Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's in it for the other guy?

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One thing I think a lot of us think about when confronted with a decision or a choice is to ask the question: what’s in it for me? How will this benefit me? As self-serving as this may sound, this is what drives and motivates us. In fact, many good people who volunteer time, effort and energy to serve in the parish, often find themselves laboring under the same questions, though they may be honestly unaware of it. To be fair, thinking of one’s own welfare does not necessarily mean that we are selfish. Since, we spend all day, every day in our bodies and our lives, it is also pretty obvious that you would most likely think about your own life and problems a bit more than you think about other people or things. It’s also understandable that people have to “watch their backs” and make sure they are not taken advantage of.  

However, it’s easy to trap ourselves in our own little universe, where we have become insulated and removed from the rest of the world. This can be quite limiting at best, and at worst, develop into selfishness and narcissism. When we are too absorbed in our world, it’s quite easy to always feel that we are getting the raw end of the deal. Cynicism and resentment often trails closely behind. It’s really hard to be thinking about others when we are busy feeling sorry for ourselves. The good fortune of others, instead of being a reason for rejoicing, becomes another sore point leading to resentment. That is why doing something only because it’s beneficial to ourselves may not be enough. Often, we need to do something simply because it is the right thing to do. And sometimes, the right thing to do is more than just fulfilling the burning desire to satisfy our selfish interests.

Self-interest rears its ugly head in today’s gospel parable. It is what transforms the initial sense of gratitude into a gnawing sense of resentment. The parable of the workers at the vineyard must be read in the context of the verses that precedes it. The story is told by Jesus in response to Peter’s question. A modern rephrasing could sound like this, “What’s in it for us?” Peter wanted to know what reward would be given to those who give up everything to follow Jesus. In a sense, Peter’s concern matches ours. Yet there is something in Peter’s comparative attitude and his need for the assurance of reward that does not fit well with labouring in the Lord’s vineyard. If Peter is worrying about a poor payoff, Jesus overwhelms him with vision of gratuitous abundance. To Peter’s self-serving motivations, Jesus proposes another paradigm, that of generosity – a generous heart is one filled with gratitude and sees everything as grace. A generous heart considers the struggles, difficulties, the welfare of others, instead of just honing in on the injustices that life has dished out to us.

The story starts out with a conventional plot, hiring day workers, which already suggests that they were unemployed till that moment. But it turns at the end to what is totally unconventional, so that the people who worked the least got equal pay. The owner of the vineyard orders that all be equally paid a denarius, whether you had worked for the entire 12 hours or for less than an hour. Something immediately strikes us as wrong. Conventional social dealings would dictate the eleventh hour hired help would receive 1/12 of what the first hired agreed to. But there is a greater surprise. To add injury to the already incensed members of the first group of workers, the latecomers get paid first. The master’s generosity, which is a pleasant surprise to the latecomers, becomes a cruel disappointment to the early birds.

The dissatisfaction of the first group of workers is understandable. They had endured the unrelenting heat of the sun, the hot scorching desert winds throughout the whole day, while the others worked for far less during the cool of the evening. Economic justice would demand that “to every man (be given) what he deserves.” Therefore thinking in terms of standard social conventions, they expected more. But was their complaint justified? Didn’t they get what they deserved, what they had agreed upon at the beginning, and even more than prevailing market standards? The landowner’s offer of one denarius for a day’s work is indeed generous. They had accepted it happily at the beginning. Furthermore, where vineyard day workers were victims of an exploitive socio-economic system, the graciousness of the landowner to provide work opportunities to them at a wage that was unequal to their job, was not a sign of meagerness but rather generosity.

The landowner had not been unjust, he has every right to do what he wants with his property. The real problem is that the grumblers harbour envy because their employer is generous towards those who do not merit such treatment. But his generosity rather is an expression of gracious freedom, not spiteful arbitrariness, while their complaints are an expression not of their unfair treatment but of their lovelessness.

It is here that we see the radical difference between their sense of justice and that of the landowner, who symbolises God. The parable thus shows that God’s justice is not according to man’s calculations. God’s justice bestows mercy on the hapless and rebuffs the proud claims of merit. The divine principle of justice may be stated as follows, “to every man what he needs.” Thus, the bestowal of grace is not correlated to the work done – the sacrifice made, the amount of prayers offered, the expanse of one’s missionary efforts. It flows from the nature of God who is good and gracious. Here, we see how the limiting motivational mentality of the first group of workers actually exposes the true nature of their crime. Rather than be grateful for the grace that they themselves had received and for the abundant gratuitousness shown to others, they could only grumble. The workers should be pleased with what the landowner gives them, and not be concerned with what He gives others. Making comparisons ultimately spawns and fans an epidemic of grumbling and resentment.

Our society has truly been infected by an epidemic of envy and complaints. Rather than blaming God for the injustices in the world, the parable calls for honest self-examination – have we truly allowed our obsession with self-interest to dampen our joy and blind us to the needs of our neighbours? Pope Francis rightly states the problem in the second paragraph of Evangelii Gaudium, “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless.” (EG 2)

Many of us who have suffered similar injustice of the system, where merit does not guarantee reward, can share the indignation of the first class of workers who had sweated and slaved the whole day, unlike the others. But the parable seems to be telling us to go beyond that self-serving question “What’s in it for me?” but rather, “What’s in it for the other guy?” That is a hard lesson to learn, because oftentimes when we go to God in prayer thinking we deserve something from Him. We believe He owes us something. The same goes with service offered to the community of the Church. This parable is a painful but necessary reminder that what we receive from God is an undeserved gift. God owes us nothing. In fact, if God were to give us exactly what we do deserve, we would receive condemnation.

The generosity of God should always awaken us to greater mercy, compassion and generosity, rather than be a cause for complaint and grumbling. At the end of the day, for Christ’s disciples, all rewards are really “gifts” or expressions of divine favour and not earned “wages,” “mercy” shown to the undeserving, rather than a “debt” owed by God to us for our good works. Don’t ask “what’s in it for me?” but merely be always grateful for the many graces we most certainly do not deserve. At my recent annual retreat, the Retreat Master reminded us, “in God’s business, rule number one is that no one works for himself. Everybody takes care of somebody; in that way, all our backs are covered. If you doubt this kingdom paradigm, you will never be happy… (so) instead of looking at your neighbor as a nuisance and a burden, pray that he be your opportunity and strength.”

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