Belinda Groves – 24 September 2017

One of the places I turn to for insight and devotional reflection is the website of Suzanne Guthrie, an American Episcopal priest, and she had this to say about this story in Matthew 20:1-16.

I love this hopeful story, although I understand the complaint of the workers bearing the burden of the day in the scorching heat. On the one hand, I can feel resentful of God’s generosity from the point of view of my long and difficult service to the church (I am like the older brother of the prodigal son.) But because my love is always wanting, and because I feel like a perpetual beginner in faith, and because I’ve messed up so many times, the wages of grace collected by those hired at the setting of the sun is good news indeed.

And Suzanne goes on to describe a funeral she did for a man called Peter.

“Peter was a low-down, goddamn, selfish son-of-a-bitch,” I said from the pulpit. The congregation sucked all the air out the church. Then, slowly, a titter. Then an out-breath of relief. Then laughter. I was telling the truth.

“Peter had said, ‘You’ll get me into that church over my dead body!’ Well, [here we are.] Thus began the funeral homily for Peter.

 …When I first met Peter, he was smashing a low brick wall in front of the cottage he shared with his wife Sheila. “Oh, he knocks it down and then he builds it up. It’s how he deals with his anger,” said Sheila.

Peter and Sheila had AIDS.  One of the times we thought he was dying, Peter rallied enough to chase away the priest Sheila had summoned. But I often came to sit with him, although I knew enough not to pray with him… 

Peter and Sheila fought often. But Sheila counted out his pills, never-mind that Peter often stole and abused them behind her back. He was a drug addict, after-all. He was angry with the world. Angry that he was dying. Angry with everyone. He was a genius at anger. And swearing.

But Peter got to see heaven. One day, the space beyond the television, beyond the wall and ceiling, opened into a billowing heaven. He saw dead relatives. He saw angels. Peter described in detail to his family what he was seeing. In the next death crises, Peter allowed the priest he’d previously thrown out to hear his confession. And Peter died in peace, having seen heaven in the eleventh hour.

Some of us, who’ve worked in the vineyard of the Lord all our lives, have never seen heaven. Not once.

Sheila and I chose the parable of the workers in the vineyard for Peter’s funeral. And whenever I hear it I think of mean, goddamn, difficult, selfish, son-of-a-bitch Peter, seeing heaven at the eleventh hour.

‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last. – Matthew 20:16