Comforting Words: Martha's Vineyard

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Martha's Vineyard

She and I have a very little in common, except for the obvious fact that we are both women. Despite all that separates our world, I could not help but empathize with her. It is hard for me to imagine having that much wealth at my disposal, even harder for me to think about living in the spotlight as she does – even from her cell.

Martha Stewart is a self-made woman – in as much as she built her earthly empire with the sweat of her blood. When she was indicted in 2003, I was not among the thousands, possibly millions of people who cheered and jeered her. “How the mighty has fallen!” they said.

Admittedly, my empathy did not come from some noble place in my heart. Rather, for a brief moment I walked in Martha’s shoes. I became a millionairess in seconds, driving through the posh and not so posh streets of the United States, ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and drinking champagne with the rich and famous. In that moment, I realized the fear and anxiety she must have experienced when a different bell tolled and said to myself, “I would not want to be her.”

Martha’s story is the story of all of us, including the scenes where people are seemingly clamouring for her downfall. It is a story, which must cause each of us to ask ourselves – “What is my relationship with money?”

I invite you to explore this question with me through the Words from Scripture, Words of Comfort and Words from the Heart. Those of us who are like Martha and those of us who wished we had even half of her monetary wealth, let us examine our hearts to see whether we could live in “Martha’s Vineyard.”


WORDS FROM SCRIPTURES

From the Judeo-Christian Tradition:

Ecclesiates 5:10

“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money, nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This is also vanity.”


From Taoism:

Chuang Tzu 14

“He who considers wealth a good thing can never bear to give up his income; he who considers eminence a good thing can never bear to give up his fame. He who has a taste for power can never bear to hand over authority to others. Holding tight to these things, such men shiver with fear; should they let them go, they would pine in sorrow. They never stop for a moment of reflection, they never cease to gaze with greedy eyes – they are men punished by Heaven."

(Excerpt from Taoism taken from World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1995) 296



WORDS OF COMFORT

You would not understand my relief when a Minister of religion clarified for me that money is not the problem, rather it is the love of money that is the root of all evil. I had recently embarked on the journey to understanding my faith traditions and was wrestling with the issues that for years had prevented me from doing so.

One of those issues was money. The big question for me was how do I balance what Jesus said about blessed are the poor and the reality of not being able to pay my basic bills – rent, food, transportation, clothing and financing my child’s education.

For those of us who do not have a lot, money seems to be the key to happiness. When we see the lifestyle of the rich and famous like Martha Stewart, we become envious and want that life for ourselves. Reading the numerous account of broken life among the so-called celebrities one has to wonder though whether with all their wealth are these people really happy?

Up until a few years ago I thought Martha Stewart owned Martha’s Vineyard – a place to which her friends could vacation. You can therefore imagine how foolish I felt upon learning the truth! Yes, it is hard for me to admit this – but there is a Jessica Simpson in all of us!

Not all is lost however, as I came to a greater realization that my ignorance of U.S. geography held a valuable lesson. Martha Stewart is probably rich enough to own a good piece of that picturesque area of Massachusetts. Further, being the purveyor of fine living and dining, she probably would consider getting into the wine business someday. The lesson that I got from this connection however goes deeper.

Jesus also spoke about a vineyard owner in the gospel of Matthew. He tells a tale of a landowner who, needing labourers for his vineyard, went out five times to the town square and hired men who were idling. At the end of the day, this landowner paid each man the same wage although some worked for fewer hours than others did.

This caused a dispute, as those who were hired earlier thought they would receive more. The owner of the vineyard we could say was taken aback by this as he had honoured what he agreed to pay them and then generously decided to pay the same amount to those who came on last. He said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15)

The Martha Stewarts of this world have much in common with this vineyard owner. They have property and great wealth. They have the ability to hire many and affect the economic and social lives of communities through their entrepreneurship. They determine wages and benefits they will offer and sign contracts binding them to keep their end of the bargain and for the most part, they do. The practice in corporate America and anywhere in the world however is “last in first out” and the ‘junior’ members of staff are paid less.

That is where the similarities between the landowner of Matthew 20 and the Martha Stewarts of our societies end. The landowner in Jesus’ story is God and God is an equal opportunity employer in every sense of the word. God is also a generous employer, seeing the need of the community rather than focussing on His/Her bottom line.

In this story, God did not place an ad in the paper but personally went out, not once but five times, to take people off the streets. At the end of the ‘work day’, each person is paid equally – from God’s bounty and generosity, not from man’s idea of proportional pay for proportional work.

This approach does not make sense to most of us. We would try to save a buck and pay the people hired for fewer hours less. We pay by the hour and not from any generous attempt to alleviate poverty. We see money as an instrument of privilege and something to be amassed and hoarded for our personal pleasure. The more money we have the more privilege we expect to be extended to us by others. In our giving, we do so in a fashion that people take notice and praise our ‘kindness’. We expect the people who receive from us to feel privileged that we gave to them.

God, the vineyard owner in Jesus’ story does the opposite. God does not try save a buck and pay according to hours worked only. We could say that as God ‘knows’ there is no lack and so freely pays from a generous place where there is no need to hoard or store. Jesus’ told this story to describe what he called the kingdom of heaven where all are equal. He illustrates that there is no need to hoard and generosity is shown to people in need – not because a tax break is involved.

The vineyard has its own meaning. The fruit of the vine is symbolic of life. The labourers are toiling for life. We satisfy many of our basic needs in life through money. The landowner in this story recognizes this and shares to sustain the life of not just those who worked for longer hours but all who were unemployed.

Money is also a symbol of our relationship with the Divine. According to Eric Butterworth, money is not the object of life’s search for meaning, it is merely a symbol of our relationship with universal substance. Herein is the connection to what Jesus said in the Beatitudes. I stopped short in reading the first verse and did not see the real implication of his words to the disciples.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .” Finally, I understood that Jesus was not suggesting that to attain the kingdom of heaven one needs to intentionally remain in economic poverty. The “poor in spirit” are blessed because of their humility before the Divine and willingness to toil for their own and the lives of everyone.

The "poor in spirit" are willing to do what Chuang Tzu says and hand over authority to others, loosen their hold on material wealth. They share easily and are generous to others despite how much or how little money they have. The "poor in spirit" are those who have no need to hoard and try to get the biggest bang for their buck no matter what.

The financially wealthy like Martha or those who are poor and homeless, are owners of personal vineyards and each must seek to nurture the best fruit. This is achieved not by being in love with money, but by poverty in spirit – therein we find happiness.

That is the lesson to be learnt.


WORDS FROM THE HEART

Strengthen me this day dear God,
As I toil to clear the pathway home.
There is a mission with my name
Boldly emblazoned on it,
Masked only by my spiritual amnesia.

But with vigour and fortitude,
With the power of your name
I move towards my calling.

Dull my ears to the worldly noise
Threatening to bring me to heel.
Stretch my resolve to serve.

Strengthen my muscles to do the work.
Teach me today dear Spirit how to wait
As God’s glory is made manifest.

On that beautiful day, I will soar like an eagle,
With wings spread wide, elegant and regal.
Gliding in the certain knowledge
That I have been made whole,
And on the road to home.



Blessings, until next week.




2 Comments:

Blogger Betty said...

Financial wealth. Spirituality. Our relationship to both. While you invite us to examine our own relationships, I'm going to side step that and poise a question: Why so often in churches the "powers to be" are those who put the most money in the collection plate? They are the ones who decide the direction of the church, who have easy access to the minister's ear and seldom attend any spiritually focused and/or nurturing study groups, et al. While often the preacher will extol that the wealthy will not gain the Kingdom of God, nothing is said about their influences in the here and now.

I don't put the same interpretation as you do on the "Blessed are the poor in spirit". From what I read of your understanding, the person has a relationship with God. I've always thought it meant the person is separated from God; that they are poor in spirit because they don't experience the overwhelming love that comes with being "in communion" with God.

Sat Feb 05, 09:19:00 AM MST  
Blogger Claudette said...

Betty,

You are right - we do have different understanding of the words in Matthew 5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit... ." I might have shared your understanding until I got deeper into the Beatitudes and Jesus' teaching and come to understand that in all things, Jesus' turned human concepts upside-down.

For him to say blessed are the poor in spirit -- it seems to me that he means (among other things) that those persons who can humble themselves in the presence of God, acknowledge that God is the source of their being and all things -- those are the persons who are in the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit are those who are poor in the selfishness.

That is the meaning that I derive from that phrase and that is what reminds me to put aside any egotistical attitude and self-righteousness as those are the traits that will hinder me from experiencing what you described as God's overwhelming love. Only then I am truly in communion with the Divine.

Sat Feb 05, 08:07:00 PM MST  

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