Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
When I say “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”, what comes to mind for you?
We’ve spent the past few weeks talking about images Jesus gave us for God’s Kingdom. But if you had to describe what God’s Kingdom is or what God’s Kingdom is like to someone else, what word or definition or image or metaphor would you use?
Or how about – how would you finish this sentence: “The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where…”?
It occurred to me at some point that the Kingdom parables we’ve looked at so far this month – the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field, or like a mustardseed, or like yeast hidden in dough, or treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price – they all tell us something about the Kingdom, of course, how it grows or where to find it or what it’s worth – but they haven’t told us a lot about the character of God’s Kingdom itself. What exactly is this thing that grows and is hidden and is worth risking everything else we have?
I don’t know why Jesus does that. I suppose it’s because the Kingdom of God is such a hard thing to grasp, or define – the reason he tells us about it so often in stories in the first place. Or maybe it’s because Jesus does already give us plenty of instructions and good examples of how to love, welcome, and show mercy to one another; if he is King of this Kingdom, I think it’s safe to say that this Kingdom is the kind of place where people play by the King’s rules, and there is a wholeness of life that comes from that.
Some of the stories Jesus tells do give us a glimpse into what that Kingdom is like, though, and the parable in today’s reading is one of them.
“The Kingdom of Heaven,” says Jesus, “is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
You know the scene, right? A group of men standing around in the parking lot of Home Depot or 7-Eleven. They are usually immigrants. They wait for someone to hire them for the day, in the hopes that they will be able to feed their families that night.
The landowner agrees to pay them one denarius if they work for him for the day. It’s the going wage for a day’s work – not high, but fair. They will be able to put some food on the table.
But there is a lot of work to do, and so three hours later, the man goes back to the marketplace and sees other workers still gathered there. No one has hired them yet. “Come with me,” he says, “and I’ll pay you what is right.” It’s a vague offer – risky – but the morning is wearing on, so the workers are not really in a place to quibble. They’ll take what they can get.
He does the same thing at noon, and at three. Each time, he says the same thing: “Come with me, I’ll pay you what is right,” and each time, the workers know better than to negotiate – after all, no one has hired them yet, and after all, there are hungry children at home. Better something than nothing. When the man shows up again at five, when the workday is already winding down, and sees that there are still workers gathered there, he asks them: “What are you still doing here?” It sounds almost accusatory, as if he is implying that they are lazy, as if they aren’t looking for work at all.
But when they tell him the truth – “no one has hired us” – he believes them – that or he doesn’t actually care what the answer is. “Come with me,” he says, and again, they do, even though it is already growing dark.
An hour later, when work in the vineyard is done for the day and it is time for the laborers to be paid, he instructs his manager to pay the workers who were hired most recently first, and they wait expectantly – but not too expectantly – to see what they will get. Lo and behold, it’s one denarius – as much as if they had worked all day. There will be dinner on the table that night.
When the workers who had been slaving away in the hot sun all day see this, they begin to get excited. If those guys get a denarius for only working an hour, then they’re about to hit the jackpot.
But then the workers hired at three also get a denarius – as do the ones hired at noon, and at nine – and I have to wonder if the ones hired first are beginning to get a sinking feeling by this point – because when it comes time for them to be paid, they also receive a denarius. Which was, of course, the deal.
But it doesn’t seem very fair.
If you’ve grown up in Sunday School and in church, you probably know this story already, and so you know from the beginning we are not on the side of the grumbling workers here. They are not the heroes of Jesus’ story. Because this isn’t a story about minimum wages and equal work for equal pay. It’s a story about grace, and how God gives it to all of us, because God is generous. And we know that grace is the cornerstone of our faith, and we know that God is generous, and we know that God can do what God wants, so the story doesn’t really shock us. The landowner is a good guy and the workers hired first are negative Nancys.
And I’m making an assumption here – because maybe there are those of us who hear this story and really do identify with the workers who were paid last. We know deep down that we have received more than we deserve. If that’s you, you can stop listening; this one’s not for you today. You are closer to the Kingdom of God than I am.
But Jesus does seem to tell this story expecting us to identify with the workers who were hired first. And the story is supposed to shock us. It’s maybe even supposed to offend us a little, because those first-hired workers are right: it isn’t fair for someone who slaved in the hot sun for twelve hours to receive the same wage as someone who worked for one.
And it begs the question: what if the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where all our earthly values are turned upside-down? Not just the ones we know should be – the way we value money and appearance and status – but also the ones we usually think are pretty good: our values of justice, and equity?
That’s what Jesus’ audience, hearing this story for the first time, would have been forced to grapple with.
The thing is, we all believe in grace – amazing grace! We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe in grace, right? We all believe in grace – until it is made real, in our lives, for someone else who doesn’t deserve it.
Maybe you’re saying, no, I still believe in grace; I know that grace is God’s unmerited favor and that none of us deserve it but God gives it to us anyway because God is good – so I want you to close your eyes and think of the worst person you know. Now, the workers in this story aren’t necessarily bad people, even the ones hired last – Jesus doesn’t comment on their moral character at all. We’re just doing a little exercise here. Think of someone, preferably someone you know personally, who as far as you can tell has no redeeming qualities. They are mean to the people around them, even the people they ostensibly love; they cheat and exploit people and act only in their own self-interest; or they’re lazy and take advantage of others; they’re bigots; they’re stingy – I could go on, but I don’t think I have to.
Do you know someone like that?
Now let me ask you this – does this person still have a family who loves them? Do they have an employer who values them? Someone who selflessly takes care of them? Do they have good things in their life, not necessarily just material things because I don’t think material wealth is always from God, but can you look at their lives and say that God has been generous to them?
Sure, there may be some horrible people who don’t have any of those things, who life has truly given a raw deal, but my hunch is we’re not so mad about those people.
We’re mad about the ones don’t deserve to be loved, but are somehow loved. We’re mad about the ones who don’t deserve to be valued, but are valued. We’re mad about the ones who don’t deserve to get ahead, but always seem to get ahead. We’re mad about the ones who have never had any regard for anyone else, who have never had any interest in helping anyone else, but who somehow still receive good things from God or others. We’re mad about the ones who don’t deserve to get paid as much as we do, but get paid anyway.
We know those people, right?
I do – or at least, I certainly have. And I believe in grace; but when I get thinking too hard about specific people like that I tell you that it fundamentally offends my sense of justice that they still have good things in this life.
That’s what grace does if we take it seriously – it should fundamentally offend our sense of justice.
A couple years ago I preached a sermon – I think it was on Jacob and Esau – where I quoted a line from a Relient K song, “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.” Afterwards, in Bible study that day, we had a discussion about whether God was fair, and we did not all agree. It occurred to me that maybe the problem is our definition of what “fair” is.
You know I come back from time to time in sermons to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that South Africa had after the end of apartheid, where people who had committed apartheid-related crimes confessed publicly and received amnesty, and forgiveness, as a way of moving forward. As I’ve told you before, I was so inspired by this example of the Gospel playing out on the world stage when I began to learn about it that it made me think about going into ministry, really for the the first time.
I was thinking about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in conjunction with this passage, and how some people said it was a miscarriage of justice for people who had committed horrible crimes to receive amnesty. And how people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who were leading it, said that it was the difference between retributive justice – the kind where people get the punishment they deserve – and restorative justice – the kind of justice that restores people to right relationship with each other. That’s not always how we use the word justice. But that doesn’t mean it’s not justice: we had to redefine that word for ourselves.
Maybe, similarly, God is fair – but fairness doesn’t mean that everyone gets exactly what they worked for. Instead, it means that everyone gets what they need. Everyone gets to put dinner on the table for their family that night, whether they worked twelve hours or one.
When I think back to those people I know who don’t seem to deserve the good things that God or life has given them, on my better days, I have to ask myself what I’m so resentful of. Am I mad that they have people who love them? But I have people who love me. Am I mad that they seem to get ahead or to have so much? But I have everything I need. Grace isn’t a zero-sum game; if they get more, I don’t get less.
And maybe it will all get worked out in the end, right? Maybe in the final judgment this will all be sorted out, and we will all finally get paid what we deserve for the work we have done. And I agree that I want to hold out the hope that justice will be done; and yes, Scripture promises us that justice will be done – but then I have to remember that my definition of justice isn’t necessarily the operative one here. Maybe justice looks a lot more like mercy than vengeance. Maybe fairness looks a lot more like abundant generosity than crunching the numbers.
Because the Kingdom that is here among us – the Kingdom we can see in glimpses and snatches around us if our eyes are open – is the same Kingdom that will come one day in all its glory; when Jesus will reign and all Creation will worship him as King. And if God’s definition of justice and fairness is different from ours – well, it’s not that God’s is going to change one day; it’s that now or later ours is going to have to.
And maybe that’s the difference, even, between Heaven and Hell – whether we enter that Kingdom joyfully, grateful for the generosity that God has shown us and ready to extend it to others – or whether we enter it grumbling because someone got the same blessings we did, for less.
“The last shall be first,” Jesus says, but in this story, in the end, there is no first or last. There are just people, all of whom rely on the generosity of One, and all of whom receive – no matter what they deserve.
The Kingdom of Heaven is kind of like that.