Why Comparisions May Be Graceful – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis AlmquistMatthew 20:1-16

One of my favorite music recordings is of Arthur Rubenstein, the great Polish-American classical pianist, playing Chopin.[i]  Rubenstein was known to be the greatest interpreter of Chopin in his time.  This particular recording is brilliant.  It’s not just the music; it’s also the jacket cover.  The recording was originally made in 1965, when Rubenstein was still at his height.  This newer recording is actually a remix of the 1965 recording released again in 1981, about a year before he died at age 95.  The photo on the jacket cover captures the elderly Rubenstein in deep concentration, with his hands at work on the keyboard… except the keyboard and the piano are non-existent.  Rubenstein is pictured, clad in his shirtsleeves, sitting in his apartment, with his hands outstretched above his coffee table, playing “in the air” what it must have been like for him to play in the great concert halls of the world.  In this cover photo, Rubenstein is absolutely engrossed in the music which he no longer actually plays, but remembers and rehearses on his invisible piano.  He is a man at peace.  This informal portrait of Rubenstein is stunning.

In the Gospel lesson appointed for today, we hear Jesus say “…the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[ii]  If you are on the top of your game, if you are privileged or powerful, you probably won’t hear this as good news: “the last will be first.”  But if you are powerless or are losing power, or if you live without privilege, or if your experience of life is already to be last or less, or if you have lost something significant in life – lost a loved one, lost an ability, lost being attractive, strong, agile, dexterous, competent, healthy, desirable, then you will hear what Jesus is saying about the last becoming first, not as an arduous adjudication, but as a welcomed invitation.  You still belong.  If you know someone who is becoming less able, more needy, more childlike, Jesus’ saying we should become like children will be very inviting and inclusive.  If you know someone who is losing their life because of diminishing health or increasing age, or because of some discrimination or other injustice they have experienced, then hearing Jesus say “whoever loses their life will gain it” – these words of Jesus may be of enormous comfort.

Comparisons can be invidious.  How things were, in contrast to how things are, in contrast to how things are supposed to be can be a lose-lose proposition.  Comparing ourselves to others – on whatever scale you choose – can be futile at best, and demeaning or deadening at worst.  Ranking yourself with yourself – how you were vs. how you are – or ranking yourself in comparison to someone else may leave you either bitter or better: better than that person, or worse than that person, which will probably not be helpful to either your program or theirs.  The wisdom of the 12-Step movement is: “Identify, don’t compare.”  Identify differences and similarities in your own life experience with yourself and in your experience of others, don’t compare.  I think that’s mostly true. My qualifier is what you do with a comparison that makes the difference.

Jesus was forever making comparisons in the parables he told.  Are you like this, he would ask, or are you like that?  If a comparison leaves dignity intact – yours and someone else’s – if the comparison is enlightening, if it is liberating, if it is true, if it leaves you with a sense of gratitude, then the comparison may be quite a good thing.  The word “comparison” comes from the Latin comparare, which is to liken, not to separate.  Comparare: com, which means “with” or “together,” and par, which means “equal.”  Comparing, i.e., with an equal.  We speak of “comparing notes,” which is often both enlightening and liberating.  I have a close friend who is an outstanding teacher, the best I have ever known.  This friend is a better teacher than I am.  I could give you the reasons.  Many.  That comparison does not evoke jealousy in me.  That comparison leaves me with admiration for this friend, inspiration from this friend, delight in this friend… and for myself.  We are different people.  Where comparisons are deadly is when there’s a residue of jealousy, or condemnation, or bitterness, which is life-diminishing for ourselves and for the other people who are our targets.  We can be our own target.  We can be our own worst enemy.  Those kind of comparisons are deadly.

Joan Erikson, the great artist and poet, said that life can be compared to a piece of embroidery.  During the first half of life, we get sight of the right side of the embroidery, and during the second half, of the wrong.  “The wrong side is not so pretty as the right, but it is more instructive; it shows the way in which the threads have been worked together.”[iii]  You may have glimpses of the back side of the embroidery of your life, how it is you were intricately put together.  Some days the back side of your life’s embroidery may fill your screen.  That perspective can be very fascinating.  It’s the long view.  Embrace the embroidery.  Both sides.

In the Gospel lesson appointed for today, Jesus leaves us with a story about the laborers who are hired, some for the full day, some for part of the day, some for the last hour.  They all receive the same pay.  He is pressed on this, and he doesn’t get the least bit defensive.  This is the deal in life.  Why was this story told by Jesus remembered?  Why did this story eventually find its way into the Canon of Scripture?  Undoubtedly because it has rung true.  Where are you in this Gospel story?  When in the day did you show up to work and got the pay, the equal pay.  We are those laborers.  We are all of them.  We are the ones who showed up at the beginning of the day.  And we are those who showed up with the day half gone.  And we are the ones who have shown up in the last hour.  This is our story.  All of it.  At the end of the day, God’s invitation to us is to say “yes” to life, to the terms of life we’ve been given.  The changing terms.  Some days they are terrific terms; some days they are tough terms.  In the end, Jesus says, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[iv]

[i] Arthur Rubenstein (1887-1982) in “The Rubenstein Collection,” Vol. 45, re-released in 1981: Chopin Ballades, Scherzos (1965).

[ii] Matthew 20:16.

[iii] Joan Erikson (1903-1997), an educator, weaver, dancer, and wife of Harvard’s Erik Erikson.  Joan for many years worshiped in the SSJE chapel.  The embroidery metaphor comes from her Wisdom and the Senses (W. W. Norton, 1991), p. 111.

[iv] Matthew 28:20.

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  1. Steve Smith on October 19, 2022 at 09:00

    Thank you for this message, Brother Curtis — it is a salve today. I am in a season of reflexively comparing myself to others and to my younger self.

    Your reflection got me thinking more about the perils of “attachment”, and Jesus seems to be touching on that in this parable. When we attach ourselves to a certain standard of “fairness”, when we focus on obtaining a particular outcome, we close ourselves off from experiencing God’s grace, and from experiencing the freedom and generativity of simply loving our brothers and sisters.


  2. Mary Ellen Stokes on August 30, 2020 at 06:56

    Br Curtis, thank you for the richly meaningful message and for the memory: I heard Rubenstein play Chopin at the San Francisco Opera House in 1968 or 9. Our seats were in one of the high balconies and we watched through binoculars. The audience was so quiet that I didn’t dare move and my feet went to sleep.

  3. Lee Graham on August 27, 2020 at 11:35

    Thank you Brother Curtis, for your gentle words and your life given in service for Jesus. Your messages always touch my heart and fill me with encouragement to endure to the end IN LOVE the life that has been given me. And I especially appreciate your mention of the 12 step wisdom which has a way of “resetting” my resolve.

  4. Alan Rollins on August 27, 2020 at 09:40

    My comparisons most often are to myself: what I was like in my past life, and what I am experiencing today. I have found myself pining for what I was able to do, and those things I am no longer able to do; and, much of what I can’t do isn’t just age, it’s self-neglect and lack of self-discipline. However, my faith in the love and grace of God has been stronger within the last 10+ years; following the path and teachings of Jesus brings me back to where I want be. I am so blessed that God is with me, and will be with me always. Thank you, and may God bless you, Br. Curtis.

  5. Darrell Johnson on September 6, 2019 at 08:22

    Thanks for this hope-filled message and also for the enlightening parable interpretation which is new to me. All good to you, Br. Curtis.

  6. Ruth West on October 8, 2017 at 01:08

    This was an interesting sermon, Br.Curtis. Thank you for shining light on a recent dream
    I had. It was shocking to me, for in it I was seeing the back side of the embroidery of my life. It was truly an eye-opening experience, showing me that all is not well all of the time, lest I become too self-satisfied. Thanks be to God that he promises to be with us, even to the end of the age.

  7. Michael Bill on September 28, 2017 at 08:23

    Wonderful commentary on the dimensional life we have and how to deal with comparison of our selves with others. Thanks You

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