For the past few days, a man has stood on a corner near our house, holding up a sign with resemblance to “will work for food.” You’ve seen him, too. Perhaps not the same person, but others like him. In our town, sad to say, we have a lot of veterans in this strait.
This man reminded me of an essay a friend wrote some years ago in which she posed the question: what do we mean when we say, you deserve it? Who deserves what, and why?
In our culture, this usually applies to material goods. “You deserve a break today.”
“You deserve that car because you worked so hard for it.”
Does the man on the corner deserve money even though he hasn’t worked for it? What about those who eventually benefit from the money we put into the Salvation Army kettles?
In our culture, too, “deserving” is too often associated with working, striving.
Yet what about the person at work who climbs the ladder but abuses people on the way to get there? He or she worked hard for the promotions, right?
Some years ago, I read a book about the homeless in Atlanta. I can’t recall the full title but the word “deserve” was in it. The premise: Because you’re homeless, you don’t deserve what most of the rest of us have.
I also had a friend, now deceased, who, after you asked how he was doing, would say: Better than I deserve. I never really understood that. I knew he had hurt a number of people in his life, like most of the rest of us, but does that mean he didn’t deserve grace now? (“deserve”and “grace” being oxymorons.)
Then check this out: A couple in Connecticut this week won some mega-jackpot lottery and they were already loaded. Did they deserve to win more than, say, our guy here on the street corner? My instinct says no; give it to him. Then again, they scratched the ticket.
Who’s to say who deserves what?