PRAYER: God of endless grace, we often pray for your kingdom to come, but we just as often fail to see those whom you love as part of that kingdom. Show us the opportunity to be part of your kingdom here and now, by expanding our hearts and minds, by drawing the circle wider and wider still, that we may see those we often fail to see as your beloved. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the landowner goes out and hires workers first thing in the morning to do a job. In doing so, he agrees to pay them a denarion, which was the minimum daily wage for laborers. Let’s not kid ourselves about that. No one from this story was going to get rich working a day in the hot sun; they were getting minimum wage. But even so, in just about any worldview, it makes sense to say that people should get a day’s wages for a day’s work. I believe that we would be hard-pressed to find many people who would object to that concept. A day’s wages for a day’s work is, by all accounts, fair.
But then, the landowner keeps going out into the marketplace to hire more laborers. And in this case, he doesn’t agree to pay them a denarion, he tells them, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” They really had no say in the matter regardless of how much he would pay them; these workers relied on whatever pittance they could get, so they went. And at the end of the day, the landowner makes all of the workers who had been there the longest watch while all of the late arrivals got paid first. And every single laborer got paid the same amount: a denarion, a day’s wages. A day’s minimum wages to be sure, but a full day’s wages nevertheless.
Those workers who had been there the longest began to grumble because they suddenly believed they were getting the short end of the stick. Why should those workers who were only there an hour or so get paid the same amount as those who had been there all day? It’s not fair. They didn’t work a full day and I did. What about me? I want what’s fair to me.
Before we go any further, I’d like us to take a quick look at this story’s bookends… the events that happen immediately before Jesus tells the story and then after.
In the previous chapter, chapter 19, Jesus tells the rich young man that he should sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. And when that man walks away from Jesus, Peter asks Jesus what their reward will be for having given everything up to follow him. Jesus tells his disciples two things: First, that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it would be for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. And second, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” In fact, that is the last line of chapter 19.
Immediately following the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus reminds them of the prediction that he made of his own crucifixion, and then just as he says that, the mother of James and John asks Jesus if her sons could sit on his right and on his left when he eventually comes into the kingdom. As the other disciples get wind of this, there’s even more grumbling and Jesus tells them all that “whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave.” The first will be last and the last will be first.
Three times inside of the end of chapter 19 and the beginning of chapter 20, Jesus makes that statement. It seems as though that no matter what Jesus says however, people have a tendency to frame it with this question: what’s in it for me? Yes Jesus, I get that the last will be first and the first will be last. What’s in it for me though?
Jesus is telling his disciples that claiming to be his disciple is not a matter of status, nor is it something that will bring great reward as we define that word. Being a disciple of Jesus is not about “what’s in it for me”.
There are many parables in the gospels that start out with the same six words: The Kingdom of God is like… And in all of those parables in which he begins with those words, he describes the kingdom as being fundamentally at odds with the world’s sense of order… the sense of fairness that we have established throughout humanity.
The culture of first century Israel was one in which people were relegated to second, third, fourth class status. There were the ultra-rich and powerful who took advantage of the poor and dispossessed. There were people who hoped for a day of work so that they could feed their families or themselves for that day. They were exploited and they had no hope whatsoever of ever getting treated fairly.
And in this story – this parable that Jesus tells, he describes a landowner who treats his workers fairly – giving every single one of them a full day’s wages, and there was still resentment because there were some who felt that they should have gotten more.
Jesus described a scenario in which everybody was given enough for their daily bread, whether they were there all day or for just an hour. Whether they earned it or not. You know… give us this day, our daily bread. Because isn’t that what grace is? Grace is not something that we earn; it’s given to us freely. Grace is not something that anyone earns, but there are still people who will resent that others receive the same grace that they themselves receive. Do we really want grace to be something that we earn? Is that fair?
Give us this day, our daily bread is part of the intrinsic fairness of God, and it is part of the sense of fairness, the sense of justice that God calls upon each of us to display. Within the kingdom of God, there is no special status for those who have been there the longest, or those who can afford to buy their own bread. It doesn’t matter how many degrees one has or how big their house is. There is no hierarchy in the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is about God’s grace being made available to everyone, and everyone being welcomed in the kingdom of God.
What’s fair about workers being exploited or about people suffering in poverty? What’s fair about people living without adequate healthcare or being told that their lifestyles have no value? The Kingdom of God answers that question. It isn’t fair. The Kingdom of God is one in which every single person is of value to God. The Kingdom of God is one in which every single person is treasured. The Kingdom of God is one in which merit is replaced with mercy.
Our culture has not changed all that much since well before Jesus walked the earth. People are still exploited, people are not seen or valued for their own humanity. Everywhere we look, we see the world broken into two categories: us and them. The world is still built on status, on reputation, and it still assigns shame readily.
The kingdom of God that Jesus described is one in which everyone is deserving of fairness, everyone is worthy of grace. God’s mercy is given freely, and we must be ready, willing, and able to emulate that, ensuring that God’s mercy is part of who we are as disciples.
Dr. Warren Carter, an expert in the Gospel of Matthew writes, “The parable challenges audiences of disciples to embrace this alternative egalitarian lifestyle and to view social structures and interactions from that perspective which is fundamental to God’s empire.”
Think about Jesus’ entire ministry and all of the interactions he had with people. The workers, the disciples, the poor, the woman at the well, the Roman soldier, the crowds… Jesus sees them. He sees them all. He values them all; he treasures them all.
There’s a story I love in the gospel of Mark. In the 10th chapter, Jesus is walking through Jericho and a blind man starts calling out to him. “Jesus, son of David, show me mercy.” The people in the crowd told him to be quiet, but he shouted even louder, “Jesus, son of David, show me mercy.” Jesus stopped and told those around him to bring that man to him, and then all of a sudden, everyone in the crowd who was just a moment before telling him to be quiet was his best friend saying, “Oh, be encouraged! Get up! He’s calling you.” Jesus saw the value, the humanity, the worthiness of this one blind man that everyone else was trying to shut up.
Being seen by Jesus doesn’t mean being placed before or above anyone else, it means being worthy of God’s grace equally. Living as a disciple of Jesus means that we have to put aside our own inclination to assign different degrees of worth to people. It’s an inclination that has been bred in us, in our culture for millennia before Jesus himself walked this earth, and it often comes so naturally to us all that we don’t even realize it.
But the Kingdom of God offers us a new way, and I would like to challenge you to look at the world through a lens of God’s grace, and not one of who is or is not worthy. The kingdom of God is one in which we view the world around us not with the question “what’s in it for me?” or what’s fair for me, but with the mindfulness of how God’s grace is shared with others.
We are worthy of God’s grace not because of anything that we do, but because of what Jesus did for us. John Wesley insisted that God’s gracious acceptance of us both enables and requires us to cultivate an inner righteousness. He said that we cannot claim that the Lord is our righteousness unless righteousness becomes ours.
There are people who live in this world convinced that they will never see the fairness that Jesus describes. Righteousness for them begins with the people who claim Christ, actually seeing them. Who are the people in our world who are not seen for the value of their own humanity? Who are the people calling out to Jesus, Son of David, show mercy on me? Whether we’re talking about people of color, those in the LGBTQ community, people living on substandard pay or without proper healthcare, immigrants, or any number of other marginalized groups, there are so many who are unseen in this world because they’ve been relegated to the status of other. Or to put it another way, they’ve been classified as “last”, and we all know what Jesus said about the last.
I want to challenge us – I want to invite us to look through a lens of faith at those who our culture puts last. The Kingdom of God is about loving our neighbor and seeing the struggles that others face. The Kingdom of God is about rejoicing in the grace that is shown to those whom God loves, whether we believe they deserve it or not. The Kingdom of God is one in which we come together as one body, not asking what’s in it for me, not claiming that we deserve more grace than someone else, but in rejoicing in the very fact that we all receive the same grace.
This is good news for us. The last shall be first and the first shall be last… but regardless of where we are in that equation, there is room for us at God’s table. There’s room for everyone at God’s table. Let us all be reminded of that and live that we may bring the Kingdom of God here at last.
To God be the glory.