Last week, we began talking about how Jesus was a nonconformist who colored outside the lines of the world and even the religious traditions of Israel. Jesus called people away from the construct of worldly living that was and remains governed by sin. Jesus called people away from hollow religious traditions that served only their interests and distorted the image of God. And for those who heeded Jesus call to follow him, Jesus granted forgiveness of all sins giving them a clean slate before God and a new life in the kingdom of God.
The kingdom into which Jesus called people and continues to call his followers is unlike any other kingdom that there ever was or ever will be. In worldly thinking, a kingdom is about privilege, power, and prestige. A worldly kingdom is about royalty and class, opulence and finery, and it is about being served and being first. Jesus was colored outside the lines of worldly thinking and came to paint a bright and new picture of the so the kingdom of God that the people then and now simply did not know.
We cannot know what we do not know unless someone first acquaints what we do not know to something we do know. In every culture, we most often come to know what we do not know through the power of story. As a child, our parents, siblings, and teachers shared simple stories with us that we could understand in the hopes that we would learn a broad message about something we did not know.
The ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, is famous for teaching morality through short fables. Aesop once wrote a fable about a dog to teach a very human lesson. Aesop said, “A dog was carrying a piece of meat in his mouth to eat it in peace at home. On his way he had to cross a plank across a brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own reflection in the water. Thinking it was another dog with another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that piece of meat also. So, he made a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth the piece of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was lost.” The moral of Aesop’s story was that we need to curb our foolish human desire for more and be content with what we have in hand.
Stories have such power. Jesus likewise taught about the kingdom of God using stories, parables. We read today from the Gospel of Matthew a parable about the kingdom and how the kingdom of God was very much different from any earthly kingdom.
Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.” The story began with a landowner hiring day laborers. The custom in Jesus day was that laborers worked from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM. A common wage for a day’s work was one denarius, an amount of money needed to buy food for one day. The workers and the landowners agreed that the wage for the work was fair.
3 “About nine in the morning he [the landowner] went out and saw others [people] standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He [The landowner] told them [those people], ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they [the workers] went.” More workers now join the first set of workers in the field but no specific agreement on the compensation set except that the landowner agreed to do what is right.
“He [the landowner] went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon [at the eleventh hour of the day] he [the landowner] went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7 ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’” We now have five different groups of people who began working in the same vineyard doing the same work at 6:00 AM, 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.
8 “When evening [6:00 PM] came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired [those hired at 5:00 PM] and going on to the first [those hired at 6:00 AM].’ 9 The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius [a day’s wage]. 10 So when those came who were hired first [6:00 AM], they expected to receive more [than one denarius]. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it [the denarius], they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’”
What is going on here? We are seeing this parable through the lens of the first workers hired and the landowner. The first workers have toiled the entire day and saw workers who worked a little as one hour receive a day’s pay. The workers who came at 6:00 AM see equal compensation of all workers as grossly unfair. If the pay for one hour’s work was one denarius, why then isn’t the pay for 12 hours work be 12 denarii, not one as well? Jesus’ story was pointing out the way we think when we think in worldly terms. Jesus knew this was something his disciples understood. This was the known in the story.
From what was known, Jesus needed to teach his disciples about the unknown, the kingdom of God. “13 But he [the landowner] answered one of them [disgruntled workers], ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”
We learn much we did not know about the kingdom of God in these words when we come to see the landowner as representing God. In this story, God called those who were first available to come and follow him. In exchange for immediately coming into his vineyard, into his estate, God made a promise. What is God’s promise? The Gospel of John said it so eloquently, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God promised eternal life. In the story, when the day was done, those who first answered landowner’s call to enter his estate received what had been promised. In our life story, when our day is done, we who have answered God’s call to enter his estate will receive what God has promised, eternal life. In God’s kingdom, we now know that promises made to us are kept.
But in our story, there was a conflict because others were hired after the first workers, and they received the same as had been promised to the first. In the story, the first workers grumbled. In response, the landowner began his conversation not as boss speaking to a worker, but the landowner began his response to the complainers by calling them “friend.” The parable teaches us that when we enter the kingdom of God, we are not just some unknown entities or nameless, faceless workers. Not at all. Instead, we become a friend to the owner of the estate, God. In God’s kingdom we now know that we are valued and known to God, even when we are grumbling at Him. In earthly kingdoms, very few people are known to the king. In the kingdom of God, all are known to God and called friend.
To be known as a friend of God is shocking and something people had not contemplated in Jesus’ day and I am not sure how many people think about today. And yet now knowing that, we are still left with the conflict that landowner, God, gave the same reward to each worker, including those who entered the estate at the eleventh hour. From this we come to know that in the kingdom of God, all who enter the estate receive the same generous and extraordinary gift of eternal life regardless of the time or circumstances upon which they entered God’s estate. We learn that God is generous and gracious to everyone who answers his call, and rather than grumbling with envy about the prize others have received we should find joy in God’s generosity. Because of God’s generous nature, we are to never give up praying that those who have not entered God’s estate would do so, even at the eleventh hour of their life.
Jesus was coloring outside the lines and creating a picture of a new kind of kingdom. It was not a kingdom of opulence but of simplicity and humble labors. It was not a kingdom of favorites but a kingdom of friends with equal standing. It was not a kingdom of whims from the powerful that they disregarded at any moment but a kingdom of promises made and kept. It was not a kingdom of stinginess but a kingdom of generosity. The kingdom Jesus was coloring, the kingdom desired on earth as it in in heaven, was a very different kingdom than the people knew.
To accentuate the extreme differences between the kingdom of God that Jesus wanted people to know from the kingdoms of earth they knew, Jesus concluded the parable with one final sentence, that can be perplexing. Jesus said, “16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Now that is really coloring outside the lines. What on earth, or better said, what in heaven was Jesus talking about?
“16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Jesus had said such things before. In Matthew, Chapter 19, verse 30, Jesus said, “30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Also, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught that we must not be so concerned with the things of the earthly kingdom such as clothing, food, and wines. Jesus said, 32a The pagans [Non-believers] run after all these things.. 33 But [you should] seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness...” Jesus was again coloring outside the lines of earthly thought and beliefs to encourage people to choose a kingdom so different in God. It would seem that Jesus was saying, “Yes, in choosing God you will perhaps be last in world’s book of ‘Who’s Who,’ or will be last in to have your life chronicled in on the television program, ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ but you will be among the first in God’s eyes for you will be His friend. “16 So the last (the humble) will be first, and the first (proud) will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
But there may be more to Jesus’ expression. One time Jesus spoke with the very religious people of the day, the Pharisees. They were faithful to their religious beliefs and genuinely thought they were doing what God wanted. Jesus told the Pharisees another story. Jesus said, “28 ‘What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did what his father wanted?’ ‘The first,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him’” (Matthew 21:28-32).
Jesus was pointing out that religious practices no matter how faithfully performed are a substitute for a repentant heart. Being religious is the way of the world. Being repentant and accepting Christ is the only way to enter the kingdom of God. We may do things to make ourselves look to be at the head of the line of religious traditions but the prostitutes who give their lives to Jesus will be entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of us. “16 So the last (repentant) will be first, and the first (religious) will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
But there may be still more to Jesus’ expression. One time Jesus was with his disciples, men who had given everything to be with Jesus. While together, “46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:46-48).
Even those who have accepted Jesus, who have been repentant, must use care that they do not become self-absorbed believing their works merit privilege. When we start believing in privilege for our Christian service, we begin losing our desire for friendship with Jesus. Most friendships do not end with a bang but with a whimper. Just as we can slowly drift out of earthly friendship, we can drift out of love for the Lord. We can give up in the joy of our redemption as pride in our Christian service rises. When we do that, we move our standing before the Lord as we distance ourselves from Him. And “16 So the last (faithful servant) will be first, and the first (the proud leader) will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
Jesus came to keep God’s promises of redemption and freedom from sin. Such redemption was not to come through works or religious practices. Redemption would come by wiping the slate clean and learning to draw a bold and exciting picture of a new and unknown kingdom of God. In that kingdom, we would be called friends and the promise of eternal life would be kept for all who would enter God’s holy estate. When we as we live in the worldly kingdoms and act as though we are living in the kingdom of God, we are coloring outside the lines like Jesus. When we forgive, when we treat people equally even when others expect more from us, some will grumble against us in envy of our generosity. We must remain firm in our faith and live out that new life in the kingdom of God.
We need to ask ourselves, “What is my standing today? Am I first in line within the kingdom or the world or religious tradition or am I last in those lines? Have I repented and enter God’s kingdom or am I still standing in the marketplace doing nothing?” Where we stand has eternal significance. Let’s not leave it to chance. Amen and Amen.