In our town there is a woman who goes to all the church potlucks and all the art gallery openings – for the food. You can find her at the Unitarians’ monthly hospitality nights, the UCC’s congregational gatherings, the Methodists’ family picnics, the bi-weekly celebrations of the Mennonites, and our own parish-wide get-togethers, and I’m sure she is on the mailing lists of many other churches. In addition she comes faithfully for every First Friday Gallery Walk at our studios, and probably attends all other advertised community events where the food is free.
She is not well-liked. This is because she is completely impervious to all attempts to get her to join in with whatever is going on at the gatherings she attends. Friendliness and fellowship slide off her like water off a duck’s back; she really is not there to gather information or to make connections. Coming in late, she stands in line, then piles her plate high with food (way more, most people think, than is her fair share). She likes to sit in a chair by herself, or at a table with so many other people that she can avoid conversing. Seemingly she has no sense of obligation, no awareness of the commerce of hospitality. Either that, or she has a hide of steel. An expert at deflecting questions, she has managed to remain anonymous. I know only that her name is Mary – well, she says her name is Mary.
Once my fellow artists politely told her she was not welcome to help herself to the potluck we had prepared for ourselves before a gallery opening. She turned silently away. I caught up with her in the doorway and offered to share with her the dish I had personally brought. She asked me brusquely what it was. When I told her, she informed me that she couldn’t eat that; she is a vegetarian. I pulled back, effectively cut off from further engagement, and she was gone. Frankly, I hadn’t noticed her vegetarianism before.
You might think there is some mental condition that keeps her from engaging with others. And that may be so, but she certainly hides it well. Radiating stern self confidence, she keeps us all handily at a distance. And the rebuffs she receives don’t keep her from coming back to all the tables she frequents.
When I read the story of the vineyard workers given equal pay for unequal work, I thought of Mary. It’s our expectations, I think, that reminded me of her. We have certain standards for what is fair. If you feed someone, the least they can do is engage with you. When we sit in generous fellowship with people, we expect something in return – acknowledgment or thanks at the very least. This woman gives nothing.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” asks the employer in the parable. And yes, I’d have to say that there are hundreds of ways I get envious of boundless generosity. My envy usually takes the form of internal mutterings that begin, “People ought not to be allowed . . . .”
And yet, is it an affront to me, really, if someone’s largesse benefits another who really doesn’t deserve it? And who am I, really, to judge who deserves and who doesn’t? Do I deserve what I get? And even more to the point, what say do I have in how God or anybody else distributes what belongs to them and not to me?
Loving God, help our generosity mirror yours – always extended to everyone, never looking for reward of any sort at all. We pray this in the name of your Son who gave generously of himself to everyone he met. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado