Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2013; 4th Sunday in Lent, Year C
Psalm 32; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

    “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”
Luke 15:17

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, there’s one word you’ve been hearing again and again, in news reports about the Federal budget: entitlements. Generally what people mean by “entitlements” is Social Security and Medicare — although it really means any sort of benefit people think they deserve, by virtue of belonging to a certain group.

Entitlements are among the hardest parts of the Federal budget to cut. They say programs like Social Security and Medicare are the “third rail” of American politics. If you’re a member of Congress and dare to touch them, prepare for a swift and inevitable political death!

I think a sense of entitlement can be a problem, even beyond the world of politics. Entitlement is also a spiritual problem. Let me tell you what I mean by that…

I read an article yesterday about a survey conducted among American college students.[1] It’s called the American Freshman Survey.  Researchers have been crunching its numbers every year since 1966.  One of the things they ask college students is whether they rate themselves “above average” in areas like academic ability, self-confidence and the drive to achieve.

What the researchers have found, over the past four decades, is that there’s been a dramatic rise in the percentage of students who describe themselves as above  average. It’s as though all these students have moved to Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon — “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

So, how to account for the change? I think may be because there’s been a huge emphasis, in recent years, in educational and parenting circles, on building self-esteem. You see it in schools, in parenting magazines, everywhere. Self-esteem’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s just not the panacea some people think it is.

The first time I really noticed this trend was when our son was in elementary school. He, along with most of his friends, participated in a weekly after-school bowling program. At the end of the six- or eight-week series, there was a little awards ceremony. The parents organizing the tournament gave out the usual trophies for top-scoring bowler, top-scoring team, most-improved bowler — but then, I looked over at a table they’d set up and there I saw several dozen other trophies. Each one was identical: little brass-colored bowlers, forever frozen in action on their tiny blocks of marble.

Everybody got one: and they didn’t look all that different from the ones awarded to the best bowlers. Just a little smaller. Every bowler in that league, it seemed — regardless of ability — was a winner!

I found myself wondering at the time, and I wonder still, whether that’s a good thing. If everybody deserves a trophy to boost self-esteem, what, then, is a trophy worth?

Quite apart from the fact that it’s a mathematical impossibility, I think pretending everyone’s a winner may be setting up a lot of those students for a fall, come graduation. When you grow up in a protective bubble of calculated, self-esteem-building praise, then what happens when you have to step outside the bubble, at last? In a world where it’s most certainly not true that everyone gets trophies, what’s the point of raising our kids to believe otherwise?

The American Freshman Survey also revealed what it calls “a disconnect” between the students’ opinions of themselves, on the one hand, and what the researchers tersely call “actual ability.” Writing skills are one example. According to an article reporting on the survey results: “While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts.” Ouch!

All this, I think, points to a pervasive dread of failure. There seems to be a belief today — on the part of parents, teachers, everyone — that failure is always a bad thing. It saps self-confidence. The solution? Simply arrange things so no one fails. Everyone gets a trophy. Every student deserves an “A” on the exam. Everybody who attempts a difficult challenge is entitled to succeed.

One of the researchers, Jean Twenge — a psychologist — says this:

“What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident — loving yourself, believing in yourself — is the key to success.  Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”

If I should ever go into an operating room for brain surgery, I don’t want a surgeon whose chief credential is high self-esteem. No, I want one with the actual knowledge of anatomy and surgical procedures — not to mention a track record of bringing hundreds of patients through the same operation successfully. If surgeons who display that kind of result have a positive self-image, well, good for them! But high self-esteem does not a successful scalpel-cut make.

The word “entitlement,” of course, contains within it the word, “title.” Think of some of the things that word “title” means. In a country like Great Britain, for instance, that has a class system even to this day, there are certain people who have titles. They are, of course, members of the nobility. When the commoner Kate Middleton married Prince William, one of the many things she acquired was a title: Duchess of Cambridge. The gift of the Cambridge title to her husband — from whom she acquired it by marriage — was at the sole discretion of the Queen.

Once people are entitled in that way, the title attaches permanently to them.  Should a noble family fall upon hard times and be forced to sell off its country estate or castle, the title doesn’t go with the property. It can’t be bought or sold. It belongs, irrevocably, to the person.  The only one who can change that is the Queen, who would take away the title only in the most dire of circumstances, like treason.

In another sense of the word, a title conveys ownership of something. If you buy a car, for example, the sale is effected by signing off on a legal document known as the title. The title is a certificate of ownership.

The same is true of a piece of property. When you buy a house, you’re well-advised to go through a title search — checking the records to make sure there’s no competing claim of ownership.

Perhaps the best example of an entitled person is the leading character of one of Jesus’ most famous parables, The Prodigal Son.

“Prodigal” is another word for “wasteful.” After demanding his share of his father’s inheritance before the old man is even dead — a grave insult —  that’s exactly what this burnout son does. The prodigal son squanders it all: every last shekel. His older brother later complains to their father that he has “devoured your property with prostitutes.” Until the prodigal has that famous moment of reckoning in the pig pen, this younger son has gone through life feeling thoroughly entitled. The boy has no self-esteem problem.  If it makes him happy, he not only wants it. He deserves it!

The younger son’s not the only one in the parable who feels entitled. Just take a look at the other kid in the family! Unlike his wild and reckless brother, this older son seems to have done everything right. He’s gone into the family business, worked hard and achieved a modicum of success. Yet when he gets wind that their father’s preparing an epic party for his long-lost son, the older brother reminds him he’s the only one who’s entitled to such extravagance.

So, here we have two brothers. Both of them have become mightily adept at the entitlement game. There’s only one character, as it turns out, who does not feel entitled in any way. And that, of course, is the father.

You can see just how unentitled the father really feels in his reaction to his younger son’s outrageous demand to cash out and leave home. Now, if the father had practiced even the tiniest shred of entitlement-thinking, he would have said, “What, are you crazy? That’s my money. I, not you, am the only one entitled to it. Should I choose to bestow my generosity upon you in my will, that’s my business, and mine alone!”

Yet, the father doesn’t say anything remotely like that — despite the fact that, in the context of his culture, he’s got every right to do so.  The father is in fact the most entitled person around. He’s the patriarch. Yet, this loving father, who’s been missing his wayward son more than words can say, takes the ring from his finger — the very symbol of his entitlement — and gives it to him. Then he calls for the fatted calf to be slain — if he’d followed the entitlement traditions of his culture, the father would never have done such a thing. Had he felt mercifully inclined towards his prodigal son, the more appropriate response would have been to take him up on his offer to sign on as a hired hand. If the boy kept to the straight and narrow, he just might be lucky enough to be reinstated as son one day.

The younger son has that marvelous moment of self-discovery that Jesus sums up in the little phrase, “when he came to himself.” This marks the precise moment of the son’s disentitlement. (I don’t even know if that’s a word, but it ought to be: it accurately expresses the reversal this spoiled young nobleman has gone through!)

It’s as though his entitlement-thinking has been a magical spell, holding his true self in captivity. It’s only when the son abandons his entitlements — when he comes up with that obsequious speech, saying, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands” — that his transformation is complete.

Many of us know and love this Parable of the Prodigal Son. We love the kindness and mercy the father shows. We love the heartfelt repentance of the prodigal. We even love the red-faced outrage of the older brother, who’s turned into a stammering fool by the triumph of unconditional love.

Yet, when you and I put ourselves into the story, when we use it to measure our own lives, isn’t it true that we come up wanting?   This parable is a truly revolutionary tale. It runs against the grain of the ways we usually think. It’s revolutionary in the way it teaches us to let go of our own, deeply-cherished entitlements.

That’s a deeply frightening thing to do, because without those entitlements — the things we believe we’ve earned, the things we feel we deserve — some of us are left to wonder who we really are.

Unless, sometime in life, you and I manage to go through that process of disentitlement, allowing all those protective layers of ownership and achievement to be stripped away, we will never “come to ourselves,” as the prodigal did. Nor will we ever experience divine love in all its dimensions: the cleansing, soul-searing love that can only be known in that moment of true repentance, of utter dependence on God and no other.  If you and I fail to do that sometime in our lives, Jesus seems to be saying, we’ll never find true happiness.

Entitlements so easily degenerate into walls that separate us from fellow human beings. (What is the fence along the Mexican border, after all, but one of the longest continuous entitlements in the world?)

In a marriage, when either partner has a sense of entitlement but the other does not, they’ve got a rocky journey ahead. The happiest marriages are those in which neither partner claims any sense of entitlement over against the other. Both partners strive to celebrate the things they’re entitled to, together.

Behind many criminal acts, there lurks a hunger for entitlement — however twisted and misguided it may be. The broken, criminal logic is to say, “I deserve this, and it’s not going to come to me any other way, so I’d better just take it.”

The most mature form of Christianity is the polar opposite of that kind of thinking. To become a Christian involves admitting to ourselves, and to the world, that we have no claim on heaven based on our good works. Rather, we have learned the hard and painful lesson that we are wholly dependent on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Entitlements and grace, you see, are mutually exclusive. The two never can occupy precisely the same space at the same time. The very nature of divine grace is that it is a gift God bestows, regardless of entitlements.

The truth the prodigal son learns in the parable — and the truth you and I can learn, as well, as we make (or renew) that commitment to become a Christian — is that grace comes only to the disentitled.

[1]     How college students think they are more special than EVER: Study reveals rocketing sense of entitlement on U.S. campuses, Daily Mail, January 7, 2013.

Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton.  All rights reserved.