Luke 15:11-31

From playgrounds all over the world in every language, the words: “Hey, that’s not fair,” have been spoken since children have been playing together.

By the age of three, children have been thoroughly introduced to the concept of playing fair, but not all of them are totally convinced that rules are for everyone’s benefit.

Social Psychologist Susan Perry says that by age five a child learns that the object of most games is to win and winning makes us feel powerful. That means by that age children are also being tempted to cheat or bend the rules to their favor.

Part of our role as teachers is to help children squash their rule-breaking tendencies. Yet that’s hypocritical of us if we are cheating on our taxes, pretending to be sick so we can get out of work, or not saying anything about the item the cashier overlooked in our buggy.

It’s challenging to break cheating tendencies within a five-year-old when we aren’t so quick to identify the rules that we are breaking in our own lives.

The place children learn the most about playing fair is in a family. A common problem within families that contributes to a child’s sense of unfairness is favoritism.

Favoritism fosters an environment where children compete for affection. There’s only one winner. The rest are losers and children are taught that playing favorites is O.K, yet deep inside, someone is saying, “Hey, that’s not fair.”

Please hear the difference between having a favorite and showing favoritism.

It’s impossible not to like some people more than others. Just as most of us have a favorite color or a favorite dessert, it’s quite likely that you prefer the company of one grandchild over another. You might have more in common with one child, one parent, or one sibling, than you do another. However, there is a great difference between having a favorite and showing favoritism.

Favoritism happens when you begin to treat your favorite differently, giving gifts or special gifts only to that person, spending much more time with that person, and creating situations where your loving ways and affection for that person are very noticeable to others who love you and desire your affection and attention, too, but don’t get it.

If children or relatives have to compete for your love and affection, it will breed jealousy, contempt, competition, and anger.

Favoritism teaches those not receiving the love that they are seeking that they don’t quite measure up and perhaps never will. It teaches them that it’s O.K to treat other people unfairly.

Favoritism is a form of abuse, but it’s rarely seen that way, unless it is pronounced, like in the story of Cinderella.

Sometimes, regardless of what someone does, he or she cannot earn the love of an adult while someone else gets all the love and is treated special.

For those left out, it’s very painful. Even after victims have been wounded by a person’s favoritism and see how devastating it can be on a family, these people will often choose favorites themselves.

A clear illustration is in the book of Genesis. I am going to walk you through three family generations in Genesis to show the devastating effects of favoritism.

The first family is that of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah and Abraham were not able to have children. They became very old and God had promised them a child. In fact, God told Abraham that his descendants would become as numerous as the stars in the heavens and through him and Sarah, a great nation would be born.

Years passed and Sarah had not conceived, so she gave her maidservant to Abraham so that through her he could father a child. Ishmael was born to Abraham and Hagar and they assumed this was the child God had promised.

However, fourteen years later, a miracle happened. Sarah, in her old age, long past the years a woman could normally conceive, became pregnant. Isaac was born. God’s word came true.

One day, when Ishmael was seventeen and Isaac was three, Sarah didn’t like the way the two boys were playing together. Her jealousy and anger were so great that she told Abraham to get rid of Hagar “for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Gen. 21:10).

The scripture says that “the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son” (Gen. 21:11).

However, God gave Abraham peace and assured him that He would take care of Hagar and Ishmael and would make Ishmael into a great nation, which He did.

That doesn’t mean that there was any fairness in Abraham having to cut off Ishmael and his mother and send them off into the desert.

So Isaac grew up with this great favoritism bestowed upon him.

However, he was chosen by God, wasn’t he? God did say that it would be through Abraham and Sarah’s son that He would bless the nations, so isn’t this proof that’s it’s O.K. to show favoritism?

Please hear this distinction: being favored for a task with others in mind, especially a godly task, is different from showing favoritism, which comes at the detriment of others.

When God favors someone, it is for the benefit of others, like the time that the angel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” Luke 1:28.

God favored Mary to bring his son Jesus into the world for the benefit of us all. Therefore, being favored was and can be a good thing.

When God chose Israel as His chosen people, it was to bless all the nations of the world. This was not to the detriment of others, but for the benefit of others.

We usually lose this understanding when we make favorites within our own families. If we have a favorite, we usually show favoritism because there’s something in it for us. We want a reciprocal, special loving relationship in return. While we think such a tight bond is good, we don’t think that our favoritism actually damages their relationships with others.

How many of you have ever resented the teacher’s pet because that person got special treatment? It’s the same idea.

We see this in the next generation. Isaac and his wife Rebekah have twins, Jacob and Esau. Jacob, who liked to stay in the kitchen, became his mother’s favorite and Esau, a hunter, became his father’s favorite.

Jacob tricked his brother into trading him his birthright for a bowl of stew. Rebekah, their mother, showed her favoritism by helping Jacob trick their father into giving him his one-time blessing, thinking it was Esau.

Once Esau found out what happened, he said more than “Hey, that’s not fair.” He said, “I’m going to kill my brother.” So Rebekah had to send Jacob away to live with his Uncle Laban in order to keep his brother from killing him.

Now you would think that Jacob would have learned his lesson about playing favorites, but he didn’t. It’s a long story but Jacob ended up with two wives, Rachel and Leah. It wasn’t in his original plans. His father-in-law tricked him into marrying both daughters. Then he ended up fathering children with their maidservants. That’s another long story and it really made for a mess-up family. Between these two women and their maidservants, they ended up with twelve sons and one daughter.

Of the four women, Jacob’s favorite was Rachel. She was his first love.

When Joseph was born, the eleventh son, the first child born to Rachel, the wife he loved the most, Joseph became Jacob’s favorite son, and it was to the detriment of all of Jacob’s brothers because of all the favoritism their father showed to him.

Joseph began to bring bad reports to his father about his brother’s work. There’s indication that he didn’t have to work as much as his brothers. Joseph seemed to love showing off his beautiful coat that his father gave him, which reminded all of Jacob’s other sons that they were not loved as much as Joseph. Joseph had won his father’s affection and they had lost.

We have to be very careful how we communicate our love to members of our family. Family members often attach great emotional and sentimental value to objects. If we give something that shows our love and affection to one child but don’t give anything to the other, we run the risk of communicating that we love one more than the other. This is true whether our children are young or old.

Joseph’s brothers became so jealous and angry that they eventually decided to kill him, but instead they sold him to a group of Midianites travelling to Egypt. Once again, favoritism had split a family, three generations in a row.

We should always try to be fair in family matters so we do not create competition or contempt between family members for our affection.

For example, in Jesus’ story of the Loving Father, the father has an unconditional love for both of his sons, a love that was misunderstood by a son who believed he should get special treatment for his loyalty.

In the story, the father has two sons. One son takes his inheritance and leaves and he squanders it.  After losing all of his money, he was so poor that he had to take a job taking care of pigs. To a Jewish person, these were considered unclean animals. It was considered one of the worst jobs a person could possibly have. He finally decided to go home and ask to be taken back as one of his father’s servants.

Instead, his father sees him coming and runs down the road to welcome him home. He orders that a robe be placed on him, shoes be put on his feet, a ring put on his finger, and the fatted calf be killed. They throw a big party to celebrate because the son that was lost has come home.

However, the older son gets very angry because he thinks his father has been unfair to him.   He’s been faithful to his father. He hasn’t wasted his money. He’s worked hard and his father has never thrown a party in his honor. He refuses to join the celebration even after his father comes out and begs him to come in.

Was the father unfair? Was he playing favorites?

The father, seeking to clarify his actions, says to his older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”’(vs. 31-32).

The younger son thought that his father was lost to him forever because of what he’d done and he found grace unimaginable when he came home.

The older son thought he’d been the favorite all along because of his goodness. He couldn’t imagine such grace being extended to his brother because in his mind, there was only room for his dad to love one son, certainly not one that was such a sinner as his brother.

What we learn about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is that the plan God set in place to redeem the world seemed to get messed up with their favoritism, yet, God found a way each time to work through their mistakes and eventually these generations led us to Jesus, who brings us into a right relationship with the Father through his grace, not through our goodness.

Sometimes people respond to God’s invitation to come into his family by believing that God couldn’t possibly love them because of what they’ve done. Some leave the faith and some never come to faith because they think they’ve done too many unholy things for God to embrace them. God’s grace is like that of the loving father. He throws parties in heaven when people come to Him in repentance.

If this person is you, remember, you are favored, not because you are better than anyone else but because God made you and loves you and has a plan for your life. God wants to use you to continue His work in this world. Whatever your past, the Father will run to meet you if you will come home to Him.

Others of us, if we are not careful, will think that we are favored because we work so hard for God, and we might be tempted to look at others and think that they are a lost cause. Because we think that, because we don’t believe God should love them or his grace should cover their sins, we might not make any attempt to love them, either.

Like Sarah, we send them away into the desert. We couldn’t care less what happens to them. But just as God assured Abraham that he would care for Ishmael and Hagar, God cares for every soul.

So if we have a spirit like Sarah, or one like the older brother, God invites us to the party too, but he wants us to come with a changed heart.

Yes, we are favored, but God doesn’t show favoritism. God invites us all into his house of love, forgiveness and grace, but He does not do this just for our sake. He does so because He wants us to reach others and love others and celebrate with Him when any person comes to faith.

Today, I invite you to care for people around you. Don’t do it by showing favoritism. Care by showing your love through fairness and through grace. Care by reaching out to people that others have cast aside. Care by believing that God has favored you, not at the exclusion of others, but to join His followers in sharing God’s grace with a broken world.

If you are the one in need of God’s grace, like the loving Father, God stands ready to receive you and welcome you home.