Partners in the Family Business

Conversations About Believing

A Column by Rev. Jay Ayers

“I try to remind myself,” said my friend, “that I’ve got to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. I may not like it. I may not get anything out of it. But I’ve got to do it, anyway.”

“People can accomplish a lot that way,” I agreed. “But it sounds like there might be times when it’s hard to motivate yourself to keep going.”

“Well, sometimes,” she nodded. “But mostly this sense of duty is the thing that keeps me motivated. Maybe I won’t get excited about church this week; but I should still go. Maybe the person I talk with in the nursing home will be grumpy; but I should still visit. Maybe my kids won’t be grateful for their lunches and their clean laundry; but I should still give it my best.”

“You’ve got an admirable attitude there. I bet you get a lot done, from day to day.”

“Not as much as I should. Anyway, I keep remembering where it says in the Bible how when we’ve done all we’re supposed to do, we should remember that we are only unprofitable servants.”

“It does say that,” I nodded. “And when you think about it, it’s pretty amazing to suppose that we might look at ourselves as God’s servants. If the Lord of the universe wanted to get himself some servants, it’s not obvious that he would pick people like us.”

“That’s God’s sense of humor, right there,” she laughed.

I laughed too. “I think if we were to make this kind of claim for ourselves, it might even be a little bit presumptuous. Like in the story of the prodigal son. After he squanders his inheritance and realizes the mess he’s made of his life, his big hope is that he could become one of his father’s hired men. The boy admits that he’s no longer worthy to be called his father’s son; but he hopes that maybe, just maybe, he could become one of the servants. He realizes he can’t presume that he’ll get that chance.”

“It just shows you what a privilege it is,” she said, “to be a servant. Even when no one else is appreciating your efforts all that much, it’s good to know that ultimately you are doing your work for God.”

“And then this surprising thing happens,” I said. “The father doesn’t accept him as a servant, does he? Instead, he takes him back entirely. Then he throws the biggest welcome-home party anybody can remember. And the only one who won’t come celebrate is the older brother, the one who has been steadily laboring away all this time.”

She hesitated for a moment. “You know, that part has always bothered me. It has never seemed fair the way the older brother’s work doesn’t get acknowledged. I think he deserves better treatment.”

“So does God.”

“Then why does the older brother get left standing outside when they’re having the party?”

“Because he won’t come in.”

“But the party isn’t for him.”

“Not for him alone. But the father wants him there. He comes out on the step and pleads with his son to come inside.”

“But can’t you sympathize,” she asked, “with the way the older son feels that he just can’t go in?”

“Sure,” I agreed. “I think it comes from his belief that he will never be more than a servant in his father’s household. He has tried to make the best of it. He has convinced himself that really it’s pretty good to be a servant. And then he sees his brother being treated like a long-lost son, and it’s more than he can stand.”

“So what is he supposed to do?”

“Realize that he also is his father’s son, that he is the son who has had the privilege of being at his father’s side all this time, that as his father’s son he also has the joy of welcoming his lost brother home.”

“Now wait a minute,” she said. “Putting himself in that position: isn’t that the presumptuousness you were talking about before?”

“I said it would be presumptuous even to claim for ourselves to be God’s servants. Certainly we could never pretend this on our own. Only if God created us for this and called us to this could it be true. But because God has done so, it is true. And if it’s true, then we can go ahead and acknowledge that it’s true.”

“So what you’re saying is, the older brother needs to recognize the reality of his relationship to his father.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Because God has done even more than make us his servants. He has made us his children. He has made us members of the family business. When you become part of the family business, there’s a time when you just do what you’re told, like a servant. But after a while you take on more and more responsibility for how things are done. It’s like Paul tells the Corinthians: we have become God’s fellow-workers or colleagues. Or like Jesus tells his disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants; now I call you my friends.’ Colleague, friend, partner-in-the-family-business: all of these terms point us to the reality that the God who might have only made us his servants has instead made us his children. We’re not hirelings; we’re part of the family. And that means we no longer do the things we do because it’s our job or our duty, but because we’re partners in God’s family business.”

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