Self-pity sends out invitations to its party every time good things happen to others but not us. Invitations tend to arrive around weddings, baby showers and the holidays when we are struggling with singleness or infertility or the loss of a loved one. More invitations arrive when we have lost financial security, or good health and we notice nearly everyone else living carefree.
At the worst moments, self-pity appears like a stalker that refuses to take no for an answer — showing up unannounced with yet another invitation to its lame party. When we are forgotten by friends, passed over at work or under appreciated at home; this persistent wooer offers the hand of friendship. But, self-pity is not a friend worth having.
No one recognized this more than Helen Keller, who became deaf, blind and mute before turning two years old. Pity seemed Helen’s only friend. Yet she discovered Self-Pity’s defiling and unappeasable character only after a real friend, named Anne Sullivan, entered in with a truer compassion — one tough as nails and reliable as the North Star. Keller concluded, “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it we can never do anything wise in this world.”
Jesus never offered his hand in friendship to self-pity. He told a story, in Matthew 20:1-16, about a wealthy landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After the laborers agree to work for a denarius a day he sends them into his vineyard. Three hours later he finds people standing idle in the marketplace and says, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” He repeats the same thing at the sixth hour, and ninth hour. At the eleventh hour he finds people standing about and asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?…You go into the vineyard too!” When evening arrives, he gathers all the laborers together to pay them their wages beginning with those hired last. When he pays them a denarius, those hired first believe they will receive more, but each also receives a denarius. On receiving their pay they grumble, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” But the landowner replies, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I chose to give to the last workers as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
This story irritated me for a long time. First, the story seems to reward laziness and irresponsibility. Second, Jesus appears unsympathetic toward the the community of laborers provoked to jealous strife by the landowner. Third, the behavior of the landowner seems really unfair! But as much as I hated to admit it — the landowner did nothing unjust in the story. Those who labored the longest were still given a fair wage for their day’s work — even one they had agreed to. Rather than praise the landowner for his abundant generosity toward the least deserving, I was inclined to criticize him for his merely legitimate treatment toward the most deserving.
I knew I shouldn’t continue to feel irritated after logically working it out, but I was and I didn’t understand why exactly. The only answer I could come up with was not flattering. I realized that I considered myself a first hour worker, not an eleventh hour worker. Thinking otherwise I would not feel irritated but grateful. Self pity can only grow in the soil of self righteousness but gratitude grows in the soil of humility.
Jesus is no fan of self-pity. First, as a teacher, he tells parables like this one that leave no room for it. Second, as an example, he refuses Self-Pity’s invitation at every turn. Even on the night Jesus was betrayed, He never once felt sorry for himself. He knew Judas would betray him. Instead of having a pity party, he hosted a foot washing party to show his disciples how they ought to love one another. Jesus even washed Judas’ feet at the last supper. Third, as a redeemer, Jesus was really the only first hour worker…ever. John said, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” Jesus has been working faithfully from the dawn of eternity. Unlike the first hour workers in the parable Jesus rejoices that we, who are much less deserving, get the same eternal inheritance as he does. Forth, as abiding savior, Jesus offers us His Holy Spirit, the truest comforter who pursues us at all hours of the night even after we’ve foolishly entered the deadly party of self-pity and can’t find our way home.