By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 20, 2020
Matthew 20:1–16 (ESV)
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
The Kingdom of heaven is like… I love the parables of the kingdom. I love the theology of the kingdom. I love the honest debates among friends about the kingdom. I love the kingdom because that is where Jesus wants us to be. Jesus calls us to become part of his kingdom. He calls us to be ambassadors of the kingdom. He says that we are sojourners or travelers through a foreign land where our citizenship is in the place he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.
I am probably fascinated by the language of the kingdom for many reasons but one of the reasons I love it is because I love reading. I enjoy historical fiction that takes place in Medieval Europe, and I am also intrigued by the Lord of the Rings series, the writings of C.S. Lewis, and similar authors in that semi-allegorical fantasy genera. I do not know why I am so attracted to these things, because I would hate to live in the Medieval world. I am very fond of our modern conveniences. I love the fact that I do not have to suffer through many diseases because we have vaccines. I love having a vehicle that can travel at speeds of seventy miles per hour or more. I love central heating and air. I would never want to live in a time where I would not have access to these things, but there is something about the life in those stories that intrigues me.
Although I enjoy the stories of knights, and I love the designs and evolution of armor those are not the reasons I am attracted to this time frame. Some might think that I am attracted to the Medieval era because of the central position of the church and the amazing architecture. I admit that the position of religion in the lives of the people does intrigue me in this era, but that is not the central reason I like this time frame. I really think the reason of love the concept of the Kingdom is because of the community. I strongly dislike many of the concepts of the Feudal system because I believe that people should be able to move up in society based on things other than birth. If someone works hard and has a gift I truly think they should be free to pursue that. So the feudal system is not what I am talking about when I speak of community. I like that everyone belongs, everyone has a place, and they take care of each other. I know that this is not always how it worked, and that there were great and gross abuses of position, but I read books that often romanticize the era.
I like the concept that everyone has a place, everyone belongs, and that we take care of each other. Life is filled with so many variables and unknowns, that leave many feeling as if they have nowhere to go or no one to turn too. With billions of people living in this world, we often feel alone. If there is something that is missing from our society today it is true community. And I believe that that is what Jesus is encouraging us to create when he speaks about the Kingdom.
Last week we spoke about a king that wanted to settle his accounts, and he brought before him a servant that had a debt of ten thousand talents, which is a debt equivalent to ten thousand years of labor. We are not told how this man accumulated this kind of debt or why, but he had a substantial debt. The king placed the call to settle the account, and the man begged for his life and for the life of his family. The king was stirred to core of his being with compassion for this man and debt was not only deferred but forgive.
Jesus told that story to illustrate forgiveness and how heinous withholding forgiveness truly is. That man that was forgiven of such a great debt left the king’s courts and he found a fellow servant that owed him money, and instead of reflecting the grace of his king, the man began to physically demand the repayment of the debt. A debt that was only the equivalent of one hundred days of work. The community told the king what happened and the man that was forgiven of his debt was brought again before the king, and faced even greater trials. It is a harsh story, but one filled with truth.
Jesus tells us that kingdom of heaven is similar to that story. Do we have a problem with that? Often when we hear about the Kingdom in churches our minds are transported to the ideas of heaven and that reward just beyond the veil of life. There is more to the story. Jesus said the kingdom is like a king…but his story did not end when the man was forgiven of the debt, it followed the man back into the community where he met and interacted with another man. Jesus continued to tell the story because the kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven. We are in the kingdom today just as much as we will be in the future. And the king is still presiding over his domain.
Today Jesus tells another story. The story about forgiveness prompted the religious leaders to give Jesus another challenge, this challenge dealt with divorce. In this teaching the disciples rightly observed that according to the purity of Jesus’s teaching it would be best not to get married. Marriage is hard. It requires constant forgiveness and reconciliation, but there are benefits to the practice of reconciliation.
All of these stories brought people closer to Jesus. Children wanted to be close, and even people with worldly wealth and success were encouraged to consider the teachings of Jesus. One man came to Jesus who was young and wealthy. He asked what he must do to have eternal life. It is the answer to this question that today’s story emerges. This man comes to Jesus, and Jesus urges him to follow the law. The man says that he has kept all these from his youth. He, like so many people, look at their lives and they believe that they are good people. How could a good God find anything wrong with them? We like to think that we are all good on our own merit, but the truth is that we often might do the right things for the wrong reasons.
I have never killed a person, but when patients runs thin I have entertained ideas that are not exactly savory. I have not purposely bent a knee to an idol, but I have put some temporal concerns in front of faithful devotion. I am a good person yet I am not perfect.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a man that owns a vineyard. That man needs people to work the vines, so he goes to the place the day laborers congregate and he hires some with the assurance that he will pay them what is just. These men accept the contract and get to work. The man returns to the town and hires people even when there is only an hour left in the work day. And as the day draw to an end he gathers those men together and he begins to give them their pay. The problem is he pays the last first and the first last.
This parable can be confusing because of all the ideological concepts we hold in our minds. We rightfully agree that an individual should be paid a just wage but when all those that worked get paid the same even when some worked only an hour, we feel that there is injustice at hand. It raises the question as to what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of heaven is like this.
It is important to remember that this parable is spoken directly after the conversation with the man we often call the rich young ruler. At the end of that conversation Jesus lamented of the difficulty of the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. He went so far as to say that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. Of course, that cryptic example has had biblical scholars trying to understand exactly what was meant by the words. They have attempted to say that it was a very short and narrow gate for special uses, no such gate has ever been found nor has one been written about so we are left with just the words and a needle. The disciples looked at Jesus in astonishment and said, “Who then can be saved?”
The disciples ask this question because they realized the complete devotion required to follow Jesus. Jesus told that man that he should let go of his entire estate, give it away to others, and to walk away completely to follow him. We credit the disciples with having that kind of faith, yet even they did not walk away completely at this point. We have several instances where they get back on the boats to do a bit of fishing while they were with Jesus. Even after the resurrection we hear the voice of Peter in scripture saying that he is tired of waiting and is going out to fish. That statement is not a man wishing to commune with God in nature, but what we might call back sliding. Peter was contemplating turning away from Jesus to return to his old lifestyle. Just like the rich young ruler, Peter and all the disciples had areas to where they did not fully trust God.
It is in this area of hesitancy that Jesus challenges them with this story. What are we to do with this metaphor of the kingdom when it seems to go against human understanding? We try grasp it by saying that the owner of the vineyard is God, and that this is a story of the end of days, but that does not resemble the general regard of Jesus’s other parables. When Jesus spoke about the unforgiving servant, he spoke in that manner because he wanted the disciples to begin the practice of reconciliation here and now. He wanted them to do that because if we are living lives of unforgiveness we are binding ourselves from experiencing the fullness of the promised abundant life. If the parable on forgiveness has application to our lives here and now, this parable also applies today.
When I first came to this Meeting to serve as a pastor, we prayed together to formulate a statement of who we are and our mission. We prayed for several months over this and we came up with something very profound. That statement is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the love of Christ with others. I love that statement because it resembles the holy rhythm I see in the life and lifestyle Jesus. He made it his custom to worship in the synagogues with the community, that custom of worship is our expression of loving God. He would withdraw often to isolated places to pray and a life of prayer is embracing the Holy Spirit. After spending time in prayer Jesus would then move into some form of ministry. He would teach, heal, or move to a different community. When we live our lives of worship and prayer, it should lead us to ministry of some form. That is how we live the love of Jesus with others, we live the life we see in the pages of scripture. We use those things that we have available to us in ways that will bring glory to God and encourage others to embrace the life we enjoy with Christ.
When Jesus told this parable, he is telling us something profound. He is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is different than the kingdoms of men. Jesus wants us to look at the man. A man that has worldly means. He has a vineyard large enough that he is required to hire laborers to complete the work that needs done. I am not sure how large this vineyard is, nor does it even matter, all we know is that he needs help and is willing to pay others to do the work. This man finds people to do the work and they agree on the payment. But the man goes back out, again and again, why?
A business is important to a community. A well-run business provides jobs which provides income, which is used in the purchase of goods and services in the community. Each business, no matter how large, is good for the community. Even the kingdoms of men recognize this fact, but the man in Jesus’s story takes this a different way. He has a vineyard and from the information we are given we can assume that it is a successful vineyard. This man looks beyond personal profit and looks at the community. He sees people standing around out of work and he knows that they will not be able to feed their children that day unless they earn some money, so he offers them a job because he has work to be done. He walks through the town again, he might have stopped by and talked to a few friends along the way. Maybe in one of those conversations this man learned that some businesses were struggling because their customers did not have money to spend. And the man looks up and he sees that there were people standing around waiting to be hired. He becomes concerned. His vineyard is fine, but the baker is struggling. The baker will not accept charity because there are others that need it more than he, so how will this man who loves his community help? He walks over to the men standing and waiting to be hire.
He goes to them knowing that they are waiting to be hire because their labor for some reason is not needed, and each man that is standing there is one less loaf of bread that his friend the baker will sell. His friend cannot hire those men, but he can. He hires the extra workers because his community is important. He is using what he has available to him to encourage those that are discouraged. To him it is not about profit, it is about community.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like that man. A man that see someone in his community that is in need and figures out some way to encourage them. We all have a place in the community, each of us working together makes our community better. Every seemingly insignificant thing we do, adds something to our community. We need each other, yet often we can get distracted. The laborers in the story were distracted, they ones that were hired first were upset because they felt as if they deserved more. Sometimes we are like that. We do not see the larger picture of what is going on around us. We only see that aspect right in front of us. They saw a man that only worked an hour get a full day’s pay and they felt that it was injustice. But do they see the larger picture? This man was not concerned with himself; he was living a kingdom lifestyle. His objective was to make sure as many people could eat as possible. His objective was to encourage as many people as possible. Every time he went out to hire men, the baker saw, the fish mongers saw, every business in the town saw and they all knew that those laborers would be visiting their stalls to make purchases.
We often miss the point of this parable. We focus on the labor, or the generosity of the landowner, but we forget to read the context. Jesus told this parable to highlight the reality that it is difficult for people to enter the kingdom. It is difficult because so often we fail to see the responsibility we have to use all that we have for God’s glory. The kingdom of heaven is like the man who owns a vineyard and is willing to face ridicule for his generosity. Are we becoming the blessing that people need?