Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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 he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16
Wendy is a 47-year-old daughter of an alcoholic mother. She knows she’s fortunate because the more than occasional drink that mom snuck throughout her gestation, who knows how many mom drank before she knew she was pregnant, did not result in a disability for her.
Wendy’s mom, Susan, was not a happy drunk. She wouldn’t toddle off to bed and sleep it off until she’d wreak just enough damage. Not that she ever remembered her rantings and ravings. She was a mean drunk. Susan was not an abused wife. She was an abusive one.
Wendy’s father, Henry, would wake to a baseball bat to the chest in the middle of the night and he’d cover himself with the quilt to blunt the hits. Wendy had no idea how many knives, pots and pans, dishes, and lamps had been thrown at her father over the years.
Henry picked Susan up from the drunk tank at the jail four times, and only four which was a near miracle. The last time required a longer stay. They hoped jail time would dry her out and she’d see the error of her ways, the gravity of her own situation, and quit for good. She talked a good game in the jail AA group. She knew how to work it. Her charm earned big points and she was released early.
Henry and Wendy cleaned the house of any alcohol, looking in all the usual hiding places and in the unusual ones: a pint wrapped up in a towel at the bottom of the stack in the linen closet. One resting on the bottom drawer of the freezer, packages of frozen peas and corn covering it. One in a half empty laundry detergent tub. They never got them all. As soon as they’d go to bed on the first day home from jail, she’d pull one out.
Some nights were mysteries because she didn’t come home and Henry didn’t know where she was. Mostly, she didn’t remember.
A hopeless alcoholic. Rehab didn’t help. AA didn’t help. Her denial was formidable in every way. This was everyone else’s problem, not hers. After so many years, it was too late to do anything. Her liver and the rest of her poisoned body could not fight anymore.
Sometimes Henry and Wendy would spend the night at his parents’ house, but as the years faded so did they until their house was sold so that they could afford the nursing home. They were Wendy’s everything. They were everything “normal” to her. If there is was wine with supper, the three adults split one bottle, and that’s it. Susan would drink three or four bottles a night, along with the pint of vodka she’d snuck all day long in sips and gulps. Sometimes less. Often times more.
Grandpa was funny and kind and sweet. Grandma was the boss, not a mean one, and she cooked like a boss. There was a homemade chocolate cake, and a homemade apple pie every single week. She was a retired teacher, he was a grocery store manager. He donated food every week to food pantries and soup kitchens. They were pillars in the church that Henry and Wendy also went attended. Everyone knew them. Everyone loved them. Not to put on a fine point on it, they were “salt of the earth” people. That meant that Wendy was also well-loved….by everyone except her mother. Her mother was in love with something else.
Grandma and Grandpa begged their son to leave Susan, to divorce her, to cut ties and protect Wendy. He and Wendy could live with them until they figured things out.
Henry wouldn’t leave Susan, not for good anyway, only in these long visits to mom and dad’s. He’d remind them, “For better and for worse, and I reckon there’s a lot of worse here. She needs us.” Still, Wendy would stay with Grandma and Grandpa most weekends when her dad was working, and even sometimes during the week. She had her own bedroom there.
In time, Grandma and Grandpa died and even though she was a young adult by then the pain was exquisite. She really lost something when she lost them. Her comfort was gone, the assurance that things would be ok wiped out. She and her father were their loyal visitors when they were in declining health, because they needed to know how much they were loved and appreciated through all of the mess that was Susan.
And then when Wendy was 35 her father died of a heart attack. She was shattered. Wouldn’t her mother go first? Shouldn’t she?? He was only 62, in good health she thought, invincible she thought, and he dropped dead on the loading dock at the grocery store as he inventoried a truck. Aneurism in his gut let loose.
That left Wendy with Susan, who was 60. Wendy made peace that her mother wouldn’t change, couldn’t change, but that did not mean that she had to be around to see her utterly destroy herself.
Wendy and her husband and their four children moved away. Work demanded it. The kids were never allowed to see Susan anyway.
There were middle of the night calls, and Susan told her mother, or a police officer, to handle it.
In her late 60’s, Susan had no choice but to go into a nursing home. It was an awful time because before she could go, she needed to be hospitalized to detox. Wendy did go be with her for that. It was ugly. Susan was ugly to Wendy. Wendy didn’t take it personally anymore. She and her husband were launching their children, and in the process making plans for a not-too-future empty nest. She concentrated on that.
Wendy called Susan “Susan” to draw a line between them. She was not a mom to her. She was Susan, someone she knew.
Susan was awful in the nursing home. So mad all the time. After 8 months, she was diagnosed some form of dementia, and her liver was shot.
Wendy went back when Susan was on her death bed. In almost constant contact with the staff there the whole time, she arrived knowing her mother had been well cared for. Their patience for this patient was deep. She loved them for that because she couldn’t care anymore.
One day, when Susan was at once lucid and other times in deep sleep, she aroused and sat up. She looked at Wendy.
“I had a vision. Jesus came to me. I am sorry. I was a bad mother. I preferred vodka to you. I chose vodka over you. I did that all time. I wish I could take back the time I wasted and pour my love into you. I love you. Forgive me.”
In movies, the violins start playing, they hug, and the daughter forgives the mother, and the mother dies in peace. This was not a movie. Instead of saying anything, because if she had it would have been hateful and damaging, Wendy kept her mouth shut.
“Well,” Susan continued, “You don’t have to say anything at all. I just know that I have the peace of Christ. I finally understand that He’s always been here. I have to rest now.”
Wendy left, angry that her mother suddenly has this grand, what?, conversion? For God’s sakes! Jesus came to Susan, while she had spent her whole life in the arms of the church and hasn’t even gotten a “how do you do?” OK, she thinks, calm down, that’s going too far. She knew her own blessings, and they were always ever before her. But this is not fair, this last minute revelation, this knowing that God will take her despite everything she’s done.
Wendy will only hurt herself if she continues with this thinking, with this feeling. Susan will be fine. Will Wendy? Justified to her feelings? Sure. Living nestled in those feelings? No.
Jesus’ parable is difficult for us. It is not fair that those who came on late to the scene are treated so well, better than those who worked for 12 hours. Our work ethic cannot handle this. It’s not fair.
Jesus’ stories are not about wrapping the lesson in a pretty bow. They are more like putting a mirror in front of us so we can see who we are: the disgruntled ones who envy the good fortune of other people because their good fortune somehow marks a loss for us.
It’s not fair, but God’s grace isn’t about being fair. Or equitable. It’s about God’s deep, abiding love for each one; it’s about God’s generosity to each one.
God is just as generous to the last one as to the first one. God gets to decide for generosity, for grace, for salvation. We don’t. We are the recipients of God’s generosity, grace, and salvation. God decides to whom these gifts will be given. We have no justification in any anger about God’s generosity to someone we deem unworthy. We are all unworthy. Isn’t wonderful that we know the grace of God? Isn’t that enough for us?
The parable is hardest on those who cry, “It’s not fair.”
Take a look at verse 15: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to Me? Or are you envious because I am generous? In the Greek: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Or, more pointedly, “why the stink eye?”
Can you hear the older brother in the story of the prodigal? “It’s not fair. I was with you, here, the whole time. I worked hard. Really hard. I was faithful He ran away.” “This is true, so true, and I thank you. But don’t you see? This brother of yours, he was considered dead, but he is alive. We celebrate that he is alive.”
Wendy, don’t you see? Your mother was dead the whole time, her whole life. Her death cost her and you. And now? Like the prodigal, she came to herself, and she is alive. This is because God is good. God is generous. God is merciful. God is forgiving. If you continue feeling angry, you will be drinking poison and expecting it to hurt Susan. All things can be made new. Even you.
Our calling is to humility, to be as faithful to God as we can be, to be glad for someone else’s good fortune, to know that their good fortune does not diminish us. To be generous as God’s generosity has been lavished upon us.
May it be so.