Matthew 20:1-16 (NIV)The next time Jack and Max are complaining about a notable lack of parental fairness, I think I’ll open my response with: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
While I’d love the message of this parable to be about a parents relating to their children, I must acknowledge the flaws in that theory. I could never hope to have the inherent wisdom and fairness as the landowner, the God figure in the story. While I try my hardest to be equitable with my kids, I know I’m only human — I’m going to mess up from time to time. I’m pretty sure God isn’t wracked with the same sense of self-doubt that can accompany so many parenting decisions.
All parents remember being children. And one of the things we all recall from childhood is the assumption our parents had forgotten what it was like to be children. So then we commit to making sure our kids never look at us the same way, which lasts until the first time an unpopular parenting decision is unavoidable. The upshot of this cycle is it helps us deepen our relationship with our parents. It’s terribly cliché by now, but the truth is once you become a parent you begin to understand and appreciate the methods by which your parents raised you.
The downside, of course, is the feeling you get when you know you’ll have to dig in your heels for a debate with your kids and it may be 20 years — if ever — before they acknowledge you were right. And if your kid is a good arguer (we’re raising a champ), you might find yourself questioning whether or not you’re taking the right position. Again — God (the landowner) has no such worries. It would be nice to be so secure.
With our kids so young, most of our issues of fairness are of low consequence. The one that happens most often is related to bedtime. Jack and Max have bunk beds and most days go to bed together. But if Max takes a nap (which we try to avoid) he’s capable of staying awake until midnight or later. So when Jack is forced to bed and Max is wide awake, Jack understandably protests. But that pales in comparison to what lies ahead.
Surely Jack, four years older, will be granted certain permissions ahead of Max. And just as surely, Max (and more likely Charlie) will reap the benefit all younger children enjoy — being allowed to do things at an age when the oldest sibling was forbidden. Kristie, who has almost 13 years on her younger brother, can rattle off a handful of “injustices” — things the baby brother was allowed to do or have at a certain age that were never even considered for her.
My go-to tale has to do with video games. I begged and pleaded for nothing so much as our own Nintendo, but my mother steadfastly refused. No matter how many Decembers I would trot out the Sears holiday catalog and circle the game system and the cartridges and accessories I wanted, it was not to be — until I was old enough to buy one with my own money. In the late summer of 1992, my brother and I went 50-50 on a Super Nintendo on one major condition — any future game purchases would be our responsibility as well. That meant no games for Christmas, birthdays, etc. Not even from our grandparents.
So imagine my surprise, during my college years, when I watched my brother open a PlayStation game Christmas morning. I’d like to think I didn’t make a huge deal of it then — and I know Mom has gifted me video games in the succeeding years — but the point is kids don’t forget stuff like that. Kids keep score, and they know when they’ve been “wronged.” I don’t think Kristie or I spend a great deal of time fretting over the “advantages” our younger siblings might have enjoyed, but we’re aware of the situations enough to be sensitive to what Jack feels. Whenever he starts a sentence with “How come he gets to…” we know we’ve got a hot potato. And neither of us have siblings as close in age as Jack is to Max, let alone Max to Charlie (they will be in high school together for one year), so I presume we’re going to encounter a few situations that will present challenges we’re not fully prepared to address.
We’ve had two kids for four years now and three for almost 17 months. It still amazes me how different the children can be from each other despite how much they have in common. Part of the thrill of watching them grow is seeing those differences emerge as their personalities form. Of course, there is palpable fear in realizing each one is capable of presenting us with a challenge we’ve never encountered despite all our experience. Would that I had the presence and wisdom of the landowner to navigate the hoppy waters. The good news is I know where to go for help along the way.
A prayer for June 27:
Lord, you have hired me to work in your vineyard, and I am humbled to have the responsibility. Please help me to remember always the wisdom of your Word and to seek your will at every turn. I want to be fair with my children, to bring them up to respect me and my decisions and also to understand what you have offered all of us. I pray for your guidance, for strength, for the knowledge to discern what is right and the courage to follow through. Amen.