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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before September 21 2014


Matthew 20:1-16

20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, 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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

What I am Learning:

So is the point here how we can be last so that we can game the system and become first in heaven when we die?

But then if you are trying to be last so you can be first, then you are trying to be first but only sandbagging it, so then you will be last. Oh, I give up! Or maybe I should just stay in the safe middle and not get noticed? Sounds a bit like junior high!

But then, the kingdom of heaven is not “in heaven” but rather God’s way of ordering society on earth.

What is Jesus trying to say? For some clues, let’s look at the story.

There was a time when many people in Israel were subsistence farmers who worked small bits of land their families had owned for generations. Much of the economics of the Hebrew Scripture were based on how people on small subsistence farms could live equitably with each other. The Jubilee system, outlined in Leviticus 25, was meant to keep land widely distributed. If you had a few bad years and had to sell your farm, your family would get it back when the 49th year came along.

But the Romans were all about income and wealth inequality. They set up the tax structure to put small farmers in debt (can you hear Monsanto in India here?). In the first 50 years of their rule in Palestine they had foreclosed on most all the farms. What happened to the farmers? They retained their homes, mostly. They were forced to earn wages, usually a denarius per day, by going to the marketplace where managers of the farms they once owned would hire people.

You can imagine the pecking order that would be created in this situation. I am thinking of choosing teams for kickball in school times a billion. You can imagine the bullying that went on by many of the managers. If you became known for maintaining your dignity, you just very well not be chosen. And when you were not chosen your family went hungry yet another day.

There is both an economic theory and a spirituality going on here that is the polar opposite from the God’s way of mutuality. Many have called this economic theory and spirituality “the domination system.” The domination system, or a domination culture is based on the notion that to be human is to be powerful and powerful over others.

Domination culture is like “software” that can drive human beings and human communities.

Jesus tells the story of the day in the marketplace in a very different way, however. Instead of playing favorites and dominance games the manager in Jesus’ story hires everyone. And then he keeps coming to the marketplace and hires people throughout the day and he hires everyone each time, even until 5:00 PM.

Each person receives not payment for the hours they have worked, but have received what it took to care for a family for a day.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Mostly this story is understood by Christians to be about getting into heaven. And usually that interpretation is not all bad. This story seems to indicate that grace is grace – it is not fair and its glory is that it is not fair. Grace is the gift of God’s love given to all who set hand to plough with God.

But this story of Jesus’ is not about heaven. It is about the kingdom of heaven on the earth. It outlines both a spirituality and an economics vastly different from the domination culture of the Roman Empire and our own empire.

This story implies that there is no ranking of status in the kingdom of God. There is no first or last, greatest or least; no pecking order or seating chart. We all get to play kickball. As we say in the Baptismal covenant, we seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as our selves.

This story equally implies that the only economy worth living in is one in which everyone’s needs are met and all people have enough food, clothing and housing.

I think we have spiritualized this story to be about “getting into heaven when we die” because that way we can defer the challenge of the story until we die.

This story challenges our own economic situation in which income and wealth disparity are increasing between the haves and the have-nots, between those of white and brown skin, between the first world and the second and third, between those impacted by global climate change and those with the resources to prepare for it.

As the Psalmist says, “the earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof.” God can give to everyone what is God’s, and everything belongs to God. Any system that so vastly enriches some while others starve is not in line with God’s priorities, is not living out God’s kingdom on earth.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

What if Jesus isn’t just announcing the rules for entrance into heaven, but a way to make heaven real on earth?

What if Jesus is asking us to live grace not only in our spiritual lives, but in our relational lives, community lives, our economic lives?

Of course what could we do about it anyway? The Koch brothers and the vast horde of Roman-style exploiters of human beings can outspend us a billion to one.

But like a mustard seed changes the hillside so God’s way can change the world: one stubborn plant at a time, one seed spread through bird poop at a time.

One of the most insidious things that domination culture teaches us, is that for anything we do to have meaning, it must change everything. Because we know that our actions cannot change everything we despair.

Yes we do.

Fortunately, God does not. God will continue to spread the mustard seed of God’s way of mutuality. God comes to the marketplace and invites us to join God in this work.

God will keep inviting us every day, even until 5:00 PM.

Let’s go to work, remembering that God works before, with and after us.

We may not see the completion of God’s way of mutuality in our lifetimes. But our work toward it is meaningful. “We do not live by bread alone,” Jesus said. A life of meaning, working with God in the fields of the kingdom payment enough.