Without Alice, the gears of our society would grind to a halt. You’ve probably seen her hard at work, but maybe you didn’t take careful notice of her.
Alice is our neighbor. She cares for our children and for our elderly. She waits tables, checks us out at the grocery store, and repairs our cars.
Despite all her hard work and careful penny-pinching, Alice’s bills often exceed her income. The combined cost of housing, health care, food, and transportation stretch her take-home pay beyond the breaking point.
Alice, or ALICE, stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. She works hard, and still her resources cannot stretch far enough to provide for a decent way of life. In Louisiana, the United Way’s ALICE Report tells us that 576,381 households are ALICE. That’s 33% of our families.
An additional 18% live in poverty. That means that 51% of all Louisiana households do not have enough to keep a roof over their head, food on the table, and medicine for themselves and their children. The loss of income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic compounded their struggle. Recovery from the economic impacts of Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta is still ongoing three years later.
The statistics vary from state to state, but we can find Alice in large numbers all across this country. And because I follow Jesus, I cannot see this reality as just Alice’s problem. Alice is my neighbor. And Jesus taught me to love my neighbor as myself. So, Alice and I face a common challenge: making a world where everybody has enough.
Before I go one step further, I want to acknowledge that some people will say that—given her education or ability or skills in this economy—Alice is getting what she deserves. They may even have a bumper sticker on their car that reads: Nobody Owes You Anything.
Well, that is their view of things and I won’t try to persuade them otherwise. All I can say is that I can’t square that bumper sticker with what Jesus teaches me, so I’m going to respond to Alice’s situation in a different way. I think we’re in this messy world together. My well-being cannot be divorced from hers. So I’ll work with her to find a way for both of us to have enough.
Now Jesus was not an economist in the sense that we think of that profession today. But he had something profound—and startling—to say to us about the spiritual depths of our economic lives. God wants everyone to have enough. And deserving has nothing to do with it.
Consider the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. A vineyard owner hires a group of workers at sunrise, promising them the usual daily wage: enough to live a decent life. He picks up another crew mid-morning, at noon, in the afternoon, and then just before quitting time.
As the workday ends, the owner lines up the crews in reverse order of their hiring. Those who worked barely an hour, then those who came in the afternoon, then noon, and then mid-morning. Each group got the same thing: the usual daily wage, enough to live a decent life.
Finally the crew that had worked from sunup to sundown got to the payroll office. And they got the usual daily wage.
They were furious. “We worked all day and got the same thing as those slackers who only worked a fraction of the time. They don’t deserve that! We deserve more!”
The owner in essence says, “Deserving has nothing to do with it. This is about my generosity. I have enough for everybody to have enough. So I give it freely. Are you now dissatisfied with enough?” (Matthew 20:1-16)
The message is stunning, really. Enough will never be enough for me unless I want it for everybody else.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 20:1-16 from Proper 20, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up September 24, 2023). As usual, I’m posting in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners. A version of this essay first appeared in 2020.