Inclusion in the kingdom

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 20:1-16

For the kingdom of heaven is like…” The fact that Jesus opens with that little word “for” alerts us to the fact that he’s midway through making a point; in this case, that he’s about to illustrate something that he’s been trying to hammer into the thick heads of his disciples.

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This parable is preceded by Jesus’ famous saying that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”—not impossible, though, because “for God all things are possible”. To this Peter has piped up with what sounds like a rather whiny question: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” C’mon, Jesus, there’s got to be something in this for us, right? To this Jesus replies that yes, there is certainly something in this for Peter and the rest of them; eternal life. “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” But. Again and again, in Jesus’ teaching so much turns on these little words. Jesus continues, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.”

You heard how it unfolds from there. There’s apparently quite a harvest to be gathered, so the landowner goes out at nine o’clock to find more workers, saying to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” Fair wages for your work. Yet there are evidently more grapes than these two crews can handle, and so the landowner is out again at noon and at three o’clock to hire even more. The parable pushes the absurd when Jesus has the landowner going out yet again at five o’clock. “The landowner said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’” And here as Jesus tells his story, the disciples might well be thinking to themselves that no on has hired them because they are of the sort that no one wants to hire. You’ve got your established labour crew that you can count on, you’ve got your second stringers who will do a credible job in a pinch, and then you’ve got this bunch. Still hanging around the street corner at five o’clock… think of them as being the squeegee kids of the ancient world. “He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’”

“When 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.” Not an hourly wage for the hour they put in, but a full day’s pay, which gets those who have worked all day long doing some calculations as they stood in their places at the back of the line. If he paid them a denarius for just an hour, we’re in for some serious money… we’ve been here for over ten hours, and look at all of the grapes! But—there’s one of those little words again—“but each of them also received the usual daily wage.”

And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “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.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Yes, actually, they are. And that’s the point Jesus wants to bang into Peter’s head, when he’d said, “What then will we have?” Well Peter, just as the landowner had promised that he “will pay whatever is right,” I am saying to you that God will not cheat you or short change you. Yet in the strange economy of God’s kingdom, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” You’re certainly a part of it, Peter, but don’t be surprised to be sitting down at the heavenly banquet with a squeegee kid on your left and a crack-addicted prostitute on your right.

But we gave up so much to follow you—we worked so hard in your vineyard, resisted so many temptations, walked such a righteous path—and now I have to sit beside her? Yes Peter, you do. And you should feel honored to be in her company, and with me to extend to her the kind of hospitality she never knew in the course of her lifetime. For the first time in decades, her hunger for crack is gone; for the first time in years she can hold her head up; perhaps for the first time in her life she’ll be able to look a man in the eyes—look you in the eyes, Peter—and not feel herself to be only a sexual commodity. Why wouldn’t you want to sit at table with her, Peter?

Though the parable is told to Peter and the other disciples, they’re clearly not the only ones who have struggled with the wideness of God’s mercy; they’re not the last ones who felt envy over the generosity of God. The parable is directed through the disciples and into the early church as it struggled to sort out the wildness of grace and the scandal of inclusion—Gentiles, slaves, and women with the same status as landholding Jewish men?—and then through the early church to us.

If we imagine for a moment that inclusion in the kingdom of heaven is by virtue of our virtuousness—our good behaviour and proper prayers—then this parable should get right under our skin, because it says that those un-virtuous and badly behaved people we so easily disdain are as much beloved by God as are we. And sometimes good Christian people find that embedded in our disdain is a sense that those people are living it up, indulging whatever appetites they want, being serious hard party people. I’m resisting those temptations… does Jesus seem to suggest that they get what amounts to a free pass?

You know those places in Paul’s epistles where he warns against licentiousness, debauchery, drunkenness, and so forth? Where he can sometimes sound like he’s giving moral instruction or setting out rules of pious good behaviour? As if he’s saying you must resist those alluring and strangely attractive sins in order to be a part of Christ’s body? Paul isn’t pious or moralistic in that sense. What he’s flagging is the illusion that says such things make for a great life.

I have an acquaintance from my former parish, who’d been the consummate party animal. He held down a decent job with good pay, but as soon as the work day was over it was off to the bar, where he’d often stay until closing time. One night he staggered out of the bar, straight off the curb and onto the street, where he was hit by a car and almost killed. He spent several months in the hospital… and boy did he like those painkillers. After he was released, he decided that if prescription narcotics had been good, then street drugs would be better. He discovered cocaine, and then graduated to crack. Managed to loose his wife and child in that process, but he just kept going. A real party guy.

Until one day he was so deeply in debt to his dealer that a couple of bikers arrived at his house to collect what he owed. They beat him up, locked him in a closet, returned about eight hours later, and beat him up again. Now pay us. That one cost him his heavily mortgaged house, but it also pushed him out of his illusion. He arrived at the church door, explained that he’d grown up in that congregation, told me he was going into rehab the next day, and asked if he could sit in the church for a while. Twenty-eight days of rehab leading into 100 straight days of Cocaine Anonymous meetings, leading into years and years of regular 12 step meetings… and the illusion that his old life had been the high life was gone. I can hardly describe the delight he came to take in the day to day of life; life in a vineyard he’d managed to stumble back into at five o’clock in the afternoon.

This past Monday I visited with someone at a drug detox centre; someone who, on and off over the years, has kept company with us here at saint ben’s. It would be fair to say that this person has even joined in as we worked the vineyard, and has had real glimpses of the truth that the work is actually pretty good. This landowner doesn’t drive us too hard, doesn’t begrudge us popping the occasional grape into our mouths as we work, and puts on a heck of a good lunch, complete with a glass of wine. And we know that this vineyard owner is bottling all of that wine precisely to serve to all of us at the banquet that is the Supper of the Lamb. From time to time this person has shared in that with us, and loves it all.

Yet what I heard in that detox centre was a story of deep brokenness, terrible missteps, and the all but demonic grip of crack cocaine, crystal meth, and easy money. So powerful is that grip that this person has found it impossible not to slip away from the vineyard and into backstreets filled with similarly broken people. The grip is that tight. Maybe this time, though. Maybe this time will be different.

I’ve learned that those five o’clock in the afternoon people are people with stories that should not be envied. And I think I’ve begun to learn that I should be honoured at the very prospect of keeping company with the banquet that is Christ’s kingdom.

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