A Matter of Perspective

I admit it. My mind was wandering during Mass this morning, and I barely heard the homily.

I experienced another of those kaleidoscopic shifts that occurs from time to time when I read or hear the Word of God, and my thoughts were captured by what I had never seen before. (Sorry, Father, I’m sure your homily was excellent.)

For those who aren’t Catholic, or who are Catholic but didn’t attend Mass or reflect on the readings privately, today’s gospel reading was one of the parables in Matthew’s gospel, the one in which the landowner hires workers throughout the day and gives them all the same wage (Matt. 20:1-16). Like many folks, I’ve spent most of my life putting myself in the place of those all-day workers and thinking, “That’s not fair.”

This morning, though, as I heard the gospel, I was in the marketplace with the workers. I saw the hardiest chosen first to work in the vineyard, and saw the man weakened by hunger because he’d not been chosen for three successive days overlooked. I saw the man who had been up all night with a sick child and his distraught wife catching a nap and being overlooked. I saw the man hobbling on a crutch because he’d been injured the previous day lose hope when he was not chosen either.

And I saw, over the course of the day, each one being given an opportunity. I saw the gratitude with which the workers hired late in the day received their wages, and I saw the arrogance – yes, arrogance – of the workers chosen in the morning. They didn’t need anyone to help them. They were able to take care of themselves.

Obviously, there’s the spiritual lesson regarding our dependence upon God, because most of us – in one way or another – really are like workers hired later in the day. We all need a little help in some area of our life.

But, what struck me this morning is how at odds this parable is with our society. I suppose I was especially sensitive to that since I had a conversation last week with a man whose attitude toward the poor is quite different than mine. We especially disagreed about credit card companies that prey on the poor.

I think those who prey on the poor should be shot – metaphorically, of course. I can remember when my girls were growing up and my income was limited – even though I was working two jobs because I couldn’t get a better paying position in the field for which my college education supposedly prepared me. I had one of those high interest cards for emergencies, because I didn’t qualify for one with better terms. Car repairs would cost two or three times what the repair shop charged by the time I had paid off the bill. Buying groceries was all-too-often an emergency expense in the winter when I had high fuel bills.

It was a miserable existence, but I survived. We do. Something in the human spirit is resilient.

The individual I spoke with imagined the poor racking up credit card bills buying useless things like jewelry they’d never wear. He thought they deserved to pay high interest rates if they didn’t have more sense than that. I have to wonder if he knew someone like that, or if he just liked that image because it absolved predators of their accountability.

I didn’t ask. I could tell we were both entrenched in our positions. Because there was nothing to be gained by prolonging the conversation, I changed topics.

While this conversation appears to have nothing in common with the parable, my mind made an intuitive connection. The hardy, all-day worker had advantages the other workers did not have – not because he was inherently better than the others. He simply did not find  himself handicapped as they had been by circumstances in their lives.

In the same way, some are attuned to money – the way it works in our society, what it means – in ways others are not. If the parable were a reflection of our world, those with that aptitude would not collect more at the end of day. They would collect a fair wage, but so would other workers. However, the parable does not reflect our world.

We live in an age when money talks even more loudly than it has in the past, and all too often it says, “I want more.” Like the all-day worker in the parable, it sees it’s own worth but not the value of others.

I can understand. I’ve read that gospel and heard that gospel dozens of times. Each time, I’ve put myself in the shoes of the all-day worker who felt cheated because others, who obviously didn’t work as hard or do as much, earned the same wage he did. But today, seeing the others with the eyes of compassion, I can see not only the generosity of the landowner but the fundamental need each of us shares to appreciate what others bring to the human family.

Obviously, I can’t change the way our society functions, but I can say this: To the extent that we belittle others, their lives and the choices they make, in order to justify our own actions and our own decisions, we diminish ourselves. Our hearts grow smaller, our worldview becomes narrower, and the light we could bring into the world grows dimmer.

Only when we are compassionate in dealing with others, when we see and appreciate their inherent worth, will we experience the fullness of life that cannot be achieved by accumulating more money.

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