God’s Alternative to Comparisons

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 20:1-16

Three brief stories.

Story One. One December many years ago, a church youth group learned about a family in their community that was in very bad financial straits. There were some young children in this family, and the youth group decided to purchase Christmas gifts for them, to make sure they got something for Christmas. So one Sunday afternoon, the youth group went with their advisors on a shopping spree to buy gifts. While they were in the checkout line, one of the advisors got a sour look on his face, and said, “I think these kids are going to have more at Christmas than my kids.”

Story Two. One spring many years ago, an adult Sunday School class was discussing the Great Depression. Several older women shared their memories of growing up during the depression, and they said, “We were poor. We had almost nothing. But that was alright, because everybody else was in the same boat too.”

Story Three. One summer many years ago, two men were resting in the jungle. Suddenly they heard a roar, and realized a lion was nearby. One of them immediately began to put his shoes on, and laced them up quickly. The second man said, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a lion.” The first man said, “I don’t need to outrun the lion. I just need to outrun you.

There is a common thread among these stories. They all show a particular part of human nature: the way we compare ourselves to one another. In the first story, the youth group advisor was happy to help out a family in need, so long as they still got less than his own family. In the second story, the suffering of poverty didn’t feel like suffering to those women, because everyone they knew suffered equally. And in the third story, the first man knew that it really didn’t matter how quickly he ran from the lion, so long as it was faster than his friend.

I think it’s the same with the workers hired first in today’s gospel. They were quite satisfied to work the whole day and receive the usual daily wage, one denarius. That was fair. Until. Until the landowner also hired others who worked much less, and who also received the same pay. Suddenly a denarius wasn’t good enough anymore, because somebody else, who didn’t work as hard, was getting the same pay.

I’m not condemning any of these people, either in the story Jesus tells or the ones I told. I’m no better than them. It’s human nature to focus not exactly on what you have, but on what you have compared to others. It’s human nature, but it’s destructive to others and to ourselves. When has comparing yourself to someone else actually helped?

But Jesus says it doesn’t have to be like that. He says the kingdom of heaven is different. And remember, when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he’s not usually talking about the afterlife. He’s talking about God’s kingdom here on earth, the kingdom that God brings into this world through us. Which means it doesn’t have to be like that here, because God doesn’t follow human nature. God does things differently.

So let’s try looking at the gospel story again, but this time from landowner’s perspective. Let’s look at two things the landowner does.

For one thing, he gave all the workers enough. Each of the workers received the usual daily wage. He didn’t pay them according to their ability, or their output, or their sweat. He gave them each exactly what they needed for the day. Just so, God gives each of us enough for each day. Reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught us to pray: Give us this day our daily bread. Just enough for the day. Just enough of what we need. And God does.

And the other thing the landowner does is this: He never gives up. He kept going out all day long, looking for more and more people to labor in his vineyard. Just so, God never gives up looking for us. Every hour of every day, God is seeking us, saying to us, “You also go work in my vineyard. You who are lost, you who are vulnerable, you who are in need, you, you, and you, you are important to me. Come into my vineyard.”

This is what God does for us. This is how God acts in the world. We just miss it so often because we’re stuck in that human nature of comparing ourselves with others. But I have some suggestions, some things we can do to help us remember this. Pastor and writer David Lose came up with these suggestions for how we can focus more on the joy of God’s gift to us, and less on comparisons that hurt us.

First, we can start by counting our blessings. Start each morning in prayer by naming two things for which you are grateful. Start your day anchoring yourself in generosity for the actual reality you have been given, rather than comparing it to some idea or possibility or mirage.

Second, and I’m not sure I have the guts to do this one. Take a social media Sabbath at least once a week, that is, a whole day off from social media, and also turn our devices off an hour before bedtime. Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, is a great way to see how everyone else you know is doing. But it turns so quickly into comparing ourselves with them, and we forget that the pictures and profiles offered are often somewhat artificial, as we all try to compose a “self” that will impress others. One day a week away from social media can help clear and refresh our mind and spirit and turning off the device at night helps ensure we don’t go to sleep with these comparisons on our mind.

And third, and I think this one is so important: practice vulnerability. Dr. Lose says:

So much of our culture invites us only to show what is strong and successful and put together. Yet each of us has broken places; each of us has experienced loss and disappointment; each has moments of fear as well as hope. I think we live at a time – and perhaps it’s always been this way – that we are afraid of showing those parts that while they are broken or messy, are also real. But if we can stop pretending and offer our true selves – that is, be vulnerably honest – we might find others willing to do the same. And it’s hard to set up denigrating comparisons when you’re being real with each other.

And I can tell you that you have proven to me over the past few years that this is a safe place to be vulnerable. From time to time, I have taken off the “church mask” that I wear, and have allowed myself to be vulnerably honest with you. So I encourage you to try that, scary as it is, to try taking off your own “church mask,” and be honest and real about who you are, where you struggle, what you’re afraid of. I know from personal experience that it’s safe to do that here.

I don’t know if these suggestions will help. But they might. Try them, and see. Maybe we’ll all get a little better at resisting the temptation to compare ourselves with each other. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all get a little better at focusing on the God who has given us enough. Enough. Enough.

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