Why We Do What We Do–Ecclesiastes 4:4

Bad things will happen if I don’t get some grading done today. I’m teaching two sections of Comp I online this summer, and I will confess that I am behind on my grading. What happens if I get too far behind? My students will start to complain. They’ll start by bothering me: “Where’s my grade?” “I don’t have a grade for X!” Then, should I not respond, they might begin to complain to my dean. He would contact me, and I would have to explain my behavior. I suppose if I totally fell apart, I could conceivably lose my job. That’s why I will get that grading done today.

Or maybe that’s not why I will do the grading. Instead, I will do it because it is the right thing to do. I take a healthy amount of pride in being a productive and ethical writing teacher. I believe that my remarks on a student’s paper, if thoughtfully considered, will help that student become a more capable communicator and thus a more successful person. That’s why I will do that grading today.

Either of those motivations makes sense, but I can, with great confidence, say that there’s not one bit of jealousy driving me to put comments on papers today. Frankly, I don’t care what David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan are doing or how they look to others. That’s why I’m confused by our text today.

I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4

What if “all” isn’t all?

Perhaps my problem with these verses is in that pesky word “all,” which pops up twice in the first sentence. Once I accept that Solomon is using hyperbole–exaggeration for effect–then the verse makes a lot of sense. Certainly my grading efforts today won’t be done out of envy, and they won’t provoke envy. On the other hand, a great deal of what we do is motivated by appearances and the desire to have what others have, including status and reputation.

As much as I hate to admit it, I enjoy my positive reputation among students. When I hear that student X recommended me to student Y, it warms my heart a bit. And I really don’t want my dean to think that David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan is better than me.

Perhaps not “all” of my labor and striving is born out of jealousy of someone else. Perhaps not “all” of it will be apt to create jealousy, but some of it can and does. When Nathan spends much of the summer in Southeast Asia, I wonder why my bank account won’t support that sort of travel.

Getting in Tune

At least before the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were a muddled bunch. In Matthew 20:20-28, the mother of James and John asks that her boys sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in the kingdom. These guys, it seems, were serving Jesus to “work on their résumés,” to establish their credentials and raise themselves up above their peers.

What we do, whether it be in the church or in our jobs, should be done, as much as we can manage it, without any comparison to another. It should be done without any desire for self promotion. That’s hard to achieve in a world that values followers and likes and shares, but the defeat of envy will help us stop pursuing the wind.

Is the Last First?

I wonder if my siblings think the arrangement is fair? I’m the youngest of four in my family, and we’re spread out over 20 years. That means that my sister has invested 20 more years of life with our parents than I have. She had 20 more years with our father when he died and she’ll have 20 more with our mother at the end of her run. My brothers, then, have 15 and 10 years additional.

Despite this, our mother’s will stipulates that everything be split four ways. Does that seem fair? Shouldn’t I get less, having fewer years of service to claim? Maybe that’s why, when it came time to choose an executor for that will, both of my brothers pointed at me.

This question draws me to another of Jesus’ kingdom parables, this one in Matthew 20:1-16. Here, he tells the story of a vineyard owner (God) hiring people (believers) to work in his vineyard. He promises the early-morning hires a denarius. Then he keeps hiring more people throughout the day, adding some just before quitting time. In the end, he pays all of them a denarius, regardless of how long they worked. The all-day workers are incensed, complaining of the unfair treatment. The vineyard owner’s response fills the last few verses of the passage:

“He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like this story of the vineyard. If that’s the case, then what do we learn about the kingdom from this account? Does it indicate that absolutely everybody who enters into the kingdom will receive the same reward?

If that’s what Jesus is saying then it seems to run counter to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Although the metaphor is different there–building instead of vineyard-tending–the ideas coexist. The all-day vineyard workers (or quality builders) can look at the work they have done as well as at the pay in their hands as a reward.

So what are our takeaways from this parable?

  • The kingdom involves labor in this life and then payment at the end of the “day.”
  • The kingdom rewards all of its subjects equally, regardless of their term of service.
  • The kingdom, therefore, excludes the pride of being the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.
  • The kingdom’s work, intuited from 1 Corinthians 3, can be its own reward for the most dedicated workers.

I’d write more, but in a few minutes I have to go to my mother’s house and drive her to her hair appointment. Most likely I’ll need to fix something she’s done to her computer. Tonight, after the rain, I’ll think about her leaky basement. Maybe I am earning that full share among my siblings after all.