“Are you envious because I am generous? Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:15-16)
In this parable, Jesus describes a landowner who pays the same daily wage to his workers, regardless of how long they actually labored for the landowner. Some workers in the parable started as early as nine o’clock, while others started as late as five o’clock. Still, the landowner was generous enough with each worker to give them the agreed upon terms of a daily wage.
But instead of seeing the landowner as generous, those who began their work earlier in the day were envious of the workers who started later. After all, why would it make sense for an individual who worked longer to be compensated the same amount as someone who put in less work? In the modern world, this is nearly unheard of. Someone who works any part-time job will not be compensated the same amount as someone with a full-time job, whether these individuals are working on farms, in big business, even for their local McDonald’s.
This is why at first glance, many individuals are understandably perplexed by this teaching of Jesus. It seems perhaps even contradictory to justice and fairness that an individual would give more to someone who did less work. But as the Lord says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” (Isaiah 55:8).
From the parable, it is clear that Jesus is describing himself analogously as the landowner, who generously gives to those who conduct His work in the world. The laborers are those who willingly enter into this relationship with God. And regardless of when we finally convert or make this resolution to serve and do the Lord’s work, we are still given the very generous reward of eternal life with Him in Heaven.
And so how can we use character strengths and virtues to understand the Lord’s ways and not our own ways? Well, Rather than focusing on each of the laborers themselves, it is important to hone in on who the Lord is Himself. This, in turn, helps us to understand and cultivate His virtues of humanity and transcendence through the character virtues of spirituality, love, hope, kindness, forgiveness and gratitude. Regardless of when we begin serving the Lord in our lives, the Lord continually invites us into a spiritual relationship with him, ultimately to love us and give us meaning in our lives. He also gives us hope for eternal life, so long as we follow Him and His commandments. And as He does all this, He never holds back any of His kindness or forgiveness to anyone who asks of Him. This is true for anyone, regardless of the extent to which they’ve sinned or continue to struggles. This is ultimately more than any of us can ask for. Therefore, we should be grateful for this reward we don’t deserve, and not envious of others who also receive the same reward.
At first glance, this is understandably one of the more difficult teachings of Jesus to understand. But hopefully, with the use of character strengths and virtues in positive psychology, its meaning and instructive value can be more readily understood. If this was helpful to you (or even if it wasn’t), please let me know in the comments. I look forward to hearing what any of you have to say. As always, I hope you are all doing well, and God bless you!