|The Workers Being Paid (Rembrandt, 1637)|
Have you ever wondered why everyone else seems to catch a break and you never do? That seems to be the complaint of the agricultural workers in the parable Jesus tells in the gospel assigned for Pentecost 16 in the RCL (Matthew 20:1-16). I mean, these guys who’ve been working all day in the hot sun are pretty pissed at their boss. If they weren’t day laborers, I’m sure they’d take it up with the steward of the vineyard workers local. They’ve busted their humps all day, gotten no overtime, and the part-timers who came on at the end of the shift got extra perks for only working a few hours! What the freak is up with that??!!
If the anger these guys feel about being mistreated isn’t enough, the Hebrew Scripture lesson (Jonah 3:10-4:11) is also jam-packed with vitriol and indignation. Just put yourself in Jonah’s place—here the guy’s been righteous and God-fearing all of his life (Well, except for his little act of disobedience in Chapter 1, but he repented his butt off in Chapter 2 so I’m sure he feels he’s made up for it), and these godless feminine hygiene products (metaphorically speaking) of Nineveh get forgiven for all the crime they’ve committed just by repenting one stinkin’ day. Jonah had to spend three days in a fish’s belly before God cut him some slack. Imagine how this guy must be fuming! And to top it all off, not only does God relent and not destroy Jonah’s enemies, but he kills the plant that Jonah was using for shade. How unfair can you get..?
Why do the undeserving prosper when the rest of us get screwed? Why does God let that happen? Ever ask yourself that?
Or have you ever stopped to consider what a powerful, sinful, and poisonous thing is our sense of wounded entitlement? We keep saying, “I’m doing my best, but the other guy keeps getting ahead. It’s not fair!” But that attitude has been the bane of the human race since we climbed out of the slime. Sometimes I think the Old Testament story of Cain and Able might’ve been a more appropriate companion piece for the parable in Matthew’s gospel. Why? Because envy and self-righteousness not only pollute our lives but can lead to violence and destruction.
The big issue in the news here in the US lately has been the question of immigration policy. What do we do about those who’ve come into this country illegally? Are they entitled to the same social safety nets and benefits as law-abiding American citizens? I’m sure there are many who are asking why we pay for healthcare for illegals when good American citizens whose families have been here for generations, are struggling. We keep saying, “But we did everything right and played by the rules. Why do they get special treatment?”
But let’s watch our attitudes. Once upon a time there was a great nation. Many states united to form one country with a single language. It grew prosperous and militarily strong. It was victorious in war and economically powerful. Then it got involved in a long, protracted war it couldn’t win. The economy went south, and the people became discontented until a charismatic man arose and told the people that they had been cheated of their rights. Their government had betrayed them, he said, and a bunch of undeserving folks who weren’t real citizens were responsible for their predicament. If they voted for him, he told the people, he would make their country great again. Many people thought he was full of crap, but many didn’t. In March of 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and the world suffered in consequence.
But the parable Jesus tells is not about leaders. Indeed, it’s not a ruler who corrupts a country—it’s the sin of covetousness, envy, and ingratitude which is in the hearts of the people which is just waiting to be exploited.
I don’t think I suffer when my brother prospers. But we all suffer if our brothers suffer and we remain arrogantly indifferent to that suffering.
God has not wronged me when others prosper or when they receive an act of mercy. Indeed, God has paid me the agreed upon wage. “Give us this day our daily bread.” The key to joyful living has got to be letting go of comparisons and false ideas of justice and fairness, while at the same time cultivating a sense of gratitude for what God has already done. The rottenest day you’re ever going to have in your life will be full of more blessings than you can count. On the day you drive home from work banging the steering wheel in frustration over the mindless jerks you have to work with, you may just want to remember that you still have a steering wheel to bang, a home to go to, and a job where you meet those idiots. God has not wronged you. Rather, he’s blessed you every single day.
Be joyful, my friends, in the love and mercy of God. Thanks for hanging out with me.