9/20: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 148; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
At first glance, this week's readings are a bit of a hodgepodge of material. The Exodus reading is abruptly ended, about 2/3 of the way through the actual story. The Philippians passage sets up the problem but stops short of the encouraging words ahead. And the story Jesus tells in Matthew is, well, (can I say this?) not his most compelling. However, each of the readings contains a description of the quick spread of reactivity in a group when anxiety is up. This is an important process to think about..
To begin, let's look at Exodus. Moses and his brother Aaron have led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea and into the wilderness, fleeing their status as slaves in Egypt. They've successfully left the country, everyone intact, but there's a new problem: hunger. Back in Egypt, someone was feeding them, and the people begin reminiscing about how good they had it. Next, they begin criticizing their leaders, blaming their leaders for the food shortage and for bringing them to this desolate spot. Here, Moses and Aaron hand the people back their agency, pointing out that they had all left Egypt based on the principle of following the LORD.
Next is the Philippians passage. Paul is writing a letter to the community in Philippi, which is facing persecution and suffering for their beliefs. Possibly to their surprise, Paul suggests that they see it as their good fortune to be allowed the opportunity to suffer for the faith!
Finally, the Matthew passage. Jesus tells a story about a boss who takes time to find unemployed people, hire them close to the end of the day, and pay them the same wage as those who had worked all day. The people who had worked all day grumble, seeing this as unfair, although they had agreed to the wage at the beginning of the day.
The blaming behavior of the Israelites, the fear of the Philippians, and the quick anger at a suspected unfairness of the full-day workers in the Matthew story are all typical human behaviors:
- Finding someone to blame – identifying a causal agent – is sometimes useful, as when a rustle in the bushes means a lion is there. But when applied to complex situations, it creates more problems than it solves. For the Israelites, the difficulty of getting organized to find food was related to their many years of enslavement and consequent lack of agency in solving their own problems. Blaming Moses was easy, but it kept them from seeing the real problem.
- Similarly, fear among the Philippians may have been keeping them from seeing what Paul could see. Paul, a veteran at suffering for the faith, apparently found it not only a necessary aspect of living according to his beliefs, but also a way of growth. Instead of fearing what life might bring, the Philippians would be more prepared for the dangers ahead by seeing them as a way to test themselves and grow into what mattered to them.
- Finally, the sense of injustice among the day laborers was interfering with their capacity to see the relative plight of others. Our brains still function as though we humans were in the hunter-gatherer groups in which we evolved. In these smaller group settings, each person's capacity and contribution were carefully monitored and maximized each day through a cooperative group process. These same processes fail us in larger, more hierarchical systems. For example, in this story, the landowner had to seek out those lacking work, which would not have been necessary, back in the (hunter-gatherer) day! These days, seeing what the other is up against takes some thoughtfulness.
Human emotions drive many automatic behaviors. Relationship processes can serve to spread emotions quickly among a group. The person who can wonder about their reactions – blaming, fear, and anger, to name a few – has a chance to use the underlying energy while letting go of the immaturity involved. Leading others out of a wilderness – whether it's a desert in 1200 BCE or the cruelties of 2020 – begins here. In the end, no one can control whether she will be paid fairly, or persecuted, or face hunger. What she can control is what she does with her life each day.
Morning: In what ways do I function as a good leader? What might stir up my reactivity today?
Evening: Where did I have energy in my day?
Psalm 145:9b The compassion of the Lord is over all his works.