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How To Rise Above Resentment!

Matthew 20:1-6

The parables of Jesus have been called the most famous short stories ever told. They are word pictures chosen from Jesus’ own experience which mirror not only the world in which He lived, but also the God He so dearly loved. A case in point is the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

It seems that the owner of the vineyard hired workers by the day according to the season of the year and according to the amount of work to be done. One morning, as usual, he went to the employment office in the marketplace and recruited some workers. He agreed to pay them the going rate for a day’s work and he sent them to his vineyard. Three hours later, he hired a few more, promising to pay them a fair wage. He repeated the process at noon, again at three o’clock, and yet again just one hour before sunset. Understand, please, that this was normal procedure in those days.

However, what happened at the end of the day was not normal. The owner of the vineyard told his steward to hand out the pay packets in reverse order, beginning with the workers who had been hired last. When they opened their packets, they were astonished to find a full day’s wages even though they had worked only a portion of the day. Needless to say, when the men who had been hired first thing in the morning saw this evidence of gratuitous generosity, they naturally supposed that it would extend to them and that they would receive some kind of bonus. Instead, they were paid exactly the same as the rest—one day’s fair wage. That did not please them at all. It seemed unfair. So they reacted as most of us would react under the circumstances. They protested to the owner: “These latecomers have not put in a full day’s work, yet you put them on a level with us who have labored all day long under the blazing sun.” The owner replied: “You have no reason to complain. I made a bargain with you and I kept it. I paid you what I promised to pay you. If I wanted to be generous with the others and give them a full day’s wage for less than a full day’s work, why should my generosity be a problem for you?”

Of course, their problem was not the owner’s generosity. Their problem was their own resentment. They resented the fact that a wage equal to theirs was given to men who had not worked as long as they had worked. Now, under the guidance of the parables, let’s look at the problem of resentment and then let’s look at its effects…

First, let’s consider the problem of resentment.

There are many of the parables of Jesus which deal with the subject of resentment. One example: The Prodigal Son. The elder brother in that parable was so resentful at the welcome that the father gave to the penitent prodigal that he would not even go into the homecoming party. What did he do? He stood outside with his lower lip stuck out and spouted off to his father saying: “Look, I have worked and slaved for you for all these years and you have never once made this big a fuss over me.” Resentment. Jesus, who always saw right down into the deepest recesses of the human heart, understood that resentment is one of the most dangerous, the most damaging of all human emotions. That is why Jesus never missed any opportunity to bring that problem of resentment to the light.

Resentment is a long-standing, deep-seeded human emotion. It is as old as the Bible itself. You may remember that it was resentment that caused the first murder in the Bible. Cain saw his brother Abel’s offerings were more acceptable to God and Cain was so filled with resentment that he picked up a rock and hit his brother over the head and killed him. Resentment. There is no one within the sound of my voice today who is not guilty of resentment. There is no one who can say “I have never once had feelings of resentment against anything or anyone else.” Resentment is something that takes hold of us all when we are children and it plagues us all the way through life. Oh, it is rather like a chronic, low-grade infection that takes up residence inside us and lies dormant there. It is in remission there, so to speak, for most of the time. But every once in a while something happens along our life’s way, and we begin to feel the twinge of the grip of resentment, and before long, resentment is actually beginning to eat us up on the inside. It happens to the adolescent whose kid brother, age 10, begins to receive the same weekly allowance that he didn’t get until he was age 13. The faithful employee feels it when the promotion that he feels he deserves instead is given to someone who is younger. Middle-age people feel it when they see a young person who wants to start off in life with all of the advantages and all of the material possessions that they themselves have had to work for years in order to earn. Tax-payers feel it when having worked and saved and paid taxes, they are standing in the supermarket line, holding in their hands a carton of hamburger meat, and someone just in front of them is buying steak with food stamps.

Resentment. It is a problem. What I want you to understand is that it is a problem in the field of religion as well. Of course, people are still human even when they are being religious. I think, for example, of John Henry Newman, the Anglican scholar who was a professor at Oxford University in England. Later in his life, after he went through a period of self-doubt, he emerged from that and came to the conclusion that he wanted to shift his allegiance and make a new start in his faith. He decided to join the Roman Catholic Church, turning away from his Anglican tradition. You would have thought, wouldn’t you that the Roman Catholics would have welcomed him with open arms and a red carpet. No. The majority of the Catholic priests received him with coolness. One theologian attacked his theological writings mercilessly. Others were openly resentful. They said: “Why have you come to this church so late and yet you expect to reap all of its benefits?” It sounds alot like Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, doesn’t it? Ultimately John Henry Newman did become very much accepted in the Roman Catholic Church, but only after he had worked for years in order to overcome the high walls of human resentment. What is so sad to me is that I see the same kind of resentment among so many ministers in the church today. Ministerial jealousy. That is the technical title for it. It means being unable to rejoice in the blessings which arise from someone else’s ministry. Ministerial jealousy. It is rampant in the church today. You cannot be around any group of ministers for any length of time without beginning to hear cutting remarks of envy directed against those ministers who are successful and scarcely concealed comments of delight directed against those who are struggling. Ministerial jealousy. I want to tell you something. I believe that that is crippling the witness of Jesus Christ through His church in the world today more than anything else. It is worth our remembering a wonderful little story that came from the fourth century. It seems that some emissaries from Satan were charged with the responsibility of bringing down into sin a strong, Godly hermit. They set before this hermit every lure, every temptation they could imagine. Nothing worked. He would not yield. So finally in frustration the emissaries of Satan returned to Satan seeking advice. Satan said to them: “Go and tell him that his brother has been made the Bishop of Antioch.” And sure enough, when this strong, Godly man heard that word, he was plunged into deep, wicked resentment.

Resentment has caused many a person, many a Christian, to plunge into bad times in life. I think that is why Jesus told this parable which so clearly spells out the problem of resentment.

But then let’s look at the effects of resentment.

I want us to look at those laborers in the parable—the ones who did the complaining. It is quite easy to see the results of their resentment and maybe we will see our own reflection in their faces.

One of the effects of their resentment was that it led them to disparage the good that they had. Did you notice that in the reading? In the morning, those workers thought a full day’s wage was a wonderful thing. They were eager to get it and they could think of all the wonderful things they were going to purchase for themselves and their families when they got that money in their hands. As a matter of fact, I suspect that is what kept them working all through the heat of that day—the thought of getting that one full day’s wage for one full day’s work. In the evening, everything changed. Suddenly, resentment began to eat away at them down on the inside and they ceased to be grateful for what they did have. That is what always happens to us. Whenever we stack our accomplishments, our successes, our possessions, our salaries up against those of someone else, especially if that someone else is someone that we think is less deserving but better off. Resentment begins to tear away at us and before long we have stopped being grateful for what we do have. My friends, I want to tell you there is no cure for that. The only thing we can do is to somehow try to rise above it. The only thing we can do is to stop once and for all comparing ourselves with someone else and instead to be grateful to God for all the good things that we do have—for health and homes and jobs and friends and family and money and a host of other good things. The good things in life God has given us. That is the only way to control the low-grade infection of resentment that eats away down inside of us.

A second effect of their resentment was the fact that it turned them against their fellow-workers. In the morning they had been friends, they were all there together in the marketplace. They were there day after day after day. In the evening, everything changed. Suddenly, in the evening, these workers who had been hired the first thing began to look at their fellow-workers through different eyes—eyes of ill will. They said to them: “You don’t deserve what you got.” Resentment fractures friendship. I believe that resentment fractures friendship more quickly than anything else. Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed this whole issue in a wonderful essay titled “Compensation.” I hope you will read it. In that essay Emerson says that there is a leveling-off process in the economy of nature which, if one person has a disadvantage in some area of life, that same person will have an advantage in another area. If life in the course of events takes away a blessing from someone at some point, ultimately another blessing will be added. That is the leveling-off process that Ralph Waldo Emerson says is very much a part of life. Therefore, Emerson says: “You must always look at the other person’s total situation not a part of it—look at the total situation of that other person. Measure everything in that person’s life over against everything in your life.” If you do that you won’t be moved to resentment. As a matter of fact, you may be moved to love.

The third effect of their resentment was it set them against their employer. In the morning, they thought this fellow was wonderful. He had hired them for the day. He was going to pay them a full day’s wage. By the evening, they hated him. Why? Because he cheated them? No. He had not cheated them. He had done exactly what he had said he would do. He gave them exactly what they were entitled to receive. They hated him because they resented his generosity toward others.

In the parable, the employer represents God. Jesus is telling us that our God is a God of surpassing grace and generosity. Our God is a God who deals with us, not according to what we deserve, but with a grace and generosity that surpasses whatever we might deserve. If we doubt that, then all we have to do is to sweep aside the maze of things in life and stand at the foot of a cross that is planted starkly on a hill called Calvary, where we see God’s unmerited favor extended to those who least deserve it. And that unmerited favor in the cross of Jesus Christ is made visible and actual and real on the stage of human history. The Bible says: “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” And this gracious, generous, loving God is our friend who is reaching out to claim us as His very own in Jesus Christ. We run the danger of turning Him into our enemy if we begrudge His generosity to others.

The point of the parable is that resentment is a destructive problem for us. It is a spiritual cancer. It can ruin our lives. It can make us sick. Dr. Paul Tournier, the great Swiss physician and Christian, tells of a woman being treated for anemia. Doctors had worked with her for months with no success. They tried all kinds of medicine, vitamins, diets, and exercise, to no avail. Finally, they decided to put her in the hospital. As she was checking in, the hospital routinely checked her blood. They discovered it was fine, no sign of anemia. Miraculously, she had been healed. Intrigued by this, her doctor asked: “Has anything out of the ordinary happened in your life since your last test?” She said: “Yes, I have suddenly been able to overcome a seething feeling of resentment against a friend of mine. I decided to stop resenting the success she was having and instead to rejoice in her accomplishments.” You see, her resentment had made her ill. When she stopped seething and started soothing the situation, the impact was so powerful that it even changed the physical state of her blood!

If you want to rise above resentment in your life, then the only way is to place your life under the control of Jesus Christ. He will teach you the fine art of rejoicing in the blessings and the successes and the accomplishments of other people. He will enable you to rise above resentment.

That is the message of the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Heaven help us if we don’t learn it!

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