Reading Rob Bell and a conversation that I’ve recently had set my mind to thinking about how we attach our sense of worth and how we should see our sense of worth. Particularly in relation to the parable of the lost son, which to me has always seemed to be the parable of the elder son rather than that of the lost one, but I think perhaps I have been missing something here. Because it also seems to say an awful lot about how we see ourselves and what we see as our worth is so often determined by what other people think and of what we see in ourselves as our failures and our mistakes. Often we see in ourselves someone who is only worth what we can offer others directly and so we’ll run ourselves ragged in order to gain the approval of others so that we can see our self worth mirrored in that approval.
It can be next to impossible to look at ourselves and see someone who has value of our own accord regardless of what we can do or what we have done and looking at the parable again this is exactly what the youngest son is doing. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” In himself he could only see someone who was unworthy, someone who had sinned, someone who because of what he had done was only fit to be a servant. This is the view that others including his brother have of him and knowing that he has done nothing but what they would think, this is how he sees himself. We’ve all been there, or possibly are still there, still believing that sense of shame that others or ourselves have attached to us, and unable to see ourselves in any other light than that.
In a way you can perhaps see the same thing in the reaction of the elder son; “All these years I have been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” His sense of self worth through all the years has been through what he can do, what he can offer and in his mind he has given everything, run himself into the ground for this purpose. So when it seems to him that he has been slighted, despite everything he has done, by his father’s reaction to the youngest son returning home, he responds with anger. He cannot see the sense of shame that his youngest brother has attached to himself, cannot see anything but what seems to him to be a vast unfairness.
But it is his fathers reaction to both sons which should perhaps tell us more about what we should see in ourselves, even when we can’t. When all we can see is unworthy, someone who deserves nothing, the fathers reaction was to bring out the robe, the ring and to kill the fatted calf because what he could see was someone who was special. Someone who was worth something in his own right, no matter what he had done or for that matter hadn’t done, he was of high value in and of himself. When all we can see is someone who has given everything and got nothing to establish our sense of worth the fathers response was, “My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.” He had never had to work himself into the ground in order to gain approval, he had always had it the entire time.
It’s not easy to look at ourselves and see someone who is precious of our own accord, not for what we can give others or what others think of us. That we have a value that is beyond what we see in ourselves, because what we see in ourselves is the value that others have placed on us through their actions and their behaviour towards us. I think that like the younger son we often see only shame and unworthiness, and like the elder son we often work ourselves into the ground in order to gain approval, only to be left with a sense of our own unworthiness when this doesn’t seem to be recognised. Perhaps we need to stop and give ourselves permission to have value. It’s not easy and don’t ask me how, but perhaps we need to see someone who is more worthy than we can ever dream of.