“The kingdom of heaven is like…” Finish the sentence. This is now the third Sunday in a row that we’ve been trying to finish that sentence. First it was a question of “greatness,” “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus turned every answer of ours upside down, comparing the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven to one who is childlike toward God.
Last Sunday it was the question of boundaries. “How often must I forgive my neighbor when he sins against me? As many as seven times.” And Jesus pushed the boundaries out seventy times farther than would ever have imagined.
Now, this morning, the question has to do with the relationship between ‘input’ and ‘outcome’ in this Kingdom of Heaven. What’s the PAYOFF for what I DO? ‘The more I DO and the harder I work, the more I GET and the greater the reward. That’s what it’s like in the Kingdom of this world. Is this what the “Kingdom of Heaven” is like?
Peter and the disciples had just heard Jesus tell a “rich, young man” to “sell all his possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It’s all sounds very quid pro quo. The more EARTHLY POSSESSIONS you get rid of – the more HEAVENLY TREASURE you gain.
Peter’s no dummy. He puts two and two together. He said to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Peter’s calculated the EARTHLY POSSESSIONS that he’s left behind and wants to know what his HEAVENLY return on his investment he should expect.
Jesus tells Peter and the eleven that “they will receive a hundredfold and eternal life.” And not only them but ‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake.”
It’s the best investment windfall you have ever had. For everything you leave behind for ‘my name’s sake,’ you get 100 times that back again – AND ETERNAL LIFE TO BOOT. All you need is a little faith – or is it ‘great faith’?
Jesus confirms the deal saying, “Many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first.” Everyone who’s got the world by the tail now will be last in line, fighting over the leftovers at the grand buffet in heaven. Everyone who’s last now, will have reserved seats at the best table by the window. It’s either NOW OR LATER and LATER is always worth denying yourself for NOW. It’s all very fair and sensible – and that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. OR IS IT?
“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.” And then He went out again, and again, and again, and again, looking for laborers to hire to come to work for him in His vineyard.
The picture that Jesus paints here is of a man who would never make it in today’s economy where it’s all about ‘efficiency’ and keeping the payroll down and finding ways to do more with fewer people.
He “went out” looking for workers for his vineyard – “early in the morning,” “the third hour,” “the sixth hour,” “the ninth hour” and even “the eleventh hour” which is just an hour before “quitting time.” By that time He hardly needed the help, but they needed the work and this guy seems to get the biggest kick out of hiring people to work in his vineyard.
To those he hired during the first hour of the day, He contracted to pay them a ‘denarius’ – the going wage for a day’s work. Those that followed were hired simply with the promise, “whatever is right I will give you.”
And although this is not the main point of this story – (you’ll MISS the whole point if you miss this) – the master of the house went OUT from his vineyard to bring all he found IN. No one is lined up at the gates, begging the master for work. HE WENT OUT and found them – wherever they were – and invited them to come and work for Him – and if He hadn’t, they’d still be “idle.”
Kinda reminds you of another “master of a house,” way back in ‘THE BEGINNING,’ (or is this the same one?) who employed the only man he could find to work His vineyard – to “work it and keep it.”(Gen.2:15) And the man’s wages were ‘all the food he could eat’ AND PARADISE TO BOOT. And no one was ever been happier to have been put to work in the master’s vineyard than was Adam. IT IS NOT GOOD FOR THE MAN TO ‘IDLE.’
Adam and his gorgeous “helper” never even thought the WAGES that they were going to get for working the Master’s garden. Being in the Garden and having the having the opportunity to ‘work for the Master’ was the great reward IN ITSELF. It’s incomprehensible that Adam would have argued with the Master over his wages and whether or not he as getting what he deserved.
Whatever we do in the name of the Lord of the vineyard, from supporting foreign mission work to teaching Sunday School or paying the bills; whether it’s the everyday work of parenting or neighboring or employment or citizenship or praying, or whatever the work that the Master of the Vineyard calls us to do may be, WE SHOULD NEVER THINK ABOUT it as a means to some GREATER END. “I do what I do now so that I’ll get a big, fat bonus later.”
As we’ll see, the ‘big, fat bonus’ is given entirely because of the WORK that has been done in the Master’s Vineyard – but the work of ANOTHER – NOT YOURS.
Isn’t this nice? And it all sounds so good. But then payday comes and the whole thing comes crashing down. “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.’
As strange as is the hiring practices of this employer were, his payment practices are even stranger. Everyone was paid the same. Those who were hired last and only worked for an hour were paid the same as those who were hired in the ninth hour, the sixth hour, the third hour and, those who were hired early in the morning.
And everyone is perfectly satisfied with his pay… Except those who were hired “early in the morning.” “And on receiving their wage, they grumbled at the master of the house saying, ‘these last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…”
Suddenly, all the joy and satisfaction of having been called by the Master to work in His vineyard turns to sour grapes and they complain that it’s not fair. The blessing of having been called “early in the morning” and having the whole day to spend in the Vineyard is lost on them.
What had been such a blessed and joyful privilege suddenly becomes burdensome work under oppressive conditions, “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Oh, this Vineyard sounds like a terrible place have to work. Instead of praise and thanksgiving, they’re ready to file a union grievance.
The master’s generosity and free spirit was all nice enough IN PRINCIPLE. And if it had just remained a principle and nothing more, it would probably still be just fine. But when the principle becomes THE PRACTICE and the master is actually generous to someone in particular, then, it’s not fair.
“But he replied to one of them…” And don’t we just wonder which one of them in particular? “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
There’s a lot of talk about RIGHTS swirling around us these days. “Inalienable rights,” “human rights,” “women’s rights,” civil rights,” “gay rights,” “animal rights,” you name it, everyone demands their rights. But none of these challenge our notion of fairness and justice as when God demands His rights.
And just what right is He claiming for Himself? His right to BE GENEROUS with what is His – AND IT’S ALL HIS. “Or do you begrudge me my generosity?”
“Everything was just fine until I was generous with others. You weren’t bothered that I hired freely, never complained that those late-comers where taking good up paying jobs. It wasn’t until you saw what I gave to them that you grumbled about what I have given to you.”
“Do you begrudge me my generosity?” I pray that you would not – for unless the master is allowed to exercise His right to be generous, we are all doomed. What hope do we have -except that the master is generous with all? Where would we be if we got what we deserved for our labor in the vineyard and the sacrifices we’ve made to follow Him?
It is, in fact, the foolishness of the master’s practices in hiring and paying out the wages that is our only hope.
It is in fact, only because He will not be denied His right to be generous, that we do not despair.
We must always keep in mind just who it is who is telling this parable. Jesus is the master of the house, the owner of the vineyard. HE IS THE GENEROUS ONE. He is allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him. And you belong to Him. He has gone out from His vineyard and found you and ‘called you by the gospel,’ “you go into the vineyard too.” And He has chosen to pay the wages that you are due.
And just what wages are you due? Paul tells us that “The wages of sin is death.” These are the wages that you are due. These are the wages that He has paid to you with His body and His blood – given and shed for you – paid into your hand and into your mouth.
He is the One who has “born the burden of the day” that we call “Good Friday.” He has borne the “scorching heat” of the Father’s wrath for your sin. The Kingdom of Heaven is not about ‘what I DO’ and ‘what I GET.’ It’s about ‘what HE HAS DONE’ and ‘what I GET.’
So, do not begrudge Him His generosity – as foolish as it may be. Come, hold out your hand, and let the “master of the vineyard” pay you the wages He has earned for you. And then go into the Vineyard and do the work He has called you to do with joy and thanksgiving.
This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.