It keeps coming back: the prodigal son and the son who is always at home...Martha and Mary...the Apostles fighting among themselves about who is the greatest.

Different people, different settings, but the same issue: How can I earn God’s approval?

There is only one answer. I can’t! God’s love is never earned; it can only be given.

If we follow each of these biblical stories carefully, we find that there are two fundamentally different approaches to a relationship with God.
The first is not really a relationship at all. It begins with presumption that, to get God’s attention, I somehow have to impress God.

Now, there is no reason to have suspected that Martha or the older son, for example, did not sincerely want to please the person whose approval they sought: in Martha’s case, Jesus; with the son at home, his father. Their real motives only come into question when they start complaining because, respectively, their sister or brother is receiving what seems to be more attention.

Why does this bother them? The implication is that the attention does not seem to be deserved. In other words, Martha feels she deserves the attention that her sister Mary is getting for doing nothing but sitting with Jesus and listening to him. Because she is working harder, Martha feels she deserves more.

The same is obviously true with the older son — even more so. The prodigal son has not only left his brother alone to take care of his father, but has gone off to live a life of self-indulgence. When he returns and the father forgives and embraces him, the other son is fuming. In his mind, his brother does not deserve any of this, because he has done nothing to earn it, whereas he — the older brother — worked hard and should be rewarded.

The Apostles themselves often got into squabbles about whom Jesus favored. Each of them seems to have wanted to be the first — and, it is my guess, they each tried to earn their favor by doing something to “one-up” each other and to really impress Jesus.

All of us can understand these things very well. It seems only a matter of simple justice that the person who works harder or longer should be paid more than the one who works less.

But here is the problem: God’s love is not earned. It is given freely — and, always, undeservedly.

Does anyone of us really “deserve” to be loved and forgiven? God became man and took on human flesh to suffer and die for us because we were not capable on our own of saving ourselves, of becoming pleasing in God’s eyes.

Christ did not come for saints, but for sinners. If any of us really deserved God’s love, than Christ could have saved himself a trip and stayed in heaven without having to suffer and die for us.

The real moral of these stories, it seems to me, is that what God really wants is our hearts: our love and attention to God and God’s goodness, not our own.

To the extent that we try to impress God (and others) with our virtue, we end up focusing not on God but on ourselves: our own “brownie points,” so to speak. Of course, God wants us to be good — but to be good because he loves us, not so that we can buy his love for us.

The true meaning of grace is that it is freely given, not earned. In fact, that is also true about any really genuine kind of love. There is no question that true love does involve effort and dedication; but, to the extent that we think we have to earn it through performance, we may actually be trying to control the source of that love, and can never really be sure that we are being loved for who we are, not for what we have done.

God offers us all-forgiving, healing love. Our true motivation for working to please God is not so that we can get him to love us, but so that we can show our thanks for already being loved.

That is the basis for a true religion, which is not grounded in fear or entitlement, but in gratitude.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)