The Kingdom of Heaven is Like That
We have a great parable to chew on this morning, which nicely rids us of any lingering questions about whether our ways and thoughts are the same as God's ways and thoughts. They're not. But Jesus doesn't first tell this parable about labourers in the vineyard just to make polite church goers uncomfortable (though I'm sure he's glad for that opportunity now). He tells this parable first in response to a situation that took place somewhere on the dusty streets of Judea.
A young man came up to Jesus and asked what he needed to do get in on life shaped by and full of God. "What do I need to do to have eternal life?" And Jesus says, "If you want to get in on God-shaped, God-infused life, follow the commandments." This kid was either not that bright, or a little type-A, and he wants to know which rules, which commandments exactly need to be followed. Jesus suggests that there are ten, somewhere near the beginning of the Scriptures that he might have a look at, and also "love your neighbor as yourself," of course.
Turns out this guy has followed all of those rules to the letter and something's still missing. He's done everything he's supposed to do and he's still here wondering how to get more of God, how to get deeper into this eternal life stuff. Rigid rule-following hasn't, apparently, set him on fire. There's got to be something else, Jesus. And the Lord says, "Alright. If you want to really get in on this kingdom of heaven stuff, if you want to know what it's really all about, sell everything you've got and follow me. I'll show you all the eternal life you can handle."
And if you're familiar with the story, you'll know that this wasn't what the poor fellow was hoping to hear. He had lots of stuff, which he apparently liked quite a bit. He walks away rather less eager about this eternal life business, than at the start of the conversation. Then, watching him go, Jesus tells the disciples that getting a rich person into heaven is sort of like stuffing a camel through the eye of a needle--more or less impossible, but by the grace of God.
And the important part for today's passage is that Peter sees this as a good opportunity to point out that he and the rest of the disciples actually have given up everything to follow Jesus, "And, not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus, but what's in it for us? What kind of reward are we going to get, for such good behaviour?" And to his eternal credit, Jesus doesn't smack Peter, even if I think he must have wanted to. Instead, he promises the disciples that they have "thrones in glory" ahead of them; when all is made well, when the new-world-salvation feast is served, they'll be right there with him--head table guests. Oh, and also, everyone who is prepared to trade their lives for Jesus' life will get a hundred times more than even they thought they were giving up--we'll be up to our eyeballs in life. More life than we can imagine. But he finishes it off with a "But." It's the same condition that ends the parable: But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Let us pray: Holy God, thank you that you call us, that you draw us into your ways which are not very much like ours, and invite us to live the kind of life that only you can give. Help us to hear you well this morning. Open us up to your stirring. Bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds, that they might be acceptable in your sight. Through Jesus, the first and last: Amen.
So, says Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. I think we could spend a fair bit of time just working out that line. This is how God is: God's planted a vineyard. God's been at this long before we ever thought to get involved. The first work is the landowner's. He's created conditions in which he needs helping hands: if there's going to be wine at the kingdom banquet, we're going to need some grape pickers. This is the kind of God we've got--the kind of God who works, and then brings us into the work. Our God already has dirt under the fingernails long before we stroll into the marketplace looking for something to do. And this is a God who doesn't sit back waiting for worthy workers to come to him; this is the God who goes out to get them. This is not a passive God, sitting off in the distance, waiting to see if anyone will show up. This is a God who walks into the marketplace and says, "You, you, you, and you. I've work. Let's go." And he sends them to do the work.
But it's a big vineyard; you can't see one side from the other. This is an extravagant landowner we're dealing with. There's going to be a lot of wine at the kingdom banquet. There's lots of work to be done, so when he comes to the marketplace a couple hours later and finds more workers standing around, idle, the pattern holds. "You, you, you, and you. I've got work. Let's go." It happens again, three more times, right until there's only one hour left in the day.
I think it's significant that Jesus points out the idleness of the workers. Whether their idleness is intentional or circumstantial, we don't really know. What we know is that every time the landowner goes back to the market, he finds more people without work. I think there's something to be reflected on here. It's not just that there's lots of work to be done and lots of hands needed to do it. But the kingdom of heaven is like landowner who stirs workers to life. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who calls us from idleness--sometimes spiritual, sometimes more physical--into motion, into good work, into active life. And this landowner, unlike his more sensible neighbors, doesn't seem to think that there is anyone who isn't worth hiring for the work that he's got. Even the scraggly bunch that's left at the end of the day, the loafers and late ones, the ones who didn't look like they could hack it, and who no one else wanted to hire: the kingdom of heaven drags them in, calls them out, moves them from idleness.
And, of course, the twist comes when the landowner also doesn't seem to think that there's a great deal of difference between the industrious ones, the heavy lifters, the sun-burnt and sweat-soaked ones, and these last who, for any mixed bag of reasons, worked only for the hour before it was time to clock out. They all get paid the same amount. The offense is clear, perfectly obvious. Just to make sure, the all-day workers spell it out: "You've made them equal to us. We've borne the burden of the day, and you've made them equal to us." The kingdom of heaven is like that, Jesus says.
And this bizarre landowner, whose ways and thoughts are clearly not ours, who calls his hired hands "Friends" (and seems to mean it), has the gall to ask if they're envious because he's generous. And it's a nasty question to leave hanging over us, because we know that somewhere deep down, or maybe not so far down, the answer is yes. And we also know, somewhere deep down (we can see it if we kind of squint and hold our mouth just right), that it ought not to be.
Because, when Jesus shows up and chooses us, when he walks into the office building, or the playground, or the checkout line and says, "Hey! Come on. I got work for you to do," we can hear it in his voice that we're being called into a different world, a whole different kind of economy that strikes at the heart of our most cherished ideas about ourselves; a kingdom where payment is based not on the merits of the workers, but on the landowner's generosity. We're reminded again, and part of me doesn't like it one bit, that God has this terrible habit of dismantling the clear and simple systems that we have for establishing who deserves what. God seems to have a different calculus when it comes to things like fairness and generosity. It's unnerving. The kingdom of heaven is like that.
Now, there comes a point in this parable, where--if you're anything like me--the question begins to weasel its way in about whether or not it's worth showing up early for this kingdom of heaven work. Maybe we should just bide our time, get an extra hour or two of sleep, get a few of our own errands done, miss the heat of the day and count on the Landowner's generosity at the end of it all. I mean, if we're all going to get paid the same in the end, what's the rush? To paraphrase St. Paul in his letter to the Roman church: should we intentionally avoid working too hard, so that God's generosity shines all the more brightly? (Should we sin that grace may abound? Should we give God something to forgive us for, since God seems to like to do that so much?) Paul seemed to think, and I'd have to agree that there are dumb questions and that's one of them. It misses the point.
Let's remember that Jesus is telling this parable first to the disciples, who are quite pleased with themselves for having started early and stayed late and borne the heat of the day. They are already sun-burnt and sweat-soaked. "We gave up everything for you Jesus!" And Jesus isn't going to take that away from them. But he is going to draw them further and further into kingdom of heaven maturity, to grow up in the ways and means of God in the world, and there's no kind of maturity, Christian or otherwise that inclines us to try to get away with as little as possible. Jesus is continuing to reorient the ones who are already committed, even us, to the wildly unexpected ways and means of God in this world: the love-your-enemy, exalted-poor, grace-redeemed, world inverting grace of God that renders every one of us the same as them. The kingdom of heaven is like that.
When Peter asks the question that prompts this uncomfortable parable he seems to have forgotten that the Landowner walked into his life, not all that long ago, and moved him from essential idleness, to gospel action. He's forgotten, as Jesus reminds us rather bluntly in John's gospel, that none of us--even "Rock of the Church," Peter--chose him. He chose us. And sent us. When we forget that, we tend to forget that we weren't and we aren't naturally disposed towards the topsy-turvy economy of this landowner, the perfectly unanticipated way that God is with us.
If we find ourselves most comfortably with the grumblers, whose answer to the ridiculous question, "are you envious because I'm generous" is "You better believe it," it may be because we forget (I certainly have an impressive ability to forget) that at the beginning of the day, we were standing around, hoping someone would come and give us work; hoping that someone might answer our prayer for daily bread. Or it might be because we forget that there are lots of days when we don't show up early for kingdom work--something distracts us, or we just kind of don't feel like it, or we don't think that anyone's going to hire us anyways--and the Landowner shows up and calls us to get in an hour of grape-picking, while there's still an hour of daylight.
As the great American preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor says, "God is not fair [at least the way we understand fairness], but depending on where you are in the line that can sound like powerful good news, because if God is not fair, then there is a chance we will get paid more than we are worth, that we will get more than we deserve, that we will make it through the doors even though we are last in line--not because of who we are but because of who God is."
And, although it can be hard to believe, a funny thing happens when we get caught up in God's generosity, God's lavish grace and mercy and gifting: the grumbling of those offended because they have been made the same as us becomes more and more dissonant. If we're listening to Jesus tell this parable, God's generosity embodied, who showed up and called us, and gave us everything he had, not when we had it all together, or when we deserved it, but when we pretty dramatically didn't, it becomes harder and harder to be comfortable among the grumblers. Instead, and wonder of wonders (and this might well be like shoving a camel through the eye of a needle), we find ourselves more and more able to join in the whoops and cheers of the ones who are astonished at the Landowner's generosity, because we are more and more able to recognize that we ought to be whooping and cheering too. Awash in the unexpected grace of Jesus, shaped by his odd and wondrous generosity, the gratitude and laughter that bubbles out of the gates of the vineyard will be our own.
Because, the kingdom of heaven is like that.
Thanks be to God.