Trading Assumptions

I suspect we’ve all heard it quipped, “Don’t assume – making assumptions makes an a__ of your and me.” I hear a sermon yesterday that made me think we should perhaps rephrase that advise.

The priest at St. John’s Episcopal (where I attended the morning Mass before a session of the program I’m currently giving there) spoke during her sermon about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard from yesterday’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew. This is the passage where the landowner upsets the laborers who have worked for him all day in the fields by paying those who worked only an hour the same full day’s wage he pays them.

This is a tough parable for many, because it is so easy for us to identify with the workers who toiled all day. It’s not fair to give those who only worked an hour the same as the hard working folk who began work early in the morning, we think.

Part of our reaction stems from a set of assumptions we make. One is about the workers who came late. Lazy bum, we think. Where were they in the morning, when the others started working? Sleeping off a hangover, we probably think. Another is about what constitutes equity in these circumstances – assumptions about how a just landowner should behave?

But what if instead of assuming the workers who came late were shiftless and lazy, we allowed the possibility of this scenario suggested by the priest: Perhaps there was a worker who was up all night with a sick child. And so he slept late. By the time he arrived at the worksite, everyone was gone, so he went home. But with a sick and hungry child and no food in his house, he goes out again later in the day – with no real hope of getting work, but desperate to try to find some way to bring some food home. And he meets the landowner who offers him work for a fair wage. The worker agrees, expecting to be paid very little, but happy for whatever he gets.

The story caused me to focus on the fact that we get to choose our assumptions. We can choose assumptions that lead us to resentment and tightness or assumptions that lead us to generosity and love.

The problem with the advice quip I started with is that, consciously or not, we all make assumptions. I’m not sure we can avoid making assumptions. But perhaps it is worth seeing what it is like to walk around with a new set of assumptions, some of which are truths that we say we know…but we sometimes forget. The priest suggested that we assume we are made in God’s image. And assume that God loves each of us endlessly. And assume that God’t can’t love us more or less than God does and that we don’t have to do anything to earn that love. And assume (and here is the harder one) that we are all doing the best that we can. And (implicit in what she said) that appearances can be deceiving and that we quite often have no way of knowing what explains the behavior of others.

Try consciously adopting those assumptions and see if it makes a difference in your feelings and your judgment of others.