“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like”…
So begins our gospel reading for today, and it seems to me like we have heard these words dozens of times in the last few months as the Lectionary goes through the gospel of Matthew. The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed. Like a mustard seed. Like yeast. Like a treasure.
Jesus’ ministry begins with John the Baptist proclaiming that the “kingdom of heaven has come near”. And Jesus’ own teaching is packed with references to the kingdom of heaven. But as you’ve probably noticed by now, this kingdom doesn’t play by the same rules as the kingdoms of this world.
In it, “The last will be first and the first will be last”, and this is a power statement that doesn’t make sense to us. According to Jesus, the rich, the religious elite, the ones with the collars and the robes and the theological know-how, are often the ones who least understand the kingdom of heaven. But the ‘undeserving’ folk – the marginalised, the ones who have chosen dubious moral career paths, the ones who don’t look the least bit successful – these are the ones who often end up first in the kingdom. So to many, the kingdom of heaven is offensive. And there seems nothing fair about it.
Our passage in Matthew today is a good example. It’s essentially a story about unfairness. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.” He hires more and more labourers throughout the day, right up until an hour before close. And then he deliberately chooses to pay the last people first, in front of the others, and pay them exactly equal to those hired at the beginning of the day. It’s not surprising that there was an outcry!
Jesus told this parable in response to Peter, who had just pointed out that they left everything to follow him. But the story’s not just for Peter and the other disciples. It’s also for everyone who assumes, naturally, that working hard earns us extra favour with God: the early Jewish Christians who were having trouble accepting latecomer Gentiles into the faith.The older brother of the parable of the prodigal son, whose younger, undeserving brother is doted upon. The thief on the cross in Luke’s gospel, who was saved at the last second after living a terrible life. Us.
Imagining the Labourers
This past summer I did a three-week study on God’s love, and the exercise set for Day 16 was reading this particular parable over several times, and imagining myself as the person hired first, and then as the person hired last.
It’s quite an exercise. Imagine it with me: you’re a day labourer who may or may not get a contract for the day. You show up early and are fortunate enough to get a job right away – you know that you will have your daily income, and that you will have food on the table that night. You are content, and you work hard all day in the hot sun with your fellow labourers. You notice others coming throughout the day, but don’t pay them much attention: you’re there to earn your pay.
And then the end of the day comes, and you watch as the people who showed up just an hour ago get given a whole denarius – an entire day’s wage, for just one hour. Everyone is shocked, and your mind starts racing. If they just worked one hour, and get a whole day’s wage… how much money are you going to get having worked eight times longer than they?? And maybe your mind starts to plan ahead to the nice meal or the extra beer or kid’s clothes or whatever you think is most important. And then they come to you next, and the manager puts in your hand one denarius. Exactly the same amount as the guy beside you who worked one measly hour.
Doesn’t something in you cry out along with the labourers in the parable, “That’s not fair!!”
Hold on to that cry, and follow me along as we set ourselves in the shoes of the person who was hired last. Who knows why you weren’t picked first – maybe you’re old, or you have a limp, or you’re smaller than the other guys. Maybe you slept in and missed the draft, or are coughing, or it just isn’t your day. But you’ve been standing out there hopefully all day, watching the crowd of labourers get smaller, knowing that you’ve missed your chance, and you have no money to bring home to your family that day. And then finally, when the day’s almost over, you are hired, and you think well at least you’ll get a little bit of money – the day’s not an entire waste.
And then the manager puts an entire denarius – a full day’s pay – in your hand. You can’t believe it – it’s extravagant, and certainly not earned, but so needed and so appreciated.
And then the person next to you starts complaining, and your heart just clenches in fear – because you know that it’s not deserved just as much as they do. Maybe the manager will take it away again. You hold onto that coin as tightly as you can, holding your breath and praying that you get to keep it.
And you do.
Neither the person hired first nor the person hired last in this parable got what they expected – both were unsettled and shaken by an economy that simply didn’t match the rules they were used to. And Jesus in telling it is reminding all of his listeners, again, that grace isn’t something that can be earned in the kingdom of heaven. The God of this kingdom can’t be manipulated into giving.
But here’s the good news. The God of this kingdom doesn’t need to be manipulated. Did you notice why the parable didn’t match expectations? It was because the landowner was more generous than expected. Not one single person that parable went home empty-handed: everyone had enough.
Jesus, through these kingdom parables, is introducing us again to his Father, a God of extravagant abundance and generosity. A generosity that is broad, scattering manna cross the wilderness for the Israelites; and placing beautiful wildflowers in the most remote corners of the earth.
But it’s also a generosity that is particular to each person and to each need: to my needs, as I begin ordained ministry and learn to serve you well; to your need, as you look for work or care for your children or grieve a loved one who has died. God, meeting you in the midst of your need with grace greater than you dare hope for.
Maybe that manager pressed the denarius into the latecomer’s palm, looking into his eyes, knowing that his particular need was being met: just as Canon Beth or myself will shortly press a wafer into your hands, assuring you that you too are provided for by grace: the body of Christ, given for you, in your need and your desire. The gift of an ever-generous God.
Are You Envious?
But before we close, there’s one more angle to this parable that I think it’s really important not to miss. Did you happen to notice the only reason that the person hired first was upset? It was because he saw how much the person hired last was given. If he hadn’t seen that, he wouldn’t have been upset at all: they had agreed when he was hired that he would be given a denarius, and that’s exactly what he got. It was only in comparison, in seeing what someone else received, that he got upset.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” the owner asks, and this question dug deep into me. Yes. Yes, I am – so often – envious because of God’s generosity to others. I see people who are more creative than I, or who have read more books and know more languages, or whose lives seem to have worked out so smoothly – and I am envious because of God’s generosity to others. But it’s only and always in comparison to what I have: and when I stop and see that, I am ashamed. Because I know that God has poured out abundant gifts on me, just as he has on every single one of you: everyone with different gifts, everyone equipped exactly as you need to be, in order to do the work God has called you to do.
And this, friends, is a cause for rejoicing, not for envy. Shouldn’t we be glad that God’s grace has been poured out on our brothers and sisters, equipping each and every one of us for the ministry of building up God’s kingdom in our unique way? We are together the body of Christ, and this is a cause for so much joy, not envy.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tells us that love – God’s love, true love – is not envious. Love does not look at our neighbour and say “But THEY got…”
No. Love recognises that God our Provider will always provide: grace upon grace upon grace. Love recognizes that there will always be enough manna in the morning and quail in the evening, as our Exodus passage says. Love knows that our God is a God of abundance, who will provide more than enough for our needs, and for our neighbour’s needs as well.
And so we can rejoice together with our brothers and sisters for the unexpected denarius that they have received. I am thankful for the gifts God has given you – let’s team up and work together to share these gifts, and to spread the good news of this God of abundance and generosity.
Because in this kingdom, there is more than enough for all.
Thanks be to God.