Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
One of the great challenges in the spiritual life is comparison. How necessary and natural it is to compare things, virtues, experiences, and even persons. At the same time, comparison can be a grave danger and an enemy of grace! For example, I am often tempted to compare myself to others, and not for the sake of an honest, objective assessment of skill or merit. Rather, I am tempted to compare myself in a way that makes me think I am better than someone else. This is, obviously, not particularly noble, and easy to identify as a problem. But less easily identified is the temptation to compare myself to others and think less of myself, or more critically of myself. This or that person has virtues I lack, or a spiritual life that looks much stronger than mine, or an ability to feel God’s presence that I want. The longer I indulge that comparison, the harder it is for me to see my worth or recognize that God, in fact, is at work in my life. In the spiritual life, we have to hold comparison in a careful, balanced, tension. Jesus illustrates that in the Gospel this weekend with the parable of the landowner and the laborers who work in the fields for varying lengths of time. Those who work the full day compare themselves to those who worked only an hour, and seeing what those who worked least are paid, expect that they will be paid more. But instead, they receive what they agreed to, which happens to be exactly the same as what the short-term workers earn. If we spend all our time worrying about what others are getting from God, we will forget to appreciate what we receive. If we spend all our time wondering how much more we deserve than others, or comparing our service to that of others, we will lose sight of the most important things. God gives and He gives generously. Throughout our lives He has invited us to go to work in His vineyard, with the promise of eternal life in heaven as payment. Some will respond at an early hour to this call, while others will say yes only near the end of life. The payment promised is the same. Rather than comparing or wishing we got more or wondering why God allows some to spend their lives in His service and others to jump in only near the end, let us find awe in our hearts at the generosity of this God who commits to offering us such great treasures.
Comparison can become a challenge in a more academic sense, as well. For example, the New American Bible (NAB) translation of this Gospel into English renders the timing of the landowner’s ventures out as “nine o’clock,” “five o’clock,” and so on. Other English translations render those times more faithfully as “the third hour,” “the sixth hour,” “the ninth hour,” and “the eleventh hour.” The NAB both translates and interprets. This is for ease of proclamation and to express something in a way that is easy to grasp. Sometimes, though, that ease of comprehension results in a loss of poetry. For example, the last group of laborers are hired, not just at five o’clock, but at the eleventh hour. The phrase “eleventh hour” in the English language carries with it a far more serious connotation. The landowner goes out at dawn to call laborers to work for him. The landowner is a symbol for God, the call to laborers at dawn meaning both a call from the beginning of time – God is at work in human history from the very beginning – and a call to each individual person from the first moment of their existence. The parable makes clear that some respond to the call immediately and go to work, while others need repeated invitations. So in the history of Israel we see God repeatedly calling His people to Himself. There are some who only hear the call near the end of the workday, and just so there are some who come to faith in God only in the twilight of their lives. The landowner agrees to pay wages to each group of laborers, who are unaware of how the landowner intends to pay the others. The surprising revelation that the wage is the same regardless of the start of their employment symbolizes the eternal reward that God promises to those who say yes to his invitation, whether that yes was given at the beginning or end of life. So the phrase “eleventh hour” and its strong English connotation brings us to the urgency of the call that God gives. Even up to the eleventh hour it is possible to receive the full reward, the full gift, the full grace that has been offered since dawn, from the first moment we drew breath, from the very beginning of time! If I must compare, I will take the translations that say “eleventh hour” every time.
Comparison need not always be seen in a negative light, however. In fact, honest comparison can often spur us to action. If I am able to see that I have some resource, talent, or time that can benefit someone who is in need, this moment of comparison will become an opportunity to act for the benefit of another. We can use the current pandemic and its effects as a point of reference. Many people have had their employment dramatically impacted by the pandemic. In a general sense, the impact on employment has been felt most significantly in poorer communities. Throughout the quarantine we have been able to help people in need, especially through our on-going food drive. As we look ahead on the calendar to Christmas, another opportunity to help those in need arises. Our annual Christmas Giving Tree will have a different character this year, as agencies are asking exclusively for gift cards, especially to Stop & Shop, WalMart, ShopRite, Target, BJ’s, Sephora, CVS, Old Navy, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Walgreens. The needs experienced by those served at the Mercy Learning Center, Prospect House, St. Charles Borromeo, Operation Hope, and others are very real. When we view our circumstances and theirs in an honest comparison, we can see how fortunate we are and remember our Christian responsibility to assist, even in small ways. Donated gift cards may be dropped in the collection boxes at the doors of the Church, or dropped off at the parish office anytime between now and November 29. If you would like to know more about this effort, contact Cathy or Doug Van Tornhout at firstname.lastname@example.org.