But . . . But . . . I’ve Done Everything Right, So Why Is Life Going Wrong?

Upon hearing the words for the first time, my gut reaction was, “No! That isn’t right!”

At the time, I was having a conversation with another person in which I was attempting to dish out blame for some problem or a conflict that had emerged. It was at this point when I heard the other say, “I guess I don’t see it necessary to blame anyone.”

Huh? What? Blame is what I know. There is always someone at fault. What do you mean it is not necessary to blame? Such an idea was  . . . well . . . inconceivable (to quote Vizzini from The Princess Bride).

I will admit that in some ways blaming for me is related to a theological worldview that was instilled in me at a young age.

In in a nutshell it holds, “If I do something good, I will be blessed; if I do something bad, I will be punished.” Researcher/psychologist Melvin J. Lerner labeled this the Just World Theory. Such a belief system is seen in a variety of teachings. Whether it is the overall rules of the universe, Hinduism’s karma, or the Hebraic or Christian God, persons commonly believe that rewards and penalties are meted out according to one’s behavior. Life is deemed fair as one will be paid accordingly to one’s good or bad acts. As a Christ-follower, such a theory was part of my theology. If I obey God, God will bless me; if I disobey God, God will punish me. As a Pentecostal, I frequently heard that if one was not healed, it was his own fault, perhaps for his lack of faith. If God did not protect your family from a horrible flood or fire, it must be some deep-seated sin in your life about which God is attempting to get your attention. While this doctrine has waned in more recent years, it still appears today, particularly in the area of mental health. For example, are you struggling with depression? Then maybe you are not fasting and praying enough or reading the Bible enough.

So . . . the blame continues, and we learn to blame others or ourselves for the travesties that befall human lives.

In essence, we learn to blame the victim. When life does not rise to meet our expectations or when disaster strikes, it must be the person’s or our own fault. Blame, then, is heaped upon others or ourselves in copious quantities to undergird the theory of a just world.

To see how it prevails, let’s take a little test. If you learn of someone who has difficulties one right after the other, is there a part of you that secretly believes, “She must be doing something wrong”? If someone is unable to get out of poverty, do you find yourself saying, “He is not trying enough”? If a woman is sexually assaulted, are there implicit assumptions of, “She shouldn’t have put herself in that position. Her clothes were too seductive. She was already sexually active”? In a similar manner, if you are the one who has experienced difficulties, poverty, or sexual assault, do you find yourself wondering if you are doing something wrong? If you answered “yes” to any of these, you may be adhering to the Just World Theory on some level.

Personally, I came face to face with my adherence to the Just World Theory when I experienced the death of a dream (see The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy) which was followed by several other difficulties in a variety of areas (e.g., career, medical, crime). I had obeyed God, why was God not blessing me? What had I done wrong? The self-blame was piled high on my plate as my belief in a just world was strong.

Even though these events happened a number of years ago, I find the throwing off of a Just World Theory to be quite a daunting task. I agree with John Harvey who writes about the adjustment of this belief in that it “is one of the most daunting and yet maturing of the steps most of us will take as humans.”[1] And combine that with my well-honed skill of self-blame and . . . well . . . it is an ongoing journey of learning about grace and gratitude.

Perhaps this is why I gravitated toward a study of a parable in Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

Prior to looking at the parable, I think it behooves us not to ignore its context so that we may more fully understand Matthew’s use of this parable. In 19:16-24, we read of a rich young ruler who walks sorrowfully away as he is unwilling to sell his possessions and follow Jesus. This is in contrast to 19:27-30 in which Peter, speaking for the other disciples, proudly indicates that they will receive a reward because they have forsaken everything to follow Christ. Peter’s question of “What then will there be for us” (19:27) implies that he believes that his reward is in direct relation to the amount of work he does. As R. C. Trench points out, Peter’s question within the context implies a type of self-exaltation by comparing himself to the rich young ruler.[2] Jesus, then, uses this parable to explain to his disciples that the concepts of justice and fairness in the kingdom of heaven are not like those in the kingdoms of this world. Klyne Snodgrass directs our attention to a fuller context in that he includes 19:13 through 20:34 in which there is a theme of a “reversal of the world’s values.” These verses include: the disciples attempting to keep the children away, but Jesus telling his disciples that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the children (19:13-15), not to those who have earned it; a description of Jerusalem as being a place of treachery and death and eventually the resurrection (20:17-19), not the place of exaltation; and a request by the mother of James and John for her sons to have status (20:20-28), which is in contrast to two blind men simply desiring their eyes to opened (20:29-34).[3] These vignettes seem to add weight to the parable’s theme, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (v. 16), a principle of God’s reign.

So how does this parable speak to the use of blame to uphold a Just World Theory?

The parable actually has two scenes. In the first scene, a landowner goes several times a day to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard. The first workers agree on a denarius for a day’s work, an average day’s pay. This is different from when the landowner goes to the market at nine, noon, and three and tells his would-be-workers, “I will give to you whatever is just.” What that is exactly, we don’t know, but perhaps it is a way to pull us into the story to unveil our own sense of fairness. In fact, verse 6 may serve to further tickle our blaming abilities and a sense of a just world when the landowner goes to laborers at five and inquires, “Why are you standing here all day without work (idle)?” The word for “idle” is argos, and according to BDAG, one of its meanings is “lazy,” but in this verse it “pertains to being without anything to do” or “unemployed.”[4] Yet, Robert Fortna suggests there is more here than just being without work. He believes that the landowner’s question “implies a typical attitude” that even though the workers are merely “unemployed,” the landowner’s use of the word demonstrates that it can easily possess a “moralistic and pejorative tone” of being “lazy.”[5] In other words, although the word denotes “out of work,” it can be used in a judgmental manner, that is, to blame. Yet, before we cling more fervently to our Just World Theory by believing the unemployed are not desirable as workers in that they are not hardworking,[6] Jesus does not give us this indication. As Fortna comments, these day laborers respond to the landowner’s question by simply stating the facts, “Because no one hired us” (v. 7).[7]

We now move to scene two, which begins in verse 8 with the landowner at the end of the day informing his manager to pay the workers. It is at this point in the story that the unexpected occurs: Not only do those who are hired last receive a denarius for their labor, but also those who are hired first receive a denarius. Fortna notices that Jesus, who is a masterful storyteller, uses a literary technique in which the author of the story knows the thoughts and motives of the participants (“authorial omniscience”); thus, when Jesus states that the first hired “thought they would receive more” (v. 10), it pulls the hearers into the story so that they identify with these workers by having the same assumption.[8]  That is, our fairness-o-meter is alerted, and when our fairness-o-meter is clanging, what do we do? We complain (v. 11). We compare (v. 12). We blame (v. 12).

How does the landowner respond?

First, he calls them, “friend.” Lest we think this is a friendly tone, Arland Hultgren recognizes that Matthew’s use of the word “friend” carries a less than positive, warm fuzziness. Instead, the individual being addressed as “friend” is being impertinent or devious, and so the person is being challenged or exposed.[9] The landowner points out that the first hired agreed to work for an average day pay, a denarius (13b), and the landowner can do whatever he wants with his belongings, or this case his monies (vv.14b-15a). But it is the last statement by the landowner (v. 15b) that is significant for the interpretation of this parable. While the NET translates it, “Or are you envious because I am generous,” the Greek text says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The reference to the “evil eye” may be pointing to a scarcity mentality. D.E. Oakman informs us that those in the ancient world believed “the goods of life” had been dispersed and were unable to be “increased absolutely.” Thus, the evil eye was a reference to a look of jealousy that would cause one to obtain that which was not “rightfully one’s own.”[10] Essentially, the evil eye could remove the goodness that the landowner has done. Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan notes, “The first workers not only begrudge the master’s generosity to the others, they betray their own presumption that they are better than the others and that they alone merit what is just whereas the others do not.”[11] In a sense, one could say that they are holding to the Just World Theory.

What does this indicate for us today?

Words of blaming and comparing may actually be pointing to our theology of a just world. Consciously or subconsciously, many of us are like Jesus’ disciples, holding to the Just World Theory when it comes to our relationship with God. Like Peter and the laborers hired first, we compare ourselves to others, noting how we have worked harder or prayed harder, reasoning that this is why our life is going well, or maybe why it is not going well. If it is going well, we feel like maybe “somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good [since] nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could,” to quote Maria singing in the Sound of Music. But if I am to be rewarded by God for my obedience, the converse is also true: I am to be punished by God for my disobedience. Consequently, I may be beleaguered with questions that ask, “What have I (or they) done wrong that justifies these difficulties?” So, we believe that when life is proceeding smoothly, we are being blessed for our uprightness, but when life is assailed by difficulties, we (or others) are being judged for our (their) wickedness. Wayne Jacobson calls this the “favor line”: an invisible line that informs us whether or not we have done enough to merit a reward or approval. There are problems with this. First, we are never certain of what constitutes “enough.” This leads to the second problem in that we are forced to compare ourselves with other believers to determine the approximate level of “enough.”[12] When we compare, we are separating ourselves from others, thereby we question our status or others’ status with God. This, like the workers who were hired first, removes from view God’s goodness to me.

As participants in God’s reign, this is an invitation, particularly during this season of focused thankfulness, to be more aware of our blaming and comparing, which points toward a Just World Theory. Instead, as participants of God’s kingdom, this is an invitation to re-center our focus on God’s goodness, not only in our minds but also in our words and actions, becoming people who embody a reversal of the world’s values, namely an abundance of grace and gratitude.


Thanks to pixabay.com for the image.

[1] John Harvey, Give Sorrow Words: Perspectives on Loss and Trauma (New York:  Psychology Press, 2000), 25.

[2] R. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (London: MacMillan, 1882), 39, 173-175.

[3] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 368-369, http://books.google.com/books?id=kFyt0VhErywC (accessed June 3, 2009).

[4] BDAG, s.v. aÓrgo/ß, 128.

[5] Robert Tomson Fortna, “Exegesis and Proclamation:‘You Have Made Them Equal to Us!’ (Mt 20:1-1),” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa (September 1990): 67, http://search.ebscohost.com (accessed March 31, 2009).

[6] See R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdman’s, 2007), 750.

[7] Fortna, 67.

[8] Fortna, 68-69.

[9] Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 39.

[10] D. E. Oakman, “Economics of Palestine,” in The Dictionary of the New Testament Background, ed., Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 305.

[11] Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, Parables of the Kingdom: Jesus and the Use of Parables in the Synoptic Tradition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 87.

[12] Wayne Jacobson, He Loves Me! Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 45-47.