Measuring Success

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: 25 Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 20, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In this parable, a landowner recruits workers throughout the day to work in his vineyard, but pays everyone the same daily wage regardless of the number of hours they worked that day, which angers those who labored the longest. How do we measure human value? Can human worth be measured in time or money? The parable warns against allowing one's self to be reduced to a reward for one's work and indicates that the kingdom of God has other metrics.

Many studies have shown the value of preschool education. States have allocated some increased funding to allow more children to have access to quality preschool programs. Children who attend preschool arrive in kindergarten with better social skills, higher emotional intelligence and are better equipped to manage the academic environment.

However, some studies have also shown that the gains in language arts and mathematics skills wane by the time children complete third grade. In other words, there is not much difference between the math and language arts skills of third graders who attended preschool and third graders who did not attend preschool. Does that make preschool less important than we thought?

By one measure, yes. If we are only interested in how well students can read, write and apply mathematical skills, then preschool may not have much impact in helping children to reach those milestones by the time they are in third grade. On the other hand, if we are interested in measuring the social, economic and academic success of students on a larger scale, then preschool may be very important. The social and emotional skills gained at a young age can help even into adulthood as one negotiates job interviews or resolves conflicts with spouses or co-workers. These skills can propel success just as ably as writing or math skills, but they cannot be measured in quite the same ways. 1

Defining success

The measure of success depends on how you define success and what scale you use to measure it. These principles seem to be at play in today's parable. The laborers are interested in measuring their success economically. They feel that a longer workday should yield a greater economic reward. This is the model most of us understand in our workplaces as well. Full-time employees earn proportionally more than part-time employees. The understanding is that although part-time employees work just as hard as full-time employees, full-time employees put in more hours, and therefore deserve more pay. Few would argue with this economic logic.

When the landowner in the parable offers to pay those who have only worked a half or even a quarter of a day the same wage as those who have worked all day, those who have put in the greatest number of hours are upset. However, throughout the story, the question of what the agreed-upon wage is has been averted. The first laborers are guaranteed the "daily wage," but we don't know what that is, or how it is paid. Is the "daily wage" paid in cash? Food? Shelter? Some other commodity? Others hired later in the day are simply promised to be paid "what is right."

What is right? Who decides what is right?

Other metrics for success

What if the wage in our parable is grace? If grace meets you where you are and makes you whole, will you complain that some people were made whole thanks to more grace than you received? Or will you be grateful to be made whole and to see others made whole, lacking nothing and living into the beauty of being God's beloved child? An economic model doesn't work when we are discussing grace.

It seems that our human species is constantly afraid of not having enough. We're afraid that our children do not have enough education. We're afraid that if we do not work hard today, we will not have success in the future because success is a limited commodity. We are afraid that we will not have enough money or time or love. We are afraid we will not have the things we need for tomorrow, even though we have them today.

This concern about scarcity is perhaps evolutionary and is an impulse that has caused our species to survive and thrive. We have learned to save for times when resources are less, and sometimes even hoard when there should be enough to share.

Created in abundance

The kingdom of God doesn't work this way. We were created out of abundance. God created each one of us and called us good. We were given more than enough to have abundant lives. That some have more than others is part of a human plot to save and hoard and keep more than we need - sometimes out of a sense of justice, sometimes out of a fear of not having enough and sometimes out of sheer greed. This is not part of the created order of the world. This is not how the kingdom of God works.

The kingdom of God is like a generous employer who knows there is enough work for everyone to feel useful. The kingdom of God is like having enough to be generous, and ensuring that others have enough too.

At the end of the parable, those who were among the first to be recruited to work say, in effect, to the employer, "you have made them equal to us." Is this what gives a human life value? Is a human life only as valuable as how much work it can do? Is the amount a person is paid the thing that gives human worth? Is a score on a childhood test what gives human worth? Are you important because of the kind of work you do? Or how long you've done it? Are you important because of the education you received? Or how well you did?

The parable warns against allowing yourself to be reduced to a reward for your work. The parable warns against feeling like there is not enough for you. God created a world where there is enough for everyone. You are more than a wage. You cannot be measured by the hours that you work or by what you save or by a score you receive. You are infinitely more valuable than that.

How will you measure yourself? Will you use the metrics of the world - the ones that say you can be quantified by your output? Or, will you allow yourself to be measured by the abundance from which God made you?

Afterlife of the Parable

Have you ever wondered what happened the next day in the parable? When all of today's workers return to the field for work tomorrow, how do they relate to each other? Tomorrow, they will all work the same number of hours, and presumably earn the same wage. Perhaps the day after that as well. Maybe they will work many months, or even years, next to each other. They will have seen their children grow, families change and personalities blossom. Will it seem petty to have quibbled over the difference of a few hours' wages when you have had the privilege of witnessing the fullness of who God created the people around you to be?

If you value yourself by how much you earn, do you begin to see the value of others according to how much they earn as well? Do people become objects of greater or lesser weight and worth? Can you subtract the time someone has worked from the days they have lived and determine their value? Can you add up their wages and find their worth?

If you are infinitely more valuable than an hour's wage, so is everyone else. This can only be a source of jealousy if you believe that there is not enough beauty in the world for each created thing to be filled with it. You cannot store up, save, hoard or be greedy with the breath of life. It is already abundant in you, and in all the created order.

Live abundantly and do not allow the social and economic scorecards of human society to determine your value. You are just as valued and worthy at the end of today as you were yesterday. There is no amount of work or leisure that can change that.