Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto
Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 145.1-8, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
“…they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Mt 20.11-12)
Back before Covid, when we could fly to wherever we wanted to go (weren’t those the days), there was always that moment of boarding the plane where we were reminded of how society works. There was a pecking order of boarding, depending on whether passengers were Super Elite, Elite, First Class but Still Better than You, and then Everyone Else. If you boarded last, you had to make your way through the luxury section where the various Elites were sipping their first champagne, through the curtain and to the back where Everyone Else were crammed together. That’s just how boarding works because airlines reflect society and its levels of status and wealth.
Imagine though what would happen if one of the Elites looked behind the curtain and saw that everyone else on the airplane also had hot towels, and super comfy seats, and champagne, because the CEO of the airline wanted to give them the same comforts, even though the Economy passengers couldn’t afford them? And what if, when the Elite passenger complained that he’d worked hard to be able to afford his Elite ticket, the CEO smiled and said, “Sir, you got your comforts, as per the agreed fare, but it’s my airline, and I can do what I want with it.” Would that passenger have a right to complain, and even sue the airline? Perhaps, according to the rules of the world, he might have a good case, but probably not according to the laws of the kingdom of heaven.
When Jesus begins a parable with “the kingdom of heaven is like”, he’s alerting us to a story that reflects how God sees things as God wants them to be, rather than how things actually are on earth. The parables offer us a vision of what we might call the Economy of Heaven, God’s value system. Just as my parable of the airplane does not match how airlines actually work in the economy of human society with its tiers of wealth and privilege, the Parable of the Vineyard does not match with how work and its rewards are distributed in the Economy of Earth according to how humans rationalize inequality. Just as the Elite passengers might think that they have earned and fairly paid for their luxury flight, , the workers in Jesus’ parable, think that their hard work entitles them to more wages than those hired at the last hour. Are the workers entitled to grumble to the Landowner? Do they have a case?
Yes, according to the Economy of Earth, which teaches that hard work should have rewards while ignoring scarcities of work. The Landowner brings in people that no one else has hired, because there’s not enough work to go around, but for the workers who grumble, the unemployment of others is not their problem. Their point of view only encompasses their own interests within a limited view of fairness as what’s right for them. The Landowner’s point of view encompasses the unemployed labourers in the market and sees them as having equal value
We can see how the Economy of Heaven plays out not just in the seemingly perverse incentive of the landowner’s pay scale, but also in his almost manic activity in hiring workers. After the workday starts, he makes four additional hiring trips. Why? We aren’t told anything about need, that the job was too big for the original workers. His determination to hire as many workers as possible reminds me of another Matthean parable, of the king who insists that his wedding banquet be filled with guests (Mt 22.1-13). Other parables, like the lost sheep (Mt 18.12-14) or the lost coin (Lk 15.8-10) convey the same idea that the kingdom of God doesn’t leave anything behind if it can be found or rescued.
The economy of the Kingdom of Heaven is also revealed in the spendthrift quality of the landowner’s wage policy (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Mt 18.15). If we ask why the landowner chooses to throw his money away, we might as well also ask why the king in last Sunday’s parable forgave a debt of ten thousand talents (Mt 18.27) or why the Prodigal’s Father in Luke throws a lavish party to welcome home his ne’er do well son (Lk 15). The gospels teach us that it pleases God to give, and that when it comes to grace, love and forgiveness, here is no scarcity or austerity in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
As we better understand the Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, it becomes harder to understand the human systems of rewards and incentives, of merit and equity, that I tried to illustrate in my parable of the airplane. Those systems of thinking only lead to reward for some and scarcity for many others, as seen yesterday when the United Nations food chief called on the world’s two thousand billionaires, with a net worth of eight trillion dollars, to help save thirty million people worldwide from starvation. The fact that such imbalances exist in our world show how far removed God’s economics are from human values. We, as baptized citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, should be scandalized that such injustices exist.
At the same time, we need to take care that we are not scandalized by God’s extravagant love and grace in our own faith lives. Human ideas about fairness and rewards can easily migrate into our systems of religious belief, especially if when we allegorize today’s parable we put ourselves into the shoes of those who laboured all day in the vineyard. Like them, or like the virtuous brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we might turn to God and say, you’re forgiving THEM when WE’VE worked so hard for you?
There has always been a school of thought that the economy of heaven should reward good behaviour, strong faith, keeping the commandments, good church attendance, and so on. In the gospels, the Pharisees, who clearly saw themselves at the top of the spiritual economy, condemned Jesus for hanging out with sinners. The Reformation was fought, in part, over the question of whether we could buy our way into heaven with good works and donations. Today’s prosperity gospel is a new take on an old idea that the righteous can be recognized by their above average lifestyles. The idea that God might also love sinners, hypocrites, backsliders, and atheists is always a potential scandal to the faithful.
I talked earlier of the Landowner’s perverse wage and incentive system. If God is determined to rescue and reward as many of us as possible, then is there still an incentive for us to live a godly life? St. Paul answered this question in Romans when he wrote “Why, when God has rescued us, would we spend another minute in our old lives?”. (Rom 6.1-4). In other words, we don’t live a godly life in expectation of reward, but rather because the godly life is the reward.
In our second lesson, Paul encourages the Christians in Philippi to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”, but he doesn’t tell them to live a life of toil and misery so that someday God will reward them. Instead he tells them that they already have their reward, which is “joy in faith” (Phil 1.25). If “joy in faith” means knowing that we are loved by God, and that our lives have design and purpose, why would we not want to share that blessing with anyone who walks through our doors and wants to join us, however late in the day it is? Why would we, who have been forgiven so much and welcomed so warmly, begrudge others their own place in God’s banquet hall?
The fact is that when God looks at us, God does not think of us as Super Elite, Elite, First Class, Economy, or worse. God only sees God’s children, all loved, all valued, and desperately wanted. On God’s airplane, we all fly Super Elite. Which leaves us with the question – if all are valued in the kingdom of heaven, why is it not so on earth as well?