Kingdom Wages

Matthew 20:1-16
Preached FCCW 9-24-2017

Jesus taught about many things, but by far, his favorite talking point was the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, the Kingdom of Heaven is not the kind of Kingdom, that can be located on a map. Neither is it Heaven – as in a place with angels on clouds strumming harps. When Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven, what he was describing was the world as God intended it to be. A world of righteousness, mercy and justice.

The reason he spent so much time and so many words explaining it, is that the Kingdom of Heaven bears scant resemblance to the world as we know it. Which is why Jesus’ Kingdom parables started with the words: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like..” and then relied on comparisons to ordinary people caught up in familiar circumstances to allow his listeners to make a connection.

The setting of this parable is of a landowner who is looking to hire some workers to harvest his vineyard.
The landowner goes to the marketplace early one morning looking for people who can do the job for him. While this is a very ordinary scenario, there is something very out of the ordinary about his hiring strategy. Because he keeps returning to the market throughout the day, looking for workers at 9:00, at noon, at 3:00, and finally at 5:00. The vineyard owner asks them why they are still idle so late in the day. They tell him it’s because no one has hired them. They would be the workers that nobody else saw fit to employ. They would also be the most desperate. The ones who could not afford to go home empty handed. The ones for whom time is running out and hope is getting thin.

With every trip back to town to hire more workers of decreasing capability but increasingly greater need, you get the sense that this landowner’s determination to get as many workers as possible involved in his vineyard has less to do with what they have to offer him and more about what he can do for them.

That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It is God passionately and persistently demonstrating radical generosity by gathering those who, by any reasonable standard do not promise a satisfactory return on his investment. People who have stopped expecting life to be fair and so are ripe to discover that God is just and merciful.

This raises another common characteristic about the parables Jesus told. They begin on familiar territory, but then they suddenly veer off the beaten path with a very unusual twist. These unexpected diversions are not random. They are carefully constructed to produce a response in us. A gut level reaction. And that reaction tells us how far our assumptions are from the reality of God’s Kingdom.

In this parable, that moment arrives at the end of the workday, when it is time for the workers to be paid their wages. The owner of the vineyard specifically instructs his manager to have the last workers hired be the first ones to be paid.

Now the parable says that the first workers; those hired at dawn, were promised the usual wages for a day’s labor, which would have been a denarius. If the workers who started in the morning and worked all day were paid first, they would have received their denarius and gone away content that they had been treated fairly; that the owner had honored his part of their agreement.

But because the part timers are intentionally paid before them, the workers who had put in a full day get to see that the latecomers are paid a denarius, also. Seeing that, maybe the full-timers anticipated getting paid a bonus when their turn came. You or I might have thought the same way.

Which is why we are just as surprised – and maybe just as indignant – as the full time laborers are when they get paid only the denarius they had agreed to work for.

Jesus cleverly tells this parable in a way that intentionally invites us to identify with the sense of unfairness that those hired hands who have put in a whole day of work felt. And then he yanks the rug out from under our incorrect assumptions. Because sometimes in the course of teaching us something about the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ parables also teach us something about ourselves.

What the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard teaches us about how God’s Kingdom works is that Kingdom wages are calculated not according to what you deserve, but according to what God wants to give you. And according to your need.

Kingdom wages are not measured in denarii or dollars. They are measured in grace. And grace is all or nothing. That is what the parable teaches us about the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s generosity towards us. What it teaches us about ourselves is that we possess a capacity for envying God’s generosity.

There is something within us that resists translating the generosity that we receive from God into a generosity that we then expend to others. Especially to people we don’t think deserve it.

Which is why Jesus’ second favorite teaching topic after the Kingdom of Heaven was stewardship and generosity. Grace sounds fine in theory. But when Jesus packages it in a story like this, our gut reaction to it exposes just how wary we can be towards grace in practice.

Grace is not the way of the world but it is the way of God. “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” Jesus said.
There’s a world of difference in the implication of those words depending on what you stand to gain or lose. The full time workers felt like they were getting gypped when they saw the latecomers get paid the same amount as them. But the part timers must have felt like they had hit the lottery. In reality, the owner was true to his word to both groups of workers. The workers hired at dawn agreed to work all day for a denarius. And that is what they received. Nothing was taken away from them that was promised them in order to pay the other workers.

Those hired later in the day were told that they would be paid “what was right.” And they were.
What was right in the owner’s heart was not to measure their reward according to a time-clock
but according to his generosity and their needs.

If a daily wage for laborers was just enough to feed your family, people who only got a few hours work
and were paid only for that were not going to have enough. Their household would be hungry.
And that, according to the owner, was not right.

What the complaining workers forget is that what they received was just as much of a windfall as what the later workers received. After all, everyone who got to work in the vineyard started out that morning empty-handed and dependent on somebody else giving them employment. But for the grace of God, any of them could have gone home that day with empty pockets to face families with empty stomachs.

How easy it is to forget, if we are not careful, that every good thing that comes to us, comes as a gracious gift from God, and not as an entitlement. Grace enables us to stop envying God’s generosity to those we consider to be undeserving,  so that we might better reflect that generosity in the ways we make Kingdom use of what we have received.

That is what the Kingdom of God looks like in you and me. The Kingdom of God is like any story about grace and generosity leveling the playing field. It’s not the kind of Cinderella Story that you’re going to be a fan of, if your preoccupied with working your way up to the top of the ladder. Which is why our world is tilted more to helping the first to stay first. More often than not by ensuring that the last stay put.

But the way that the Kingdom of God begins to take shape on earth as it is in heaven, is through men and women who understand that life in God’s Kingdom is not a zero sum proposition, where God’s generosity to you means less for me.

There is other parable I’d like to share with you. It’s not one of Jesus’ parables. It is an old rabbinic parable about two brothers who shared the farm they had inherited. The elder brother never married, while the younger brother did marry and had eight children. Every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had produced.

One year during a bountiful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, “My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I’ll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep,
I’ll take some of what I have put in my barn and I’ll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.

At the very time he was thinking along that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, “God has given me these wonderful children.  My brother hasn’t been so fortunate.  He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He’s much too fair. He’ll never renegotiate. I know what I’ll do. In the dead of the night when he’s asleep, I’ll take some of what I have and slip it over into his barn.”

And so one night when the moon was full, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity to the other.
The rabbis say that though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall.
God weeping for joy because two of his children had discovered what the Kingdom of God is truly like.

copyright 2017. Raymond Medeiros