Complain at Your Own Risk
September 22, 2002
A hard-working parish priest, after a lifetime of ministry, died and went to heaven. When he got there he was assigned an attractive two bedroom house to serve as his heavenly abode. He was rather pleased with his house until he took a walk around the neighborhood and ran into a parishioner who had been a cab driver and now was living in a mansion with a swimming pool and tennis courts. The priest went directly to St. Peter to complain. He said, “I’ve worked my whole life long serving God’s people. Now this parishioner of mine is a very good person, but he was a cab driver! Why is he living in so much bigger a house than I am?” St. Peter said, “Here’s how it goes. When you preached, people slept. But when he drove, people prayed.”
We do not always understand God’s ways, and that is why it is dangerous to complain. Complaining takes place in today’s Gospel. Those who were hired first complain because those who worked only one hour received the same wage as they did. We certainly understand their feelings. We probably would have the same reaction, if we were in their shoes. This parable is one of the most difficult parables for us to understand. But, before we become too critical, we must realize that all the parable is doing is reflecting life as it is.
The truth is that life is unfair. We would like to think that those who work the hardest would be the most successful. But we all know people who are working two, maybe three, jobs and are still unable to support their families. We would like to think that the people who have the most talent are those would be the most respected and compensated. But we all know of football players who cannot even remember to keep their helmets on their heads (sorry about this) who are making millions of dollars more than teachers who give their life instructing our young. We would like to think that people who are good and who live honestly are going to have easier lives. But we all know people who are the “salt of the earth” who have terrible crosses to bear. And each time we see any of these inequalities, we are tempted to complain.
That is why today’s parable is helpful. It shows us how to live in an unfair world. What does the landowner say to those who complain? He says, “Take what belongs to you and go.” Don’t worry about what other people have received. Take your own life. Rejoice in it and live it.
Maya Angelou, the famous American playwright and poet, wrote a series of memoirs about growing up in rural Arkansas. Many of those memoirs centered on her grandmother, a very influential person in her life who ran a little store in their hometown. Maya’s grandmother had very little patience with complainers. Whenever one of the town whiners would come into the store to buy anything, she made sure that Maya was called in to witness the event. Once Maya was in the store, her grandmother would say to the complainer, “How are things going?” Immediately the grumbler would begin to say how terribly hot it was. It was the hottest he could ever remember it to be. He couldn’t stand the sweltering heat. And how much plowing he had to do. It seemed that each year there was more. And his equipment was getting older and it was becoming more difficult. Now all the time that he was rambling on, Maya’s grandmother would look at her granddaughter to make sure she was paying attention.
When the whiner finally left, her grandmother took Maya aside and said to her, “Child, there are people who went to sleep last night, rich and poor, black and white, who will never wake up again. And every one of those dead people would give all that they had for five minutes of this hot weather, for five minutes of this difficult plowing. So, be careful, child, about complaining. If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, then change the way you think about it. But don’t be a complainer, because complaining will rob you of life.”
The advice of Maya Angelou’s grandmother dovetails with the words of the landowner in today’s gospel to those who complain: “Take what belongs to you and go.” Live the life you have been given, not the life that you wish you had been given, not the life that other people have been given. Live your life fully because complaining will only diminish you, only lessen you.
So, what is it you complain about? Your spouse? Your children? Your parents? Your job? Your retirement? Your church? Your government? Your health? Be careful about complaining because it can rob you of life. Instead, take what belongs to you and go. If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it then change the way you think about it. But, don’t waste your time complaining. Life is simply too short for that.
The good news is this: life may be unfair, but God is in charge. And God will not forget any of us. If we take the life that we have been given (even if others have been given more) and live it, we will find that it is enough. For once we choose to live our own lives, we will discover that we have not been short -changed or cheated. We will realize that everyone of us has been given a full day’s wage.
Happiness in an Unfair World
September 18, 2005
I do not know anyone who likes today’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard. This is probably because it comes a bit too close to the truth. The truth which underlies today’s parable is that life is unfair. There is no general principle that can be applied to insure that each person receives what they deserve. Some people, like those who were hired last in the parable, receive much more than they deserve. Other people receive much less.
We see this in all areas of life. In a work situation it is easy to look at someone who has the higher position than you do and say, “It’s unfair. She is no smarter than I am. My work is a good as hers. So, why does she get the bigger office and the higher salary?” The same perspective applies in relationships. We can say, “It’s not fair. I love my friends as much as he does, perhaps even more. Then why is it that they choose to be with him and accept me only in second place?” It applies in families. We can say, “I love my children as much as those people love their children. I spend as much time with my children as they do. Then why is it that their children are brighter, better behaved, make friends easier, make wise decisions over foolish ones?”
Life is unfair. All of us know of stories about families that have never been able to recover after reading their parents’ will. Either they all received the same when some children expected to receive more, or some children received more when others thought they should receive the same.
Life does not always fall into categories that we think are just. We perceive such injustice immediately. It is the first thing we notice. Just listen to the workers who were hired first in today’s parable. They say to the landowner, “These last have worked only one hour and yet you have chosen to make them equal to us who have borne the work of the day and the scorching heat.” These workers immediately recognize the unfairness of the situation.
But today’s parable is not about what the worker see but what they do not see. What they do not see is the generosity of the landowner. More specifically, they do not see the generosity of the landowner to them. They recognize that the landowner has chosen to be generous to those who were hired last, and they resent it. But they do not recognize how they have been given a job, a day’s labor, by which they can support their families. You see, today’s parable is about blindness, the blindness that so may of us have to the blessings of God in our life. The parable warns us that we will never be able to see God’s generosity to us as long as we look with jealous eyes.
The parable is realistic. It accepts the world as it is. It recognizes that things are unfair and there is not that much we can do about it. So the parable does not give us some magic formula which would allow us to give each person what is deserved. But what the parable provides is a way—a way in which we can be happy even in a world where some receive more than others. The parable tells us that if we are to be happy in an unfair world we must focus less on what others have and more on the generosity that God has shown to us. Yes, we may not have the biggest office or the highest salary but we do have a job, a job by which we can earn a decent living. We may not be the most popular person in our school or on our street, but we do have friends and those friends are real. Our children may not be the brightest or the smartest, but they are healthy and we have a good relationship with them. Others in our family may receive more from our parents, but we have parents and they have given us life.
In an unfair world, jealousy can consume us. If we compare ourselves to others, that comparison can make us blind to the blessings that we have received. The gospel reminds us that our blessings are real, and it is only by embracing them that we will be able to find happiness regardless of how much more others seem to be given.