Schadenfreude

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, SEptember 24th, 2017

You’d be surprised how many German words you actually know. One we use every day is shortened to ‘deli’ and, as we know, is the abbreviation for ‘delicatessen’, which is a German word meaning ‘a delicacy, a fine food’. And anyone who uses the word ‘über’ whether for ride-sharing or as a superlative, for something that really is the cat’s whiskers, is using a German word. Then there’s Santa Claus, angst, kindergarten and zeitgeist. For me, however, the German word that I think I like the most is this one: ‘schadenfreude’. 

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There are words in many languages that are uniquely untranslatable, and they just perfectly sum up some part of the human condition or an emotion. Schadenfreude does exactly this. Freude is German for ‘joy’ and ‘schaden’ means ‘mishap’, ‘accident’ or ‘downfall’. Schadenfreude is therefore a word which describes the emotion of ‘joy at the misfortune of others’.

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To some extent or other, we are all guilty of not only experiencing this emotion, but liking it. It appeals to our sense of just desserts, to our feeling that there must in the final analysis be some kind of cosmic karma at play where people cut us off in traffic but then get pulled over, or push into line at the post office and the counter clerk tells them they have the wrong customs form and they have to go to the back of the line again.

What does all this tell us about human nature? First, it tells us that we have a very well-developed sense of what apparently is fair and what is not. This, of course, is something which cuts both ways. The same sense of unfairness that results in schadenfreude is the same sense of unfairness that motivates us in good ways to work for a more just and equitable society, and a sense of outrage at perceived unfairness has achieved for society some great advances in equity in the workplace, has curbed the worst exploitations of workers by their bosses and given us more equitable work place conditions and pay.

Therefore, grading jobs according to their worth and paying people who do the same kinds of job the same kind of money seems to us a perfectly reasonable and laudable objective. Indeed, it seems to resonate with our sense of natural justice and equity. But, as I’ve already hinted, there is a difference between a sense of fairness, and a sense of unfairness. A sense of fairness leads to greater equity for everyone. A sense of unfairness leads to schadenfreude. A sense of fairness is an emotion driven by selflessness. A sense of unfairness is an emotion driven by selfishness. Of course, one person’s fairness is another person’s unfairness. And so the issue becomes not so much what is fair, but what is unfair. People find it unfair that some people will need to lose so that others can gain. 

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I’m sure that union chiefs, managers and HR professionals would have had plenty to say about the episode in this morning’s vineyard. A landlord goes to the marketplace first thing to hire hands for the day. He agrees with those he hires that they will receive one denarius for a 12 hour day of backbreaking work in the hot sun. Fair enough. He hires workers again after three, six, nine and eleven hours respectively. He doesn’t mention a wage on these subsequent occasions, he just assures those workers that he will pay them what is right. 

A denarius from the time of Jesus, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

A denarius from the time of Jesus, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

At the end of the day those who agreed to work a 12 hour day for one denarius receive one denarius. A square deal.  Fair exchange, no robbery. And for those who did three hours less on the land – one denarius. And for those who did six hours less – one denarius. And for those who did only an hour’s work – one denarius.

Despite my best efforts, I find that this story disturbs me. It seems so plainly unfair. The pay only seems fair for the first three hours – i.e. with the original set of workers. Once further workers are hired, one’s sense of fairness would suggest that differentials would kick-in. I have every sympathy with those original workers – what right do these ‘johnny-come-latelys’ have to upset the apple cart? 

If the workers on the first shift took the landowner to an industrial tribunal, it would be an open and shut case. A victory for workers’ rights.

The problem is that I am being all too human in my natural response. What I find objectionable in the story is not that the first workers didn’t get enough but that the later workers got too much. For some reason, we often seem so resentful of others’ good fortune. It’s one of our most unbecoming traits. We are all-too-quick to arbitrate on who is ‘deserving’ and who is ‘undeserving’. There is, for instance, a whole corpus of unpleasant literature on the ‘undeserving poor’ and much ink has been spilt on reasons for why any kind of welfare provision by the state is not to be welcomed.

Such knee-jerk reactions, be they on the parable of the generous vineyard owner or on the merits of social security, are unworthy of us. Matters are rarely, if ever, that simple. Just as we have little right to make judgements on those we come across, so the social context of the workers gathered in the first century marketplace has a complex patina of varying needs and circumstances which are of immense relevance to us when seeking out the messages in this parable.

The marketplace for laborers is hot, dusty and noisy, thronged with hopefuls. The first to be hired would be strong, bright, assertive and full of stamina. They would talk the talk and push their case. They would catch the eye of the landowner and seal their bargain. 

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As the day wears on those offering their labor would be less and less marketable, to put it in those terms. By the time it has got to the eleventh hour, those that are left are the weak and the marginalized, those that no-one really wants. The ones that want to give but no-one wants to take. The ones that will struggle to make ends meet and may fall off the end. The ones that will have nothing with which to feed and clothe their families. The ones who feel that everything is hopeless.

But then comes an offer of work – a golden chance to be working in the fields – a chance to at least have something to scrape together to ensure survival for another 24 hours. Wages-wise, the landowner promises them ‘whatever is right’. 

Nevertheless, they had only been there an hour and so they must have approached the pay queue slightly ruefully. They couldn’t expect much – they had tried their best but they hadn’t had much of a chance. 

And then the landowner gives them something far, far beyond all their expectations. A full day’s pay. A wild, extravagant gesture, a lavish, gracious, unbidden act. If we understand the landowner to be God, then we can see that God’s lavish gifts of grace are given to us for who we are, not what we do.

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The landowner’s act is not just lavish and unconditional, it is actually an act of justice and of fairness. The landowner was acknowledging that those he hired last had the least in the way of opportunities, were the least included in society. Those that no-one else was bothered to seek out he sought out and lavished the same good things on as those who were more fortunate, more included.

This may not be the way this world does things, but it is God’s way. The market might favor the strong and assertive but who will remember the weak and the withdrawn? God levels the playing-field. This is true equality. This is true fairness. Indeed, there is much to demonstrate that God makes a point of working through the excluded and marginalized. The very fact that His incarnate self was born into the most excluded and menial conditions presents us with the most powerful evidence of God’s identification with the poor and the outcast.

So whilst we can celebrate God’s unconditional love this does not mean that we are passive recipients of his lavish graciousness. If we wish to become more like Him then we must be led by his example of inclusiveness and equality on His terms. 
 

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