Sunday, August 07, 2011

Resentment: the evil root

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Matthew 20:1-16, 20-22a

In the continuing saga that is the American government there is one dominant, recurring theme that seems to be the stumbling block of responsible government: entitlement. And I would suggest few know what it really means to be "entitled" by the text book definition which is: if the Congress creates criterion and one fits that criteria, one is by law "entitled". We often forget, however, it is entitlement "bestowed"; which is to say we are not born into a state of federal entitlement.

To be entitled to something does not necessarily mean the "something" inherently belongs to us as a "right" we are born with. Webster's defines "entitle" as "to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something". A thesaurus search will turn up words like, "authorize", "allow", and "qualify", to name only a few. In other words, there must be an authorizing entity that determines whether or not we are "entitled" to anything. Even the US Declaration of Independence appropriately recognizes the appointive authority of the "Creator" for humanity's entitlement to "unalienable rights"; rights "bestowed" by divine authority.

None of this is to suggest anyone is or is not "entitled" to anything from the state, and I certainly do not intend to get bogged down by mindless politics or even a civil discussion of public policy, frankly because I don't think civility in politics is possible any longer. It only occurs to me that in watching the news these past few weeks and reading opinion columnists, "experts" of every stripe, civilian "bloggers", and the like, there is a heavy cloud of "resentment" on all levels of our alleged "civilized" society. We generally agree the system is out of control and we're ok with "spending cuts" in order to make government more efficient, but we are NOT ok with any spending cuts that might involve that to which we are "entitled"; that is, cut the "other guy" who is somehow - at least in our minds - less worthy of equal consideration.

In spite of how vested we may be in the federal system as Americans, we must remember we are, first and foremost, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our Promise is yet to be. In spiritual terms we are only "residents" of the United States because although we are subject to the man-made "law of the land" which can be changed, we are also subject to the Divine Law that comes directly from the mouth of the Living God and cannot be changed. The Lord alone established a standard of conduct, behavior, and faith that separates His faithful from everyone else - we as His people are "set apart" as it is written, not to be "like everyone else" - and that standard has remained unchanged for thousands of years and is not subject to human scrutiny. Reflection, yes; but not to be challenged because of the Divine Authority from which it comes.

Yet because of how heavily vested we are in the federal system, especially those who have earned or paid their way into that system, any talk about "sharing", "redistributing", "reforming", or, worse, "cutting" any of these programs we are by law "entitled" to causes all kinds of problems, all of which can be traced back to the most base of human emotions, the root from which the fruits of greed, anger, and hatred spring forth: resentment. Suddenly it is not about what we may or may not be entitled to or what has been promised to us; it becomes more about those who are overtaxing that same "entitlement" that might somehow threaten what we believe we have been "guaranteed". And we resent the notion of "shared sacrifice" in a $3.5 trillion federal budget for which $1.3 trillion had to be borrowed because 60% of that total budget insists we are "entitled", from top to bottom, in some form or fashion.

The parallel I am trying to draw between the vineyard workers (Mt 20:1-16) and those of us today living on a "promise" from Uncle Sam is admittedly not entirely fair because the "landowner" in the parable is not a government official and the vineyard does not represent any government. The workers are receiving wages based on the landowner's willingness - and ability - to pay. The "landowner" is the Lord, and the "vineyard" is the Kingdom. Each of the workers is invited into the "vineyard" not according to what is "owed" them but rather according to what one is "entitled" to; and each is "entitled" only by virtue and authority of the "landowner" ... and no other.

We must not overlook the fact that the "landowner", in today's terms and culture, would probably stand to be sued by that first group of workers who had been invited in according to mutual terms agreed upon. The workers were completely at the mercy of the landowner and his word that each would receive a denarius upon completion of the work. In today's terms those workers coming in later should have - and would have - received less because they did not put in the hours, but the deal for them was the same as for the early workers; not an hourly wage but a set reward, a specific PROMISE for giving the "landowner" what he asked - according to His terms and not ours. It is not about the landowner - our Lord - being unfair in any sense. Jesus is reminding us of how generous our Holy Father truly is.

So the parable is not about fair wages or human labor standards. It is about the Kingdom of Heaven, the Master whose invitation is the ONLY way in, and the gratitude of those who are invited in not according to individual demands of what is owed but according to the generosity and benevolence of the One who invites us in - by "furnishing us with proper grounds" - that is, His Love and His Righteousness - for "seeking or claiming" not what we are "owed" but what we are offered. We must also take note of the "judgment", the indictment against those early workers who, though promised a specific rate of pay and getting exactly what they had been promised, grumbled because they were minding someone else's business instead of their own; questioning the Master's judgment, "judging" the worthiness of the "johnnys-come-lately" who were - at least in their eyes - not as worthy ... forgetting it was the Master's RIGHT to offer whatsoever He would choose to offer; irrespective of our perceived "right" to receive.

When we come to believe we are "owed" something - anything, regardless of circumstances - we lose an important part of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. There must not be a day to pass in which we are not consciously aware of what it took to free us - and it is our spiritual obligation to remain in a constant state of gratitude - mindful that there is only one Promise that will endure beyond the grave, mindful that a grateful heart takes each day, each moment, even each dollar as a gift to be enjoyed and shared. A heart filled with resentment is a heart filled nearly to overflowing with anger, with jealousy, with greed, with spite; misplaced entitlement. A resentful heart believes it is "owed" something and forgets that humanity's word - in general terms - CANNOT LAST.

In order for the Church to survive these uncertain times, times in which many are very afraid and perhaps have every right to be afraid, the Church must stand up not as a collection of Americans fighting for government entitlements - essentially leading the fearful to Uncle Sam for relief instead of to the Lord for Life - but the Church must stand for the Lord, for the Gospel, for the invitation humanity receives not by what we have done but by what HE has done. Not by what we are "owed" but by what the Lord has chosen to offer.

But if we are going to spend our time deciding who gets what and fighting and clawing our way to the front of the line so that we will "get ours" first, we will - according to Jesus - turn to find Him choosing from the end of the line, taking for Himself "the last", choosing perhaps to leave those at the front according to what they desired more. "For the last will be first and the first last because many are called but few are chosen."

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