Year A, Proper 20
September 21, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For the kingdom of God is like…”
The Kingdom of God. Jesus also calls it the Kingdom of Heaven, or there are more inclusive renderings of that idea, the Reign of God or the Kindom of God. Jesus spends many of his precious few hours of earthly ministry teaching about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed… The Kingdom of God is like yeast… The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king settling accounts with his slaves… The Kingdom of God is like a landowner seeking day laborers for the vineyard… The kingdom of God is a central teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God is His attempt to describe for us what life looks like when we live in accordance with God’s will. The Kingdom of God is life, it is existence, it is the world operating the way God intends it to be. Or, like an old ad campaign for the State of Maine put it, the Kingdom of God is the way life should be.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. From the smallest of seeds springs forth the greatest of shrubs, even a tree that gives shelter for the birds of the air. From a tiny mote, things of great and sheltering consequence can spring forth.
The Kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king settling accounts with his slaves… In the Kingdom of heaven, we forgive our debts and our debts are forgiven, or even more specifically, in the Kingdom of Heaven there is no debt at all. That’s the version of the Lord’s Prayer I grew up with; Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. It is probably a more accurate translation than “sin” or “trespasses.”
And then we have today’s selection from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” I love this parable. It is such a perfect storm of grace for those of us who live in a society defined by late-stage free market capitalism, a society driven by “earning,” by getting what you deserve, by merit. Ours is a society defined by the benefits of competition and we applaud the winners that win for their creativity, tenacity and acumen, and the losers, well, we don’t talk about them very much because they spoil the mood, they queer the accounting. The economic equations don’t balance if we need to account for those who slip through the cracks, just like the ecological equations don’t balance if we need to actually account for all of the waste pumped for free into the atmosphere, the seas or the soils. Ours is a society that idolizes credit and debt, considering both a priori, assumed, as necessities, and not even as necessary evils but as pragmatic locomotives of innovation and advancement. (Not so in God’s economy, though).
In each of the Kingdom of God parables, Jesus is trying to envision for us what the new order of God looks like, what it is to have God’s will manifest in the world, while also revealing the deadly nature of the old order, the way things are right now. And, being parabolic, they can be read in many, many ways.
Early on in the church, much of the bible was read allegorically, as a story containing a hidden meaning, certainly not to be taken literally. So early on, this story was read to be about Israel. The early day workers hired from the marketplace were Adam, Noah and Abraham. Later in the day, Moses and the prophets were hired, then at the last, the Gentiles were brought to the vineyard by the landowner. The landowner, of course, was God. So while Abraham’s witness had been true for thousands of years (true being reflected by the full wage he received), the newest hires, the Gentiles, also received their full reward. Their faith was just as valid as the Jews. For St. Matthew who was writing to long time Jewish Christians, some of whom might even have crossed paths with Jesus, as well as newly converted Gentiles, it was critical to him that everyone know that how or when you got to God in Christ was not important, but that you did, that was what mattered. That’s a good read of it, that is a vision of the Kingdom. Like no matter how long you have been Christian or at Resurrection, you have a place at the table.
Another vision of the Kingdom has to do with the economy of God’s grace. The opportunity to live as God intends, the chance to inhabit the Kingdom of God is offered to all by grace. Grace is the free and unearned favor of God. Grace, the favor of God, is something that we cannot, that we do not deserve and it is freely, radically offered to all. However, even though it is a free offer, it has to be accepted. The offer of God’s grace is always there, but we have to accept the offer. We can’t just sit back on our duffs and wait for grace to happen to us, not with the gift of free will that we are blessed with. The laborers in the vineyard, they all received the same grace whether they worked from sunrise to sunset, or were the very last left in the marketplace, because no one had hired them, all received the same wages, the same grace of God, but the grace was received because the laborers offered themselves. They offered themselves trusting that someone would choose them. (Not a good employment strategy, but a fine understanding of God’s grace). To receive the grace of God we don’t have to deserve it, we can’t earn it, but we do have to accept it. There is justice in that.
And, the justice of the Kingdom of God extends much deeper, much more radically than most of us feel comfortable with. God’s kingdom is defined by radical equality. Each worker received the same wage, and the all day workers chaffed, “…you have made them them equal to us…” Yes. Yes all are equal in the eyes of God. The cultural hills are leveled and the valleys are filled in in making straight the way of the Lord. Reward does not come from any individual effort or merit, it does not matter how long or even how well anyone works, but rather it is based on the gracious contract or covenant offered by the one making the offer, by God. God offers one reward for everyone, a one denari, the standard daily wage for a laborer of that day, literally the price of one’s daily bread. As one commentator writes, “instead of using wages to reinforce distinctions, he (the landlord, God) uses them to express equality and solidarity,” and as Dorothy Day writes of this parable, “Jesus spoke of a living wage, not equal pay for equal work.” In the kingdom of God everyone has enough no matter what you did to earn it. Justice, In the Kingdom, has nothing to do with fairness.
That is a nod to the radical economy of church. This place is offered freely, you don’t need to pay for it, you don’t need to earn it, there is nothing about deserving anything in the Creeds or our mission statement. You don’t need to pay to receive communion. You don’t need to buy a pew here (that ended before Resurrection opened) and you can’t buy absolution. Pledging a lot does not mean that you get more prayers than someone who pledges very little. What is expected is that you give what you can. And what is expected is that you take what you need. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. I’ve heard that somewhere… That is not only just economics it is our theological inheritance. The economy of church is a reflection of the economy of the Kingdom. Give what you have; take what you need. We all have very different things to offer. Some of us have a great deal to give:. Some of us are pretty broken, pretty depleted. Maybe all we have to offer is our presence sitting, crying maybe in the pew, or maybe you can’t even make it here on Sundays, but you are with us through a friend or reading the sermons on line or in your prayers. That counts. That is enough. In the economy of God the widows mite, the single penny offered is of the greatest value. When you give what you have to give you, no matter what that adds up to in human terms, it is a vast fortune in God’s terms.
And we all have needs. Some of us need the Sacraments and the Word of God proclaimed in the Church. Some of us need forgiveness by God and instruction in prayer. Some of need an ear to hear us and arms to hug us, and some help with the rent and a referral to a counselor. And reflecting that vision out into the world, something else Jesus did. Always keep in mind, we could take the parables literally, meaning stories of justice and injustice that Jesus witnessed himself in the world. This parable could be about laborers and generosity. Reflecting that vision out into the world, everyone needs wholesome food. Everyone needs a safe place to live. Everyone needs clothing and health care, and safety from violence and clean air and pure water, and love and intimate relationships of all sorts. Those are needs, basic requirements and getting them, having them, in the Kingdom of God, in the world as it is supposed to be, is unrelated to your ability to pay, in what you ave to offer in exchange. You won’t read that in the Wall Street Journal.
In God’s economy, in the Kingdom of God, what you need and what you have to offer are unrelated. God does not intend for our world to be fee for service; if you do this, you get that, no. There is great diversity in what we need and what we have to offer, there is nothing fair about that, but it is imminently just. And in God’s economy, a just economy, the books always balance.
How does that vision match the world that you know? Do we, collectively, offer what everyone needs regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of how much you deserve it? Is that an American value? It is a Christian value; faith in the abundance of God, though faith in that means committing a life to living as if the Kingdom was at hand. This Christian value is every bit as radical to the conventional wisdom of right now as it was on the downward slope of the Roman Empire that Jesus lived in. As we enter our 50th year as a church together, may we always hold close to us the vision of the Kingdom, and may we do and continue to do what needs to be done to make the Kingdom of God manifest on earth, right here, right now. AMEN