The comparing mind and the dilemma of Christian pragmatism
An adapted sermon on Matthew 20:1-16.
Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The Fury of the Ballerina Watch
Of all the avenues Jesus gives us to explore here, the question, “Are you envious because I’m generous?” strikes me hardest. Why can win-win scenarios upset us when it comes to God and divinity? Everyone in this story got their needs met in receiving their day’s wage, or as Jesus prayed, their daily bread. Why is enough not enough?
The parable above describes the tragedy of our response to generosity as jealousy. It seems to be a function of what I’ve heard Buddhists talk about as “the comparing mind”: the part of our minds that is always worried it doesn’t have enough. Sometimes, it doesn’t want someone else to be as much “enough” as we are. That even when we ourselves have enough, we deserve even more than our neighbor. As the laborers ask in this story, how dare God make someone equal to us when we did so much more?
I have some family lore about this. One Christmas in the mid-’90s, I asked for a little car I could ride up and down our gravel driveway while my older sister asked for a ballerina watch. While I’m sure we wanted more, that was all we really wanted, and we got it. But did we share in mutual joy? To this day, it has been a favorite family story about the righteous indignation my sister felt about this. “It’s not fair!” Keep in mind, I did not receive a fancy kid car with electronics and a battery motor, this was a self-propelled chunk of plastic. And again, she explicitly asked for a ballerina watch! Still, I can see her point—I know I wasn’t any better of a kid that year, and it was a cool, durable chunk of plastic with low mileage. It wasn’t fair. Apparently, it also “wasn’t fair” when I got injured playing kickball on the blacktop and could barely move for days and she had to take over my chore duties for our new Brittany spaniel.
Alas, kids everywhere know first-hand that such parental corruption runs rampant. Maybe it’s also not fair that I only tell stories that make my sister look bad, but I can’t help it if I can’t remember any stories going the other way. I assure you I would never be caught in such silly sibling pettiness.
While I’ve patched things up with my sister, it’s striking that Jesus points to the problem of the comparing mind not just in the parable of the day-laborers, but also with siblings. Take another parable of the Prodigal Son: the older brother is upset at the grace his younger screw-up brother gets after squandering his gifts, even though that older brother had lived a whole life of having more than enough working for his father. Perhaps part of the problem for that Prodigal Brother and for our laborers in this parable is that we often don’t see doing holy work as its own reward; we don’t see the work God has given us to do in this life as a gift of itself, but so often think in terms of what it gets us—if I’m not getting more fruit from my labor, why do it?
While it’s tempting to focus on the people in this passage instead of God, that only helps us see the problem, not the solution. And when we look at what Jesus is showing us about God, we see that God’s justice isn’t our fairness; it’s justice at the deepest level that is not our own, a justice that is foreign to this world.
Puritans, Hippies, and What Works
What’s challenging about trying to reach God’s justice through our fairness is an even deeper problem than the comparing mind. In Christian terms, the comparing mind is just one type of manifestation of a deeper problem of sin: our human entrapment in our natural way of looking at the world. In spite of all the translation issues in doing so, we keep referring to this entrapment in short-hand as “sin.” Sin is not as simple as bad actions we do; it’s our very perspective, filled with self-serving visions and habits that return over and over to centering ourselves as the primary subject of our universe. Sin renders us as the star of the movie of Life and the rest of the world as props (including making divinity into an object to manipulate and obtain). Sin is a catch-all word for our ways and our vision that we talk ourselves into believing are God’s.
“Original sin,” then, should be less fixated on in terms of events of the Garden of Eden, and more a statement of the default nature of our consciousness having incorrect spiritual vision, and the belief that all people are born beloved of God but always vulnerable to seeing things in terms that are convenient to ourselves. The problem with trying to reach God’s justice entirely through human fairness is that nobody, including us, is going to stop living primarily out of our spiritual delusions. But every sinner out there can see that humans can’t even get human fairness right, so why should we get God’s justice right?
Following Christ is, in part, about noticing how often we’re not living in God’s wisdom and justice and trying again to respond in a better way. The work of Christ is there when we visit with the prisoner (including people we’ve put into our own personal prison), when we forgive someone (even someone who may not deserve it), or any time we show love that isn’t centered in what’s “fair” at all. It is trying, even knowing we will fail, to defy ourselves in order to act out of the deepest level of what we know about God’s love. In terms of making this into a lifestyle commitment, this can look many different ways, such as how centuries of monastics have tried to live.
Monks aren’t alone. Puritans and hippies share this commitment, even though they seem like they’re from lineages bound to be cultural enemies (and to the extent that hippies are descendants of 17th-century Quakers like Mary Dyer, this isn’t far off). I now live in Vermont where, just like the monks, decades of folks have tried in various communes to live with intense integrity to spiritual wisdom. The Puritans were trying to do the same thing in New England a couple hundred years earlier. The Puritans got a lot of well-deserved criticism that eventually turned their name into an insult, but as I heard a pastor note earlier this week, let’s not forget that is all they were intending to do—live more purely aligned with their spirituality. They wanted this so much they were willing to put themselves inside a living experiment: what would it be like if we really pushed ourselves to live like we really believed in God’s revelation?
Whether it’s hippies, monks, or good old-fashioned hard-nosed Protestants who could come to blows over using instruments in worship (and would roll over in their graves at seeing me play guitar in church), the impulse to live more and more aligned with our deepest spiritual wisdom is of course holy, and it is of course good.
But maybe one problem that the Puritans discovered, that many monks and former hippies discover on their way out of their communities, is that no matter how good our utopian vision is, there’s that nagging reality of sin that ultimately has to be taken seriously in any kind of community setting. Some of the earliest Christians identified how living in Christian community here and now is not completely identical to the kingdom to come, including the observation of how many people would take advantage of the kindness of others. Christian living requires some measure of realism, because human-to-human relationships do require some pragmatism to achieve more and more fairness in an unfair world. So it would be a mistake to say Jesus is giving us this parable as a prescription of a realistic economic model. In fact, it hits us because this would be absolutely unsustainable as a practical human-to-human economy—if it were you or me, eventually, everybody’s showing up at 5pm. But it also would be a mistake to say this passage is just a heaven metaphor and says nothing about what we should do here and now.
Pragmatism is something I see in my Vermont neighbors, and it’s similar to a lot of the folks I grew up in the foothills of North Carolina: we’re proud of having a common sense approach to “what works.” One of the more influential 20th-century theologians on Protestant thought, Reinhold Niebuhr, is famous for promoting what is called “Christian realism.” This is just part of the broader Reformed theological tradition that knows we must live in awareness of just how deep the problem of sin-consciousness (often deeply unconscious) goes. Any human system must account for the hidden ways we will pursue our own self-interests. This is not a pro-capitalism point, as all capitalism can do is meagerly throw its hands up and say we just have to lean into our sin and try to gamify it for pro-social interests. This is, of course, a conveniently profitable position, conflating realism with self-serving defeatism.
The laborers in our parable were also realistic, complaining in their own way, “Why are you rewarding these spiritual freeloaders? Are you saying what they did is worth as much as what we did? Don’t you know what that’s going to do to your church?” Sometimes, our realism that wants to be aware of sin becomes our sin.
Maybe this is the problem with hippies, Puritans and other utopian projects—not spiritual communities, but utopian ones. Sometimes, they may become more driven by a desire to compare themselves to other human sinfulness as living purer and holier, and therefore in some way more deserving—whether a Puritan “city on a hill” or a psychedelic community deep in the woods. I don’t know if all such projects are doomed to failure, but they are to the extent that they are fixated on maintaining the appearance of achieving a spiritually-rewarding ideal instead of living in the real.
But there are healthier and less healthy versions of failing. Returning to the dilemma of spirituality and pragmatism, from where I stand, the best communities are only utopian insofar as they know it won’t actually work, because the point isn’t for it to work. This includes “working” in terms of purity or spiritual ascendency, for living out an ideal in order for a spiritual reward isn’t the point either. Maybe for Christian utopians, the fixation on play-pretending that we are living out an unreal ideal is a sign that we don’t quite fully believe that in God’s house, “deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it.”
Following Jesus has never been about being realistic by this world’s standards. Often, what we’re called to do as Christians seems to have no relationship with “what works.” Often, we’re called to be deeply impractical. Jesus’ disciples wanted him to be a leader to violently overthrow Rome, because that is a language of power all humans speak. Sometimes, waging war “works.” But instead, Jesus showed in the way of the cross that waging life often looks like what doesn’t work at all.
So in our parable here, like many parables, Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is something that doesn’t work by human logic. So part of our sacrifice as Christians is to sometimes act as closely as we can by the illogical values of the kingdom of heaven, even when we know it “won’t work” in this lifetime. There is no “kingdom of man” that could work like this parable. But it is a glimpse into God’s justice that transcends every fair and unfair human system we can throw at each other. Jesus is calling attention here that God’s ways are not our ways. And so another part of what it means to be Christian is to reflect the gifts and glimpses of heaven here on earth while we’re still alive, or as Paul said, to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”1
The Gifts of Comparison
The comparing mind not only compares what we have to others, but can compare what we have to our past selves and everything wonderful we used to have, or our future selves and what we desperately want to have.
This mind is why sometimes the people who seem to have everything perfectly put together, elites of one kind or another at the top of some hierarchy—the wealthiest, the most esteemed academic, the most beautiful actor, the most influential social media accounts, the most brilliant artists—are often the people struggling the hardest with the comparing mind. You sometimes find yourself in such positions by dealing with the problem of the comparing mind by working to ensure you compare favorably to everyone you know. It only plays into the self-eating trap of comparison, believing too much in its logic, never satisfied. It’s not that people can’t imagine living without having more than enough—it’s that some people can imagine it far too vividly, a nightmare to avoid.
When Jesus says the “first will be last and the last will be first,” it is not just a statement on the heavenly order of operations. To play into the comparing mind is to strive ever toward the illusion of “first,” which will always feel like you’re last, sometimes resulting in an utter disconnect between actual privilege and perceived persecution.
But God enters into our lives and utterly overthrows our comparing mind. More precisely, God enters into our lives to use the sinful orientation of our comparing mind for divine good. I was talking with a parent this week about the spirituality of team sports and how it becomes an outlet for releasing competitive, tribal, warring instincts of comparison and can turn it into beautiful lessons learned from play. There is such a thing as “healthy competition” when it is oriented towards God.
But that’s just one way God uses the gift of our comparing mind to find ways to subvert our worst instincts. Even the inner, obsessive sibling, who is harmful when it’s focused on ourselves and how we deserve more than enough, can be used for tremendous good when we notice that others really aren’t getting enough. The comparing mind is a tremendously useful gift to notice when people are subjugated to the power of others seeking far more than what is enough. We could not have any social action if we were not given the gift to say, “That’s not fair.” Our comparing mind is what notices that God’s justice isn’t being lived out here and now. It helps us notice when we aren’t taking care of the poor, that the hungry aren’t fed, that those living under the tyranny of any -ism need help.
But even then, when it seems like it’s being used for good, the comparing mind can become unchecked and grandiose, caught further in the tar pit than it could ever know. I imagine most corrupt non-profits get that way starting from places where they actually do real good, but then they want to scale and scale and scale until it becomes more about being known as doing good than about actually doing good. The church has committed this very sin throughout history, perhaps because we didn’t want to glorify God, we wanted to glorify ourselves to try and reach him, turning our desire to do good into its own Tower of Babel.
It can be quite frustrating to see the problems of the comparing mind, then trying to use it for good…only to see the problems of trying to use it for good. The alternative seems to be resignation to evil, or living out something less than what we understand as God’s love from our personal experience. This may be why so many Christians have so many strong feelings about the very human Apostle Paul. We can sometimes clearly see the sins of his comparing mind, some of which he could also admit: his judgmental ways, his powerful command of knowledge that sometimes made him the absolute worst persecutor of goodness, delivering good people to death, his words bound to the context that reifies evils like slavery as if it is no big deal. Even worse, as his audiences apparently thought, sometimes he’s just annoying. But Paul’s comparing mind also was key to his greatest gifts, spreading Good News to people desperately in need of it, helping others see incredibly subtle spiritual dilemmas with clarity. This is, I think, a realistic enough view of the sins and gifts of Paul’s mind.
It’s not that we must be resigned to realism, as much as we accept what is actually realistic, but with the hope that realism need not be pessimism—we must have hope amid realism. Because however much sin there is in the world, over and over and over again God takes the most pungent flavor of our sin and makes it the key ingredient to our salvation, the meal best served in sharing the love of God with someone else. Our Achilles heel isn’t merely our weakness, it becomes our greatest strength. God takes the thing that makes us the absolute worst and makes it fundamental to giving our deepest gift.
The Antidote for Jealousy
For Christians, the antidote for the comparing mind of jealousy is not focusing on our lack, obsessing over our sin, but focusing on God’s generosity and goodness. Again, while focusing on what’s wrong with people can help us see real problems, the solution for personal, subtle jealousies comes through paying better and more lovely attention to God.
The Psalms, then, are such a crucial part of the Bible because so many of them are psalms of praise. God wants us to praise God not because praising God is something God needs—it’s something that we need. We give thanks to God and count our blessings not because God forgot how he’s blessed us and needs our reminder, but because we do. As Meister Eckhart was known for saying, if the only prayer you ever prayed was “thank you,” it would be enough.
We can say thank you and praise God that God’s not “fair,” because it wasn’t “fair” for us to be given everything that we have. Every single thing we have springs forth from the gift of being alive. So when we are focused on what we want God to do, or what we want God to not do, we forget what God has done for us. But even when we are in this forgetfulness of our comparing mind, we can still be a part of something much greater than we can see. As told in stories throughout Exodus and the words of the prophets, God even gave us the gift to complain!2 And this is most especially holy when it is complaining on behalf of others who need it—and many desperately do.
Christians gather every week in worship not to earn extra salvation points. Our work is elsewhere and must be its own reward. But we gather to remember what God has done, is doing, and what we trust will be done based on who we know God is. If we focus on what God has done for us, there will still be unfair things to point to, but there’s nothing to be jealous about. Jealousy has amnesia towards its relationship to “enough.” The only comparison that God sees is soul to soul, beloved to beloved, daily bread to daily bread. We do not need to be envious because God is generous. As much as the comparing mind is a thorn in our side, this thorn is on the stem of a gift. God is giving us everything we need spiritually for today, for all of our days, and for eternity—we just have to show up and ask.
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