Gospel: Matthew 20: 1-16
Inspiration for this sermon came from Stanley Saunders’ commentary on Working Preacher.
Jesus does NOT start telling this parable by saying, “God is like a wealthy landowner.” So why do we insist that the wealthy, capricious landowner, wielding power and money arbitrarily, represents God? We make the point of this parable: “God’s ways are not your ways, it’s not going to be like the justice you recognize.” That feels like the deeply unsatisfying ending of Job to me. I don’t accept it. The worst part is that when we associate God with the rich and powerful, it sometimes unconsciously slips into a reversal: the rich and powerful are like God. They can do whatever they want, they are above judgment, and the rest of us have to scramble to figure out how we’re going to react. No. This is why I’m glad Jesus doesn’t compare a wealthy landowner to God. He doesn’t say, God is like the unfair boss.
What he actually says is, “the kingdom of heaven is like this.” I’m going to interpret “this” as the whole parable. Again, we all have our go-to meanings for the “kingdom of heaven.” For some reason mine is usually that everything is as it should be. Everything is fixed, just, fair and therefore happy. But there are no gymnastics of interpretation that can get that picture of the “kingdom of heaven” out of this parable. Instead, the kingdom of heaven is like this: unfair things happen all the time. There will always, always be rich or powerful people pulling the strings. Sometimes, it may be us, and we need to check ourselves, on how we are wielding our privilege. Other times, when we find ourselves in those hordes of workers who are not getting a fair deal, the good news is that although we cannot control how those in charge act, we can control our own reactions. We can divide over jealousy and fight over favor. Or we can decide that is not how our story is going to go. That’s what I got out of Martin Luther’s treatise “Freedom of Christian,” written a couple years into the Reformation. We are free to choose, to serve our neighbors. We are not enslaved by our selfishness or fear of working or buying our way into heaven. We are free to take on this better, more godly burden, of living not for ourselves, but for others.
So, how do we want our story to go, then? One detail of the parable eggs me on here: A denarius was worth enough for a laborer to feed their family for a day. One day. It’s hardly a living wage. Not enough for housing, or any other necessities. The landowner is sowing division between the workers by paying them the same for different loads of work. We never question his right to do whatever he wants with his money (the landowner calls himself generous), but what he is paying any of them is not enough to survive, much less thrive. The kingdom of heaven is like this?
I believe we live in this “kingdom of heaven” right now.
The kingdom of heaven is like a story that provokes a reaction. It is like the experience of hearing this parable! We must struggle with who we know God to be, questioning where others would put God in stories of power and justice. Followers of Jesus should never be comfortable watching the rich and powerful “benevolently” doling out their own form of justice. We should certainly not be equating them with God. Especially if we realize we are the ones who could be described as the rich landowner in a given scenario. We must view everything through our theology, who we know God to be because of Jesus. We are compelled to do justice with our actions and with our words, especially by debunking the false justice and false descriptions of God we hear around us. Some of us will do that by protesting in the streets. Others will do it through teaching, writing, creating art or caring for the vulnerable. Others will have difficult conversations with those whom we love, about money and justice. We will call our congregations and our national denomination to account when we hear resources being equated with God’s favor.
The prosperity Gospel leads to injustice. The “prosperity Gospel” is basically that wealth indicates God’s favor, and that if you please God, you will be materially blessed. The prosperity gospel allows the rich to get richer, and the rest to fight over scraps because that is all they deserve. It can end up in: “everything happens for a reason” theology too, where those who died in the earthquake in Mexico this week must have done something wrong. That’s not how the God I know acts. I rebuke that theology. A prosperity gospel doesn’t want the cross, just the empty tomb. And you cannot get to resurrection without death first.
But where is God in this parable, if not in the seat of privilege doling out wages according to God’s own whim, sewing discord among the workers? God is in the flesh with the workers who would be turned against each other, ready to take the abuse of those who are frustrated with the powerful constantly assert their right to manipulate and arbitrarily steal their dignity. Jesus was in line for his measly denarius, with all the other day laborers. He freely chooses to suffer with his fellow workers in the vineyard. We choose the same. And the kingdom of heaven is here when we make that choice.
Don’t forget, God is also the one telling us this unsettling parable to stir up our spirits until we say, “Something’s off with that interpretation.” Jesus’ audience are disciples who have already argued about their positions and been told repeatedly: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And its going to get worse than that. The “firstborn child of God” will become so very last that he will be criminalized and executed, abandoned by all including a seemingly absent God. Will Jesus’ disciples still hope God will swoop down and fix things then, or will they (we) finally recognize that the kingdom of heaven is in the middle of greed and suffering and injustice, where God is responding IN PERSON to all that is not right with the world, and never will be until the very last day?
The kingdom of heaven is already breaking in among us, but not yet deciding everything for us. We have choices to make, theology to digest and then to speak aloud. Your God is not like a wealthy landowner? Tell me more about your God.
Preached at Zion, S. Mpls