An Unlikely Thanksgiving Parable November 23 2016

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

I was recently alerted to some research that had been conducted to test whether people are more concerned about their positional well-being versus their absolute well-being.  In other words, does the perception of their well-being depend on how they compare to what someone else has, versus how much they have in absolute terms?

Respondents were asked to state whether they preferred Condition A or Condition B, and they could choose both if they viewed one to be no better than the other.  An example would be choosing between the following:

A: Your current yearly income is $50,000, while others earn $25,000.
Versus:
B: Your current yearly income is $100,000, while others earn $200,000.  

Whereas we might think that most people would choose to make $100,000 even though others earn twice that much, half of the respondents indicated that they would prefer condition A, where they make less money but twice as much as everyone else.  In other words, a policy that increased their absolute income but lowered their income relative to others would not make them think they were better off.  The implication: people tend to rely substantially on comparisons with others for their peace and joy.  

The researchers would have saved a lot of time and effort if they had just consulted Matthew 20:1-15.  This is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, where the first group was hired at the beginning of the day to work for a denarius (a day’s wage in that day).  A second group was hired at 9 a.m., a third group at noon, another group at 3 p.m., and a final group at 5 p.m.  The owner said to each of these subsequent groups, “whatever is right I will give to you.”  The owner did not promise an amount.  

Then at the end of the day the owner started paying his laborers, beginning with those who were hired last.  To each of the laborers in this group he gave a denarius, the full day’s wage.  At this point, all the other laborers must have been thinking “if they are getting a denarius for about an hour of work, imagine what we are going to get!” They could do the math.  

But it turned out that the owner paid everyone the same – a denarius, including the ones hired at the beginning of the day, whom the owner had originally promised a denarius.  He was true to his word.  So what was the laborers’ response?  Predictably, they thought “that’s not fair!”  We chuckle at this because we realize it would be our own natural response.  We did not have to be taught how to be envious.  In fact, the landowner sums it all up with the question to the laborers: “is your eye envious because I am generous?”  

The context of the parable is that those who have set aside earthly treasures to follow Jesus (i.e. “for My name’s sake” in Matthew 19:29) “will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.”  Although we don’t normally think of this as a theme passage for Thanksgiving, there is a good reminder here, which is this:  comparing with others breeds discontentment, while realizing that what we have is an undeserved gift brings gratitude.  

If we are to do any comparing as believers in Christ, it is comparing what we have versus what we truly deserve.  The laborers, except for the one paid first, thought “we deserve more.”  We are more like the laborer paid first, but in the sense of forgiveness – receiving the generous payment (forgiveness) that we do not deserve

If you go back and read the April 29, 2016 blog “It’s Not Fair!” you will see how our expectations about fairness are backwards.  In reality, we should hope not for fairness, but for mercy.  And as believers, it is a generous dose of mercy that we have received, out of which should flow from us praise and thanksgiving.  The world can’t grasp this, because its emphasis is on the physical.  We, by God’s grace, have been granted an understanding of the magnitude of God’s forgiveness (though we can never fully grasp it).  And we are to thank Him for what we have physically as well, as little or much as it may be.  So let us do both as we go through the Thanksgiving holidays.

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Gratefully, Steve Smith