What happens when the King comes?
Jesus came to establish God’s Kingdom, and as he did so, he proclaimed what that Kingdom is like through using multi-layered stories that were designed to shock his listeners. He said, “You want to know what the God’s Kingdom is like? Well, let me tell you a story…” Each parable was a window onto the nature of God’s Kingdom. Take, for example, the parable found in Matthew 20:1-16. It is the story of a landowner that hires people to work in his vineyard. The landowner hires workers throughout the day and the last workers are hired at 5pm in the afternoon! Yet, at the end of the day they all receive the same pay. The workers that worked all day are furious and the landowner asks, “Didn’t you agree to work for the same pay? Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I’m generous?”
The parable is primarily about grace and is a lesson about God’s economy. You see, human economy — the way of humans — is that we get rewarded based on merit. Our society is based on behaviour and reward. If you work hard at school then you get the reward of your exam grades. People get what they deserve. If you eat all your vegetables then you can have dessert! However, God’s economy is different. In God’s economy we are rewarded with the gift of ‘life in all its fullness’ and it is not based on what we do, on how hard we work, or how long we work. We cannot earn God’s favour and yet we often try and apply our human economy to God’s economy. Back when Jesus was teaching, a group of religious leaders, called the Pharisees, were doing the same thing. They told people that if they were holy enough then God’s kingdom would come, however, Jesus turned this idea on its head and extended God’s grace to everyone, making a point of including those who were marginalised, lost, and undeserving.
In the story, the attitude of the vineyard workers was that they grumbled and had, what is termed, ‘the evil eye.’ That is a Greek idiom that means to be jealous, and from an earthy perspective they had every right to be, however, the vineyard owner gently admonishes those workers, highlighting their bad attitude with a set of rhetorical questions. The landowner represents God and the questions shine a light on wrong attitudes and wrong behaviour because God is free to do as God chooses and God is generous to all. Faced with the grace of God, we who in the story are represented by the vineyard workers, should not be envious, but thankful that we are welcomed into God’s kingdom and rejoice in God’s generosity.
In the Gospel accounts Jesus often wrangled with the Pharisees who seem obsessed with who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’, however, as Jesus later points out, “the first will be last and the last will be first.” Jesus said that the drunks, the prostitutes, the criminals, the poor, the broken, and the marginalised — those considered as underserving by society — they would be first. No wonder it made the Pharisees mad!
Well, this parable got me thinking. If our church is to model God’s kingdom then take, for example, our Sunday worship. Do we want toddlers screaming at the back? Do we want scruffy, homeless people coming in the door? Do we want same sex couples sitting in the pews together? Do we want people with criminal records on our welcome team? By God, yes we do!
What if we shaped our worship, our gatherings, and our meetings, to make them accessible for ‘the last and the least’ or those that have suffered or been marginalised by society? What if we modelled the Kingdom economy — extended grace — and shaped ourselves for the undeserving? What if the church existed not for its members but for its non-members?
If we relate this story to our churches then we are the faithful. We are the labourers who have worked in the vineyard for the whole day, and the vineyard owner thinks we are precious and has needed us! We are vital to the mission and ministry of God in this place and at this time. The vines would not have been picked without the workers that were there all day and in the same way our churches would not be here without the faithful, hard work, time, money, labour, commitment, and sweat of generations of Christians.
Of course, our churches ensure its members are all loved, supported, maintained, and spiritually fed — but we are also called to extend God’s grace to a hurting world. Will we, like the vineyard workers that had laboured all day, grumble and have the ‘evil eye’, or will we be thankful that we are part of God’s family and rejoice that God and the church are welcoming and extending God’s grace to the undeserving — the poor, the broken, the marginalised, and the messed up? Will we have an earthy perspective or a heavenly perspective? Will we endorse a human economy or God’s economy?
Let me leave you with the lyrics of this song:
Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavour
But by the blood of the Lamb
Into Your presence You call us,
You call us to come
Into Your presence You draw us
And now by Your grace we come
Now by Your grace we come