A Sense of Entitlement (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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I admit that as I’ve moved into my mid-50’s, I’ve become more interested in topics that were formerly boring to me.  One of those is the discussions around “entitlements” – you know, stuff like Social Security and Medicare.  Twenty years ago, this stuff was all something for a long time in the future.  But now, it seems like I should start paying attention!

And one of the things I’ve paid attention to is the oddity of the word “entitlement” to describe these things, because being or feeling “entitled” usually connotes a sense of arrogance or special privilege. But for a few things in our lives, especially Social Security and Medicare, most of us are perfectly willing to use the term “entitlement” because we really do feel entitled to something when we’ve:

  • Paid for it and earned it … (honestly, even if I don’t use the word, if I pay for something, I generally feel like I should get it!)
  • Achieved a certain status … (whether it’s reaching a certain age, or gaining a certain level of experience and expertise in my job, I often do feel that there are certain things I should be able to expect…)
  • Got power to enforce our expectations… (sometimes, people just get robbed; but when you’ve got the power to prevent yourself or others from being taken advantage of, you generally use it; which is why of course, the letters I now get regularly from AARP remind me of the power of voting!)

And honestly, when we feel, rightly or wrongly, that our entitlements are at risk, it makes us uneasy and nervous.  And the times we’re living through right now have made people of all ages uneasy and nervous because many things seem at risk.

And actually, “entitlements” form the context of the discussions that people are having with Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.  Although the initial question from the Pharisees is presented as a question about marriage and divorce, the real issue behind the question was whether somebody should be able to feel entitled to a sense of righteousness and belonging in the kingdom of God based upon what they had or hadn’t done.

Because everybody knew the answer to the question.  From ancient times, people had been getting married.  And from ancient times, people got divorced.  It was a sufficiently difficult enough situation that even the Old Testament, which lifted up marriage as permanent and indissoluble, set up rules and procedures for when marriages ended.  The Pharisees knew this, and so did Jesus.

So Jesus’ answer isn’t anything new.  Jesus reinforces God’s hope for loyalty and commitment in relationships.  He acknowledges the pain and brokenness that often happen in human relationships.  He calls that pain and brokenness sin.  And notice he doesn’t single out divorce as the worst sin or an unforgivable sin.

But what Jesus does do is to refuse to sweep the pain and brokenness under the rug.  Because what the Pharisees were really asking was whether they could find some loopholes – not just about marriage and divorce – which would allow them to continue to live with a sense that they were really entitled to God’s love and to inclusion in God’s kingdom.

So in a sense, what Jesus is really doing is “entitlement reform”!  That is, he’s challenging every sense of human entitlement to God’s love, to inclusion in God’s kingdom, and to a sense of personal righteousness.

Because people then and now, even if we don’t like to admit it, often live with a pretty big sense of entitlement when it comes to God and righteousness.  Sometimes, that sense of entitlement comes from the feeling that:

  • We’ve earned it because we’ve done the right things or avoided the really “bad” stuff … (or at least, “if I have done something “bad”, I’ve properly “repented” of it, whereas YOU on the other hand…!”)
  • We have a certain “status” (we’ve heard in church that we’re people God loves; and it’s true!  And then we think, well of course, what’s not to love about you and me?  Yes, we’re grumpy sometimes, but basically we’re “good” people, not like those others who commit “that sin”, or vote for the other party…!)  
  • We’ve got the power to change our relationship with God if it’s not going right (we tell ourselves we can pray harder and louder, or change our behavior, or at least look more “holy” to others, and that should make God change his mind about us…)

So against this sense of entitlement, Jesus takes a little child and says to his disciples, and to all of us, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 

Now you would think Jesus wouldn’t have to do this!  Just one chapter ago, Jesus had placed a child in the midst of the disciples and told them that God’s welcome in their lives – and their welcome to one another – should be like welcoming a child.

But the disciples’ sense of “entitlement” was so strong – they were entitled to be near Jesus but the kids weren’t – that they clearly hadn’t learned this lesson! 

And so Jesus tries again!  And what Jesus is pointing out (again!) is that a child has:

  • No way to earn anything – everything the child has the child gets because of the parent’s love (whether the child is being sweet and nice or obnoxious and whiny…!)
  • No status – the disciples still think children can be disregarded; they could be seen but not heard, and they really didn’t “count” for much of anything until they reached legal age…
  • No power to enforce his or her rights – even today, kids don’t vote!  And in the first century world, there wasn’t even any sense of “universal human rights” that should be afforded even to a child; the child is completely dependent upon the love and care and mercy of the parents…

And that’s Jesus’ point.  It’s the great thing about Jesus’ “entitlement reform”. You don’t get in, and you don’t stay in, the kingdom of God by any kind of entitlement or sense of entitlement.  Instead, you can only “receive” the kingdom by the love, mercy and the power of God. 

Jesus’ “entitlement reform” means that you get God’s love even though you can’t earn it.  You get to be part of the kingdom of God even though you don’t have the right status.  And the power that keeps you in the kingdom is not the power of your own efforts to do good or to avoid sin, but rather the greater power of God’s love and God’s forgiveness.