is the kingdom of heaven like? What is it like when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven….as we pray each week?
We imagine it is beautiful. We imagine everyone is happy and fulfilled, and it looks a bit like a Disney movie scene where the birds twitter and the animals frolic and beautiful music plays in the background.
But Jesus keeps reminding us…that though the kingdom of heaven is beautiful…truly beautiful…not everyone is going to be impressed. And this story of the laborers in the vineyard illustrates exactly that. Because it is a story of God’s goodness and welcome and love that is blatantly unfair.
The landowner in his story goes out at 6 am in the morning, as landowners all did, to hire workers for the day. He goes to the place where the workers line up to be hired…and he finds a crew, offers them a fair wage and they go to work in his vineyard. This should be the end of the story. The landowner has met his need. The contracts have been made. All is good.
Except when he heads out later that morning to get some coffee, perhaps, around 9, he notices that there are still folks lined up to work. And when he asks them why they’re still there…it seems no one else has come to hire them. So he tells them they can go to work for him as well…and he will pay them whatever is fair. And this happens again at noon and 3 and again at 5…just an hour before the work of the day is done. There are still people wanting to work, hoping to be chosen that late in the day. And each time, the landowner picks them up and offers to pay them whatever is fair.
And that all sounds like the kingdom of heaven doesn’t it? Where people get noticed and are chosen and are invited to come into God’s vineyard, no matter how late in the day. We like that part. But…it’s the next part that’s the kicker. Because the landowner has the manager pay them, beginning with the crew that only worked an hour…and then pays them all the same daily wage that was agreed upon by the first crew.
The folks who worked in the vineyard, in the hot sun, who are sore and tired, get exactly the same as the folks who came and barely worked up a sweat in the last hour. And they are understandably resentful. There’s no chirping birds or Disney music playing for them. In truth, there is nothing that gets our hackles up more than that feeling that others are getting away with not having to work as hard as we did. We hate unfair. And Jesus says…the kingdom of heaven is like this. In fact, this is exactly what the landowner deems as fair.
So what is Jesus talking about here? Who is this parable for? Well, Jesus is going about attracting a ragamuffin group of followers, calling them children of God — people who have let their faith lapse, people who have been thrown out of the faith community, people who have never had a faith to speak of. And this parable is directly addressed to his own religious community. Jesus is Jewish, and has been raised to be a faithful follower of God, to observe the Jewish law. He has been told all his life that he is one of God’s chosen people, a child of the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah. He is one of God’s beloved ones, set apart on this earth to be in relationship with God, according to the laws of Moses, having made a covenant with God from the beginning of time.
Jesus, in this parable of the kingdom of heaven…knows that he and his religious community are the ones who were brought into the vineyard in the wee hours of the morning. They have known the goodness of God, have known the grace and love of God for generations through the Torah. They know God is faithful and just and they have a place at work in God’s vineyard. They are secure in their trust of God who will provide for them what they need as long as they remain among the faithful and obey God’s holy laws.
But Jesus welcomes others into his motley crew — people who have not followed the laws of Moses. People who have not been circumcised or observed the Sabbath, people who are unclean and unworthy. And says that they are every bit as valuable, every bit as important as the chosen ones? That is not ok. Jesus sees the kingdom of heaven as a place where anyone who wants to work in the vineyard is invited…no matter what they have been doing beforehand…and every one is valued equally.
And that results in resentment and hurt and frustration all over the place….because it’s all well and good for God to be good. It’s all well and good that God is generous. But we’ve paid our dues. We’ve “earned” our place. We’ve “earned” God’s favor. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged? Shouldn’t there be the ‘chosen’ ones…and then the ones who God loves and cares for as well…but on a little lower plane. I mean…they should be paid a little less, right?
It’s all well and good for God to go about loving all those people…but…really, haven’t we at least earned some extra bonus points for being here longer?
And Jesus’ answer is Nope. Nope.
There are no bonus points in the kingdom of heaven. None. It turns out that all that matters at the end of the day is that we wanted to work in God’s vineyard. We want to be part of God’s love and goodness in the world. That is the truly beautiful thing…more beautiful than Disney could ever imagine.
The kingdom of heaven is populated by folks who are doing God’s work in this world…..and it doesn’t matter whether they’ve been doing it their whole life or just started an hour ago. Makes no difference at all to God. They are equally important and valuable and equally deserving of all that God has promised — all the grace and love and faithfulness and mercy that God has to offer. . All that they need for the day.
I like bonus points. We all like bonus points. We all want to be recognized for all we’ve done, for our hard work and effort. There are people in this congregation who have been here for decades. Raised in faith, they have done every kind of work imaginable at this church – serving and cleaning and fixing and teaching and organizing…they have been here since 6am, figuratively…working through the heat of the day, because they trust God’s promises. They know God’s love. They have experienced God’s grace. And they are awesome.
But there are also a lot of you who have come to this congregation in the last 3 years — and you have jumped into our life together because you also trust God’s promises and you know God’s love and you have experienced God’s grace.
And you know what? You are awesome. And you are just as important and equally valuable in the life of this community. Because there are no bonus points. There aren’t points at all….just workers in the vineyard…receiving together the grace and love of God that we need for each day…and working together to bring that grace into the world.
We always say we are a brand new congregation when we receive new members….because we have new gifts, new stories that change what we do and how we care for each other and for our community. The reality is that each of us, whatever brought us here, whatever our story…is here because we want to work in the vineyard. We want to be a part of God’s story. We want to be a part of what God is doing in the world. We want to be part of making this world beautiful. And each of us, whatever your story, whatever your past…is needed to make that happen. God has need of you in this vineyard. God has need of you — your heart, your hands — in the kingdom of heaven. And you make it beautiful. Truly beautiful. All of you.
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