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Comparing Yourself to Others

There are lots of parables throughout the gospel of Matthew that explain the nature of the “kingdom of heaven.” The one that has been brought to the forefront of my mind recently is “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,” from Matthew 20. It reveals the error in our innate “human sensibilities.” And, it also helps demonstrate why living under God’s reign is both radical and freeing.

Let me begin by saying that I am always so tempted to compare myself to others. It seems to be instinctive human behavior—siblings grow up mimicking and comparing themselves to each other. As soon as we reach schooling age, we’re taught to compete with other students and to assess our learning based on arbitrary grades and tests. Throughout the college application and into the adult world, our world tells us to market ourselves, to explain over and over again through essays and resumes and transcripts why we are better or more qualified than the next person.

The only problem with this mentality—that’s not how God sees us.

In this parable, there is a landowner who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. He agrees to pay them a denarius for a days’ work. That’s all well and dandy, the worker deserves his wages. A couple hours later, he goes out again and hires a few more workers. This happens a few more intervals, the landowner going out as late at 5pm with this refrain: “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”

When the evening comes though, the landowner tells his foreman to pay the workers their wages—each receiving a denarius—starting with those he hired last. When those he hired first came to receive their wages, they grumbled: ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour! Why are we getting paid the same amount when we’ve been working since morning and have borne the heat of the day?”

The landowner answered them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

This parable is striking for so many reasons. I had the same reaction as the workers from earlier in the day: they worked much longer and harder than the ones hired later in the day, isn’t it only fair that they get paid more? But by whose definition of “fair”? The point of the parable is to reveal the difference between human sensibilities and God’s sensibilities. The human sensibility is to be paid according to one’s effort, value, or worth. If the workers from the early morning provided more value and worked harder, then they deserve to be paid more.

But that’s not how God operates. The entire gospel is founded on the premise that God loves unreservedly. That while we were still sinners, abject and undeserving of grace, Christ died for us. God loves each and every person with the same intense dignity bestowed simply for being a human being—his creation and beloved children, well before we could provide anything like “value” or “work” in his kingdom.

The human sensibility is also to compare oneself to others for security or validation. “Well, I’m working harder than him. Surely I’m more deserving than her.” It’s a gross misalignment of biblical teaching to separate people into “good” or “bad,” “deserving of heaven versus not.” Tragically, it’s also engrained in our culture and language: people comment on my being a Christian with a both a false reverence and a self-deprecating humor: “wow, you’re trying to be Christian? So holy and noble of you. God is surely going to smite a sinner like me.”

God doesn’t look at you in comparison to anyone else. That’s a huge paradigm shift that many people don’t seem to grasp. God doesn’t separate people into tiers. He doesn’t grade us based on a curve. There is no competition or scarcity when it comes to God’s love. So the landowner says that he is perfectly entitled to pay the workers exactly what he wants: one denarius each. What it’s to the earlier workers if he chooses to be extra generous with the workers that he hired last? We are so engrained in this culture of competition, scarcity, and evaluation in comparison to others, that this notion rubs us the wrong way—it seems unfair. But that is why God’s gospel to us is so very radical. God has a hope for how society and people can live that is so very contrary to the way humans would default to.

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

That’s the other motif that shows up again and again throughout Jesus’ teachings. There’s more to parse out there, but for now I just want to dwell on this reminder that God’s fairness is not our fairness. I need to be reminded of this continually: God doesn’t see me in comparison to others. I might subconsciously compare myself to others and derive my own worth from where I stand in relation to others, but God ultimately chooses to give me whatever graces he desires. And that is not impacted by whatever graces he chooses to give to the people around me.

I’ve been struggling recently because I run into this very often in my part-time work for the church. Feelings of guilt always nag at me: Am I working enough hours to justify what the church is paying me? Am I doing enough to deserve this? Particularly troublesome is the fact that I used to serve the church on my own time prior to taking a part-time role anyways. Shouldn’t I be doing more, or working harder, now that I’m getting paid to work for the church? To me, that seems “more fair.” Isn’t the whole point of hiring someone the fact that they’ll be able to put in more time or effort into serving the church as compared to someone who is volunteering time outside of their full-time job somewhere else?

God’s kingdom and his rules are is both radical and freeing in this way. It’s freeing in the sense that I can relinquish all of my insecurities around “am I doing enough?” Or, “isn’t it unfair or reflect poorly on me if someone as a lay leader is contributing more time or effort into serving than I am as a paid, part-time ministry person?” God is giving me graces to serve in whatever capacity I am able to now, in this season of my life. God is giving volunteer leaders their own graces in life to be able to serve in whatever capacity they have chosen. Is it up to me to judge fairness or equity based on who is working harder or working more?

I cannot deny that I am still struggling with this. This parable cuts at my heart—I still won’t allow myself to believe that God would operate against the way I’ve been trained to think of myself. It’s hard to fathom “fairness” in a capitalistic world that mandates people being compensated for the value or worth that they bring. It’s still unsettling to trust that God loves me regardless of “how good a Christian I am,” or “how effective I am as a leader,” or “how much I contribute to the church.” Is this just wishful thinking? Am I just making up excuses for my own laziness? Am I just grasping at any paradigm that will give me reason for self-justification?

Question: what was your first reaction upon reading the parable in Matthew 20?

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