Of Mothers and Vineyards

It’s Mother’s Day today, so naturally, I’ve been thinking about my mom.  My mom told me once that I’d never amount to much because I procrastinate too much.  I said, “Oh yeah?  Well just you wait.”  

I’ll never forget one Mother’s Day—we had a big family meal at Mom and Dad’s house but right after dinner Mom kind of disappeared.  I found her in the kitchen getting ready to wash a sink full of dirty dishes.  I said, “Mom, it’s Mother’s Day!  Go sit down and relax.  You can do the dishes tomorrow.”

I bought my mom a mug that said, “Happy Mother’s Day from the World’s Worst Son.”  I forgot to give it to her.  

Mothers often put their own needs last.  You know you’re a mom when you understand why Mama Bear’s porridge was too cold.

I love the recipe for Iced Coffee that one mom posted on Twitter.  She wrote, “Have kids…Make coffee…Forget you made coffee…Find coffee…Put it in the microwave…Forget you put it in the microwave…Drink it cold.”

Mother’s Day was first proposed by feminist activists after the Civil War.  They originally envisioned it as a day of peace to honor and support mothers who had lost sons and husbands to the carnage of the war.  The most well-known of these women was the abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. In 1870, she issued a Mothers Day Proclamation calling for mothers of all nationalities to band together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions.”  She envisioned a day where women from all over the world would meet to discuss ways to achieve world peace.  In that proclamation she wrote:

“Arise, then, women of this day!  Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!…We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.  From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.  It says “Disarm, Disarm!  The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

Another early proponent of Mothers Day was the education activist and community organizer, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis.  She was very active in her Methodist congregation and in 1876, during her closing prayer for her Sunday School class,  she said, “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial Mothers Day, commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”  Her daughter, Anna Maria Jarvis, never forgot her mother’s prayer, and on May 10, 1908, three years after her mother’s death, Jarvis held a memorial ceremony to honor her mother and all mothers at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia.  That church is now a historic landmark known as the International Mother’s Day Shrine.

Anna Jarvis continued lobbying to make Mothers Day an official holiday in the United States.  By 1911 Mothers Day was being observed in every state, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation officially designating the second Sunday in May as Mothers Day. 

And here’s an odd but important note:  originally there was no apostrophe in Mother’s Day.  Julia Howe, Ann Reeves Jarvis, and Anna Jarvis all envisioned it as a day to honor all mothers.  Plural.  But the greeting card industry, the florists, and the candy makers quickly individualized it and idealized it, and began promoting it as a day for you to honor your mother.  In their advertising, Mothers Day (plural/all mothers) quickly became Mother’s Day with an apostrophe, as in your mother’s day (singular/possessive).  Needless to say, the idea of it being a day to promote international peace pretty much vanished with the arrival of that apostrophe.

Ann Jarvis, who had worked so hard to make Mother’s Day a national observance, ended up hating it. The holiday became so commercialized, that in 1943 she tried to organize a petition to rescind Mother’s Day, but her efforts went nowhere.  Frustrated, and literally at her wits’ end, Anna Jarvis died in 1948 in a sanitarium, her medical bills paid, ironically, by a consortium of people in the floral and greeting card industries.

Anna Jarvis wasn’t the only one who has problems with Mother’s Day.  Anne Lamott’s column a few days ago began this way: “This is for those of you who may feel a kind of sheet metal loneliness on Sunday, who had an awful mother, or a mother who recently died, or wanted to be a mother but didn’t get to have kids, or had kids who ended up breaking your hearts…”  Lamott goes on to acknowledge many of the ways that this Greeting Card holiday can be painful for many women…and also for many children.

Most pastors I know are ambivalent at best when it comes to Mother’s Day.  It’s something of a minefield for us.  We don’t dare let it go unmentioned, but at the same time we are very aware of those women in our congregations who for one reason or another will be feeling that “sheet metal loneliness” that Anne Lamott describes.

On the plus side, though, Mother’s Day does give us an opportunity to highlight issues that women face in a world and culture that still operates with far too much patriarchal dominance and oppression, often in ways that men don’t even see.

One of the issues that comes up every year around Mother’s Day is the question of whether or not stay-at-home moms should be paid.  This question has been highlighted by the pandemic when so many women found it necessary to become stay-at-home moms and had to take on the extra duties of tutoring or teaching their kids.  CBS News reported that during the pandemic, more that 12 million women lost jobs and more than 2 million voluntarily left the workforce altogether. 

There are some very good arguments for creating a basic income for the stay-at-home mom… or the stay-at-home dad, for that matter.  At its most basic level, such a stipend would remind us that parenting is a valuable job and that the community as a whole benefits from it being done well.  The question then becomes how much should the stay-at-home mom be paid, and the answers to that are all over the lot.  One economist totted up the “jobs” that a stay-at-home mom does, multiplied by the minimum wage and came up with $18,000 per year.  Insure.com did the same math for the 18 or so jobs a mom takes on during the day, used a more livable hourly rate, and came up with $126,000 per year.  Salary.com’s annual Mom Salary Survey from May of 2021, said that moms should be paid $184,820 per year.   Clearly,  the marketplace recognizes that parenting is valuable.

Parenting is valuable, but one of the problems with Mother’s Day is that it reinforces a cultural expectation that puts the weight of parenting primarily on Mom.  That’s unfair to Mom and limits a child’s experience because even SuperMom can’t really do it alone.  As the old African proverb reminds us, it takes a village to raise a child.  “My main gripe with Mother’s Day,” writes Anne Lamott, “is that it feels incomplete and imprecise.  The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering [their children], including aunties and brothers; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, who unconsciously raised me to self-destruct; and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, including my mom, even after their passing.”

Raising children is a community affair.   It should be done with an eye on what’s best for the community.  We lose sight of that too often.  We think good parenting means raising kids who will share our cherished internal family values.  That’s good as far as it goes, but the child really needs to be prepared for the time when they will leave home to enter the world on their own.  They need to be prepared to not just make a valuable contribution to the community, but to be a positive contribution to the community.  Parents need to remember that their children are not just a gift that God gives to them, but a gift that they, in turn, give to the world.  We need to send our children into the world equipped with empathy, wisdom, patience and understanding, and developing those attributes requires more influence than any one parent can provide. 

Jesus told a story in chapter 20 of the Gospel of Matthew about a man who went to the marketplace one morning to hire some workers, and before sending them out to work in his vineyard, he made a verbal contract with them to pay them the basic daily wage of one denarius.  A few hours later, he went to the marketplace again and hired some more workers and said, “I will pay you whatever is right.”  He went to the marketplace three more times during the day to hire more workers, the last time just an hour before sunset, and each time he told those workers that he would pay them “whatever is right.”  At the end of the day when all the workers lined up to receive their pay, he paid the workers who had only been in the field for an hour a denarius, the whole day’s wage.  Naturally, the workers who have been working since sunrise figured they were in for one heck of a bonus, but when it was their turn to be paid, the man paid them, too, a denarius, the daily wage.  They were upset about this and groused about it. “These latecomers only worked an hour and you’ve made them equal to us even though we were out here in the heat all day!”  The landowner responds, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong;  didn’t you agree with me for the usual daily wage? I chose to give the latecomers the same as you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

This parable makes a lot of people squirm, mostly because we tend to feel slighted on behalf of those workers who were out in the hot sun all day.  On the flip side, we tend not to feel any joy on behalf of the one-hour workers who got what amounts to an amazing bonus.  I think we feel all this because we lose sight of what this parable is all about and our focus is in the wrong place.  

This is not just a story about wages—how much should the fieldworker get paid per hour or how much should the stay-at-home mom be paid—this is a story about what’s best for the community.  Jesus starts the story by saying “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  The context is bigger than the owner of the vineyard or the workers.  The owner of the vineyard understands that he is not just paying workers to harvest his grapes on his property, rather, he is providing a means of support for the whole community.  He understands that by paying the one-hour worker the full wage, he is creating one less beggar in the marketplace, preserving that person’s dignity, and helping to feed that worker’s family for days.  He understands that by paying all the workers the same wage he is sending the message that they are all equally vested in the good of the community.  Even the worker who complained noted “you made them equal to us.”  The landowner understands that his wealth, his resources are not just for his own personal benefit or his family’s, but are meant to be used to make the whole community healthier and stronger.  I suppose you could say he’s “mothering” the community.

And that brings us back around to the original intent for Mothers Day.  It was intended to be something to strengthen the community and bring peace to the world.  This Mothers Day, I invite you to do just that.

6 thoughts on “Of Mothers and Vineyards

  1. Steve Beckham: Look how far you’ve come – your mother must be so proud. Thank you once again for this experience paralleling the new and the old – but I guess it is all always here. I also appreciate your insights into different kinds of feelings about mothering. You are a thoughtful shepherd with wise words. Thank you for sharing. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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