The entitlement trap

December 3, 2010

I can't stand the word "entitlement." I
use it sometimes, when people annoy me with their belief that the world owes
them something or that their needs are more important than those of others. But
when I do this, I'm guilty of the same thing they are: dismissing the
importance of someone else's desires and asserting the importance of my own. I
get caught in an entitlement trap.

Looking at the story of the prodigal son
in church, I found myself focusing on the theme of entitlement. The story is
one of those passages that reveals something different each time I encounter
it. What struck me this time was how each brother thinks the world owes him something.

The younger brother's sense of
entitlement is obvious: he demands his inheritance so he can live as he pleases.
But the older brother displays a similar sense of entitlement in his
condemnation and rejection of his brother. He believes that his hard work and
good behavior entitle him to the economic benefits and stability of his
father's love. Each brother is deeply flawed, yet the father graciously extends
mercy to both.

I find myself caught up in debates about
entitlement a lot these days. The concept defines conversations about
health-care reform: poor people are accused of acting as if they are entitled if
they champion universal health care. Others respond that only those who have
worked hard enough to get privileged jobs are entitled to the luxury of good
health coverage. The conversation gets so wrapped up in who is acting more
entitled that we quickly lose sight of grace.

While there's a time and place for
discussing rights and basic justice, at other times I think what's most helpful
is the reminder that we all suffer from the inward focus that fosters feelings
of entitlement. Despite being broken and flawed and undeserving, we all think
the world owes us something. This keeps us from extending grace to our fellow
broken brothers and sisters.

My take-away lesson from this encounter
with the prodigal son is a hard one. I often have a hard time being merciful to
those who say that extending grace to the poor and the oppressed is
unwarranted. I want to call people out on their sense of entitlement, to force
the older brother to be more forgiving. I find it difficult to act like the
father instead, offering grace even to the people I think are acting like
jerks.

Yet God demands we join in the
outpouring of grace to all--that we get over ourselves and celebrate together
despite our differences. God annoyingly thinks everyone is entitled--and unless I want to play the prodigal
(either the younger or the older), I need to accept the way of the father.