A Lesson in the Generosity of God and the Meanness of Man
The parable of the laborers in the master’s vineyard presents us with something of a dilemma, doesn’t it?
On the one hand, we entirely understand why the first group of laborers is upset. We live in a world where the just expectation is that people receive what they’ve earned, and that the harder one works, the more one should be compensated. Heck, this IS the American Dream! Of course the laborers should be mad.
Plus, what the master is doing does not make good business sense. As soon as the word spreads, nobody will show up to work all day. They’ll all start coming around at 4 or 5, expecting a handout. The master will soon be out of business, and it serves him right.
On the other hand, as soon as the master speaks, we are put firmly in our place. He calmly points out that the first laborers agreed on the wage beforehand, and we have no reason to believe this was anything but a fair and just wage. They have not been cheated out of anything they deserve, but they are angry simply because others were luckier than they were, that they received more per hour than they did.
This lays bare two of the most common and ugly human failings, ones that tend to rear their heads even in the most virtuous people—the first laborers were, after all, working as they were supposed to do: envy and pride.
Pride is the mother of all sins, the one that tends to make us think we are far more important than we are, and makes us fearful of losing whatever dignity we have or think we have coming to us. Envy (a close relative to pride) occurs when somebody possesses something you do not, and you desire either to have that thing yourself (without having earned it) or you desire that the other person should not have it. Both desires are ugly and both prevent us from being truly thankful for the good we’ve received, which is quite a lot.
It stung the laborers’ pride to have been the suckers working all day, even though they were justly paid. The complainers clearly thought they deserved more money than the late-comers, but, interestingly, only after the others had benefited from the master’s generosity. And that betrays their petty and vain motives. This parable stings us precisely because, let’s be honest here, we mostly think of ourselves in that first group and would have complained, too!
So this is the obvious takeaway from the parable: Stop worrying so much about what other people get, and be thankful for what you have!
There is, however, one more aspect of this parable that is far more important, although perhaps a bit less obvious: our relationship to the master (God) and the generosity that we, like those workers, often fail to recognize and appreciate.
Let me put it this way: Imagine that we were the laborers in the parable, and everybody received not just a day’s wages, but more money than anybody could ever spend in a thousand lifetimes. Would we, like the laborers, still complain to the master that others received more than us?
Well, many of us probably and sadly would (pride and envy are stubborn sins), but since the size of the gift was so generous, would not “more” cease to have any real meaning for us? By any real measure, we would have been just as ridiculously overpaid as the laborer who showed up late. There would be little cause for pride or envy, because, in our new-found and unearned riches, we would be free to be thankful to the master and happy for everybody who received the same generosity.
The fact of the matter is that we are all, every one of us, much more like the lucky (blessed) laborer who showed up at the last minute than like the laborers hard at work all day. The great truth of our faith, the Good News, is that we have generously received in Jesus Christ a gift that none of us deserve, but which is given to us nonetheless. Our pride and envy keep from appreciating that sometimes.
In our weakness we will always struggle with pride and envy and we will never fully appreciate the magnitude of God’s gifts until the end, but that must not discourage us from trying! The more often we take a few seconds out of our busy day to remind ourselves of how ridiculously blessed we are and to give thanks to God for his generosity, the more we will be able to resist falling into the ugly sins of pride and envy, and live more fully and beautifully as the sons and daughters of God we are.
Prepared for Aleteia by the Canonry of Saint Leopold. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.