September 24, 2017

Proper 20

JONAH 3:10-4:11; PSALM 145:1-8; PHILIPPIANS 1:21-30; MATTHEW 20:1-6


Ours is a market of grace and justice.

When my spouse and I were in training to become foster parents, we were instructed in the ways of parenting children who will have suffered trauma.  The assumption and assertion was that any child who would come into our home would without question have suffered some kind of trauma.  At best it could be a single trauma such as separation at birth from one’s biological parents.  Or, as is often the case, it could be what is called complex trauma.  Complex trauma is a clinical classifying a child’s experience when that child has suffered more than one trauma in their life.

Instructions for parenting children who have suffered trauma is counterintuitive for most of us.  The techniques known to nurture them and bring them a sense of safety and security look to the cultural expectations of our time to be highly generous and rewarding of bad behavior.  “A child must have accountability!” we might say.  But kids like ours need constant reassurance of their human connectedness and their overall safety.  Time outs, penalties, spankings and negative language are the responses least likely to result in enhanced behavior.  Rather they heighten a sense of fear which tends to set off their nervous systems and result in more undesirable behavior. So we implement time-ins.  We turn every ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ statement.  And when our children come at us on the attack, we practice non-violence and deep breathing.  We give the children infinite changes to ‘do it over.’

Of all the things I heard from our dozens of hours of training, the one I remember and have implemented most since becoming a foster and adoption parent is advice from our agency’s child psychologist.  The gist is this.  When you get to the point of being convinced that there is something wrong with the child in your care, you can be certain that there is something wrong not with your child but with your own expectations of the child.   I suspect this might be helpful parenting advice even for parents of typical kids.

It is certainly advice worthy of the laborers in today’s parable who are hired first for a day’s labor, expecting a days’ wages in return.  At the end of the day when the last laborers to come to the fields were paid first and paid a full day’s wages, “they expected to receive more.”  This was a logical expectations based on cultural mores and the agrarian economy of the Ancient Middle East.  Rather, the logical expectation was that they would have been paid first and that those who worked fewer hours would not receive the whole day’s pay.  But when they saw the others were paid last and in full, they could only assume their wages would be higher.   In keeping with the nature of a good parable, this one is upsetting.  The early-to-the-field laborers are upset.  Jesus listeners would have been disturbed by the outcome of the story.  And today this goes against our sense of fairness and good business practice.

But of course in a life of faith we are not working with convention, least of all conventional market practices.  We are not even dealing in an economy of fairness.  Ours is a market of grace and justice in which the bottom line is never profit but rather healing and wholeness.  The wage-and-hours worked equation may not have been ‘fair’ in this story, but all workers left at the end of the day ‘whole.’  There is no worker who will not end the day without that which would have needed from a day’s work.

We face ethical questions of fairness, justice, grace and wholeness in our own culture.  They are difficult because they demand we consider turning convention on its head.  We struggle with questions of  immigration policy, reparations to the formerly enslaved, minimum wage, who gets healthcare, who gets to take communion, where to direct our charitable giving and how to raise our children.

I personally cringe for every moment in which I failed to respond to my children in ways that reassured their sense of safety and connectedness.  And I grieve that I am likely to die before there is a consensus on one or more of our social concerns.  Yet, I find my consolation in the sacred advice given to me by our foster agency’s child psychologist.  It is the invitation to always be resetting my expectations of myself and the world around me.