24 Sep 2017
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Most of us have something we’d like to change about ourselves. Maybe we’d like to be taller or shorter, or thinner. Maybe we wish we could be more outspoken or quicker on our feet. Who knows—there are lots of ways we could be different than what we are. There are a lot of different scenarios of life we could think about: “I want to have that person’s life;” or “I wish I could be more like so-and-so.”
It can take the more negative form, too, you know: “Why does that person get the perfect body and the perfect house? What’s so special about that person that they have everything, and I have to struggle?” Of course, that leads us into the gospel today: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you’ve made them equal to us, who bore the whole day’s burden and the heat—that’s unfair!”
We’re hard-wired, it seems, to compare ourselves to others. It’s in our nature to be competitive. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Actually it can be a very good thing.
When we’re baptized into the life of Christ, we’re asked to compare our own life to Christ’s life—not that we’re trying to be the Son of God, but we are trying to imitate him, his values and his particular way of loving God and loving others. Saint Paul says as much when he says, “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
And then we have the Two Great Commandments to compare ourselves against, as well as the Beatitudes. Our Blessed Mother serves as an example for us, as do all the saints. For children, their parents and teachers serve as models. As a musician, I might look to a particular artist for inspiration and guidance.
And so, comparing ourselves to others and being competitive isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can actually inspire us to be better ourselves. And that’s a good reason to think about those things we’d like to change about ourselves. Personal growth, and becoming the person we’re made to be is a very good thing.
Of course, there’s a negative side as well. And that can take the form of jealousy, envy, or pride, or even self-hatred. For example, some people struggle with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. The desire to have the ideal body weight or the ideal body shape pushes them over the edge. Even if a woman is all skin and bones, she’ll still see herself as overweight; she can’t see what’s there. Her comparison to a societal norm blinds her to reality.
Or there are people who are convinced that the world is against them, and so they see everything that happens as a strike against them; people are intentionally trying to slight them and to push them down. And so, they might see others’ success as rightfully belonging to them. That’s the basis of class warfare: the division between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Reality, however, could be very different. There are injustices in the world, for sure. But the world isn’t one, big cesspool of inequality and unfairness.
Closer to home, we could think of any parish merger. It’s been eight years for us, and there’s still a certain “sibling rivalry” present. There’s still a mindset here and there that compares and contrasts: “How are they being treated, and how are we being treated?”
The negative in all these examples—and in the parable from the gospel today—is that attention isn’t focused enough on the right thing. The parable of the prodigal son comes to mind. The older brother was furious that his father would give a celebration for his younger brother. He said to his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving away for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” To which the father answered, “My son, everything I have is yours.”
Everything the father had always belonged to his older son. Just because the son wasn’t wise enough to enjoy it, doesn’t mean his father should be stingy in sharing it with others. That older son should’ve been relishing in everything he had from his father, so that when his younger brother came home, he would’ve wanted him to share in it just as much as he had. Instead of being focused on his own blessings, he was focused on his younger brother’s.
That was the problem in the parable in today’s gospel as well. The worker wasn’t focused on his own wage; he was focused on the other’s wage. Instead of focusing on what someone else has, why don’t I focus on the blessings that are mine? Why am I not happy with them? Why is the grass always greener on the other side?
Comparing ourselves with others can be a good and fruitful thing to do. It can also be disastrous. It depends on what our motivation is. And it depends on how balanced it is with the spirit of gratitude and cooperation.
St. Paul gives us the image of the “many parts of the one body.” He writes, “There should be no division in the body, but its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:25-26). If a neighbor gets a new job, can I be happy for that person, while at the same time being thankful for my own job? If a classmate plays an excellent game of football, can I congratulate that person, while at the same time not wishing it was me getting all the accolades?
Scripture today gives us an enormous challenge. It asks us to be happy, to be grateful, and to consider ourselves blessed for all that we have and all that we are...regardless of what others have. It sounds so simple. But it’s tough to do.
And maybe it’s helpful to think about God’s motives for doing what he does. Again, from the parable today, we see: that God is generous (Mt 20:15); that he is concerned for what is just and right (Mt 20:4); and that he wants to involve as many people as possible in his work. Why does God shower down his blessings in the way he does? Because he is generous, because he is wise, and he wants everyone to share his life—not one person, not this group or that group, but everyone.
We have an enormous challenge: to be happy, to be grateful, and to consider ourselves blessed...regardless of what others have. May we love ourselves as God loves us so that, in turn, we can love others and be happy for them, too.