Bishop's Message

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Sep 2003    

IN A field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”

“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”

“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; “we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:

It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

I REMEMBER reading this well-known Aesop’s fable as a child. The moral of the story is stated clearly at the end. One must postpone present gratification, work hard and make provision for the future. A useful story, indeed, for any parent trying to impress upon his child the importance of hard work.
The ant and the grasshopper are contrasted in the story. The ant is hardworking, diligent, and to be commended for thinking about the future. It is a picture of responsibility. One is reminded of what the wise man who wrote the book of Proverbs advises: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” (Pr. 6:6-8). Likewise in Proverbs 30:24-28, four creatures are commended as extremely wise even though they are small; the ant is one of them. “Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer.” (Pr. 30:25).

The grasshopper, on the other hand, is a model of irresponsibility. It is only interested in present enjoyment and does not think of the future. When its summer song is ended and winter woes begin, it is totally unprepared and its folly is clearly revealed.

Such a story resonates with our society where hard work and diligence — the very values shown by the ant, are still celebrated and highly cherished. However, living in a fast-paced society where the workplace has often become a place of great stress, where one’s performance and efficiency are constantly scrutinised, it is easy to carry the lessons of the ant and the grasshopper to the extreme.

For stressed out people, the grasshopper looks like the wiser one. Should not one take it easy, relax, live for the moment, and have a life? While it is important to have periods of rest and recreation, and time to relax with family and friends, to stop regularly to smell the flowers along the way, and to savour each passing moment, that is not what the grasshopper portrays. The problem with the grasshopper is that it has a one-track mind. It is permanently set on play mode. It is short-sighted, lazy, and driven by impulse and present enjoyment, like the biblical Esau who sold his birthright for a hot bowl of soup.

It is better and wiser to follow the way of the ant. The book of Proverbs and Aesop’s story belong to the same millennium and both promote the values of diligence, foresight and hard work. However, living in the present millennium, because of social and cultural differences it is easy for us to misunderstand the way of the ant, especially in two unfortunate ways.

Firstly, we can misunderstand the ant as a creature permanently set on work mode. Science tells us otherwise. The research of American zoologist Joan Herbers shows that creatures known for constant busyness such as the ant and the bee do, in fact, spend a lot of time doing nothing. This may be an eye-opener for ant-followers. It is easy for us to distort the virtues of hard work and diligence into the neurosis of perfectionism and the tragedy of overwork and burnout.
The book of Ecclesiastes, which belongs to the same group of Wisdom Literature in the Bible as the book of Proverbs, declares wisely that there is a time for everything (3:1-8). These things were written in an agricultural setting where rhythms of nature and life were better understood and appreciated. The biblical sage’s ant is to be understood only in the context of such rhythms. To a generation which has lost such rhythms or where they have become distorted by modern life and work, the biblical lesson may be lost or, worse, used to justify a sinful, neurotic and driven lifestyle.

Secondly, the ant’s labours were understood in the setting of a more communal society. In other words, it worked for the good of others. Zoology confirms this. The food is gathered in the colony to be used by all. This lesson again may not be well-appreciated in modern society where work and life have become more individualistic and private. The danger is that we may try to mimic the ant, work hard, and hoard goodies, all for our own selves, without realising our fatal error.
John Wesley worried about this when he noticed that Methodists worked hard, were frugal and were becoming wealthy. His fear was that such wealth that remains unshared with others will lead to arrogance and spiritual decay. That is why his motto: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” helps us to learn the biblical lesson of the ant correctly. We are to work hard for the good of others.

In the marketplace today there are busy selfish ants, living driven lives, hoarding things for their own use. There are also lazy grasshoppers who spare no thought for tomorrow, squandering away opportunities. There are also ants who are really grasshoppers. They work hard like ants, hoping to retire early so that they can live like grasshoppers using the wealth they had amassed for themselves.

If we are to really follow biblical teaching, then we have to see the ant the way the ancients saw it. We have to work hard within the rhythms of life and for the good of others. Herein lies ancient wisdom for modern people.

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