading from II Corinthians which we heard on Ash Wednesday, as it cautioned: “Do not accept the grace of God in vain.” Maybe, just maybe, we can apply this wise counsel from Henri Nouwen:
Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.
And in case you’re wondering, my dog and I are now on speaking terms.
Good Book Club readings this week:
MONDAY, March 12: Luke 15:11-32
TUESDAY, March 13: Luke 16:1-18
WEDNESDAY, March 14: Luke 16:19-31
THURSDAY, March 15: Luke 17:1-10
FRIDAY, March 16: Luke 17:11-37
SATURDAY, March 17: Luke 18:1-17
SUNDAY, March 18: Luke 18:18-43
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