For the kingdom of God is like …
How often we hear Jesus say these words. I know I have said it before but it bears repeating; the central and foundational teaching of Jesus was about the Kingdom of God and what living in and out of the Kingdom of God should be like. It follows for me then, that when we hear these words, “the kingdom of God is like …” we should sit up and take notice, paying special attention to the words that follow because without fail, they reveal truth that we, as followers of Jesus, must understand, apprehend and ultimately, show forth in the way we live our lives. Sometimes the truth in Jesus’ words is quickly realized, easily taken hold of and manifested in the way we engage others in our daily living. Other times, a little more effort is required and we should ask God for help in discerning the truth Jesus is conveying to all those who hear his words.
For me, the parable that we have read today from the Gospel of Matthew is one that can easily be read in a way that draws us in the wrong direction. Looking at it from one perspective we may ask if this parable is about ingratitude and greed? Perhaps if we focus on the words of the laborers who were hired early in the day we might well think so. Those workers thought they would get paid more than the amount they had agreed to because the landowners paid that same agreed amount even to the other workers who had not “borne the burdens of the day and the scorching heat. Each worker, regardless of when they got hired on, received the same amount of money at the end of the day.
Or is this parable about a landowner who has a distorted morality and somehow gets a degree of weird pleasure in messing with and upsetting people? “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you”, he said asserting that he can do whatever he wants without regard for how those hired early in the morning might feel.
And then there are those last few words about the last being first and the first being last. Do they really suggest that inequality or some other form of discrimination, unfairness or injustice and part and parcel of the Kingdom of God?
Any of these pathways are easily entered into and walked along but when followed I think we end up far from the truth of the Kingdom of God that Jesus was trying to express.
However, if we approach this parable seeking to discover the justice, equality, equity, inclusion and welcome of the Kingdom, we may just come face to face with the truth Jesus is trying to convey.
In reading this passage time and again this past week, the words that stood out for me are the words the landowner spoke to those laborers who were hired and sent to the vineyard later in the day, those who were part of the second, third and fourth wave of workers. In his agreement with them about what they would be paid the landowner said, “Whatever is right”; no specific amount was mentioned, only what would be right. The Greek word for “right” that Jesus used in this parable is “dikaios”. In its narrower sense “dikaios” can mean perhaps what you and I might think and understand it to mean; nothing more and nothing less than “rendering to each their due.” However, if we limit our understanding of “dikaios” to this narrower sense of the word, I fear we end up in a bit of a quandary because by human understanding those hired second, third and fourth were certainly not due a full days wage. In that understanding those hired later in the day should receive a pro-rated wage according to the percentage of the day they were actually working in the vineyard. Only those hired first, those hired early in the morning, were actually due a full day’s wage. That those hired first grumbled against the landowner seems to indicate that they thought that each worker should be paid only according to the hours they actually worked.
But the word “dikaios” has a deeper, richer meaning, a meaning that is reflective of the character of the Kingdom of God. And in that Jesus himself tells us that this parable (as indeed are all his parables) is about the kingdom of God when he began this teaching saying, “For the Kingdom is like a landowner,” it is important that we take a good hard look; we should most certainly sit up and take notice.
The word “dikaios” speaks of the one whose way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, as much as is humanly possible. In my understanding, that is the deeper, richer meaning of the landowner’s affirmation that he would do what is right and as we heard last week, it is never wrong to do the right thing.
This parable, as do all the parables, shows us and teaches us that things in the Kingdom of God challenge the ways we human beings normally look at things. Some call it the great reversal of Kingdom living but I think it is more than just a reversal: I see it more as an alternative, a divine alternative to our human way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting, an alternative that calls us to see, think, feel and act as does God, at least so far as is humanly possible.
In the actions of the landowner in this parable today we see reflected the ways of God: in the Kingdom, we are all equally valued and loved by God; God does not
pro-rate God’s gifts. A while back I saw a frig magnet with a saying something like “God loves everybody … but I’m God’s favorite.” Though that might be a cute little witticism, it is certainly rooted in human understanding not in divine understanding. In the Kingdom there are no favorites, no teacher’s pets, no members preferred over others: God attaches the same value and gives the same unconditional love to each and every one of us regardless if we are the first in or the last to walk through the door.
And a final thought: it is interesting to me that this parable that we have read today follows yet another exchange between Jesus and Peter. A few verses before these that we have read today Peter, dear St. Peter our patron saint, speaking apparently on behalf of all the disciples, said to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” Now maybe I might be reading too much into this but I hear Jesus say to Peter that he and the other disciples will receive all the blessings of the Kingdom of God but so will everyone else who follows Jesus, who’s seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, bewildering the world around by doing the right thing, as the landowner in the parable today bewildered I’m sure all the labourers he had hired that day.