- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

I think Washington, the city of politics, can use all the inspiration it can get. The city is, necessarily, driven by the clash of monumental ambitions, the spirit of "what have you done for me lately?" and the sense of one's fellow human beings here (foe and friend alike) as means to an end. This is, for better or worse, the nature of politics, and it is necessarily in many respects a nasty business. But it is also, in many cases, gratuitously nasty, and to my mind anything that might help to check this tendency should be welcomed. I have sometimes found myself reflecting on the application to life here of Jesus' parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), and the Christmas season seems an especially good time to explore it.
Jesus said to his disciples: "For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others, standing idle in the market place; and to them he said 'you go out into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went.
"Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said 'You go into the vineyard too.'
"And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' And when those hired about the eleventh hour 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 on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 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 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 as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' So the last will be first, and the first last."
Jesus speaks of the indivisibility of the promise of the reward of the kingdom of heaven. But it is hard for the laborers who began early in the morning to accept this. They grumble about getting no more than those who came at the eleventh hour. How is this fair? They see those who came later get exactly the same as they had been promised, and they therefore want more.
But the point is that there is no more. The difficult lesson of this parable is that if one has been promised salvation in exchange for work and faith, there is nothing more one can expect. The offer is already generous, not something to which the laborer has a right. And it is wrong to be resentful when others seem to be benefiting from a greater generosity, because it is not greater. It is precisely the same.
What distinguishes, finally, those who contract early in the morning from those who come in only at the eleventh hour? Nothing but chance circumstance. Those idle at the eleventh hour did not seek their idleness; no one had hired them. Those who worked in the hot sun all day were fortunate for having met this householder at all. Moreover, they knew what the reward for their labors would be; those who came later were promised only "whatever is right." In this respect, those who worked all day were the more fortunate for the certainty of their reward.
Forgive, now, a secular recasting of the parable. Sometimes in Washington, people work long and hard to get something done, and sometimes they do get it done, often with the help at the eleventh hour of people who were nowhere to be seen in the early going. Yet there is a tendency, unmistakably the same as that described in the parable of the vineyard, for those who are first to resent those who come last.
They shouldn't. I presume that people who come to Washington come for a reason, in response to some impulse to make the country or world a better place. (As for the utterly cynical or mercenary, there are other parables.) The vision one pursues ought to be sufficient justification for pursuing it. When others come to share that vision, it ought to be cause for celebration, not prideful interrogation about what took them so long. If we all keep this in mind, we will perhaps spend a little less time resenting others and more counting our own blessings.
Merry Christmas.

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