Tuesday night was prom night, and the parents did the student center up big in an Arabian nights theme, with palm trees and tents and booths and every kind of delicacy, and an expansive dance floor where they danced till the wee hours with visions of Scheherazade in their heads.
Then came the 6 a.m. cleanup (which had to be done by 8 o'clock in time for the lower classmen to arrive for classes). By this time our darling Cinderellas and Prince Charmings were all sleeping it off, and the moms and dads were dismantling the dream and storing it in boxes till next year. Some packed scatter pillows, some were on ladders unstapling long white sheers, and some stifled yawns behind industrial-sized floor mops.
I was a latecomer at 6:30 a.m. and was storing a long (magic?) carpet I had just rolled up when a woman a few feet from me said, out of the blue, "24 hours." I picked up on her meaning quickly and said, "Is that how long you've been up?" She answered, "Yes. I took a one-hour break last night."
That's when I started to notice in the air that there was a kind of pecking order in the room. There were those, like me, who had come in for just an hour. And there were those who had been on the preparation committee, and had chaperoned the post-prom party, and who were still plugging along after the sun rose. They were the inner circle.
There is almost an irresistible desire on the part of those who have done more work to be acknowledged as having done more work. (Hence the invention of the awards ceremony.) There is a tendency to pride, even among very nice people. (I know it because sometimes the shoe has been on the other foot-though not often.)
I thought about Jesus' story of the laborers hired from the marketplace (Matthew 20)-some at the crack of dawn, some at noon, some in late afternoon. At the end of the day the boss lined them up and gave each man a denarius, because that is what he had promised each one at the time of their hiring. The workers who had "borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat" were indignant: they complained that people who have worked longer should get more pay.
Excuse me, said the boss. Didn't I agree to give you a denarius and didn't you accept those terms? Your problem is not that I shortchanged you; your problem is that I felt like being generous to the 11th-hour guys. What you are actually faulting is my generosity.
The point is they all got jobs-which is more than they had before the boss rescued them from unemployment and destitution. Nobody comes out looking like a hero in this story except the boss. Everybody else is a debtor. No sense making begrudgendly comparisons among ourselves when we are all just plain lucky to be here.
Considering the fact that we were all dead men and everyone of us was snatched from the jaws of annihilation into the kingdom, this is the attitude Jesus wants us to take about our labor when we are tempted to be proud and lord it over someone else:
"So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'" (Luke 17:10).