Waitressing was my primary source of income in college. Anyone who has taken an order, cleared a plate or rolled silverware for a job can attest that it is not easy work. Running drinks, serving food, sweeping crumbs and trying to smile through it all will earn $2.13 an hour plus tips in South Carolina. In our bustling tourist town, those tips made the job worth the while. Not easy, but worth it.
I was able to show up for the busy months of June, July, August and December and “make bank” as they say in the business, for text books, coffee and late night pizza.
During one of those December stints, one of our regulars walked through the door with a stack of envelopes which he distributed to all the servers. Inside each envelope was a $100 — a gift given to every person on staff out of sheer generosity.
I was thrilled about what this meant for my mac ’n cheese and ramen budget, but some of my co-workers wept with gratitude about the prospect of extra presents under the tree for their children, paying down medical bills or simply being able to buy groceries after months of slow business.
In the midst of the euphoria, I felt a pang of guilt. I was just here for a few weeks. It was my year-round coworkers who had cultivated the relationship this benefactor was rewarding. I voiced this hesitation to Jan, an older server who always looked out for me. She patted my arm and reassured me, “Hon, you just take it, enjoy it and don’t give it a second thought.”
I did, I did and I didn’t.
I didn’t think of it until a few weeks ago, when Matthew 20:1-16 was proclaimed at Mass. This parable tells the story of the workers in the vineyard who are all hired at different times of the day, but are paid the same wage. This Gospel can irk me a bit. When those who had been working the longest grumble, and the landowner asks, “are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15) I often think to myself, “Yes. Yes, I am.” As a cradle Catholic who tries to follow all the rules, I identify with those workers who have toiled the longest and deep down it feels a little unfair.
However, when I heard this parable I remembered the day I was handed a Benjamin by a stranger, and my subsequent conversation with Jan. She showed no envy, not even a raised eyebrow, when I took the same envelope as she, and while I knew it wasn’t fair, I don’t think it was possible to have been more grateful in that moment. Over a decade later, I still feel this gratitude.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is describing the timeless mercy of God — which holds far more value than any cash.
As this year of mercy comes to a close with the Solemnity of Christ the King at the end of November, we’re in the final hours, but it isn’t too late to encounter the generosity of God. Have we encountered Him in the Sacraments? In those from whom we need to ask forgiveness? In those in need of our help? His mercy is the same for all.