In Matthew chapter 20, Jesus is journeying from Galilee to Jerusalem. On the way he instructs and prepares his disciples for what lies ahead.
One of the things Jesus talks about a great deal is the Kingdom of Heaven. According to Matthew, Jesus mentions it about 33 times in the Gospel. Indeed, it seems to be the main theme of his ministry. In Matthew, Jesus prefers this term to the Kingdom of God, which is the term used by the other synoptic gospel writers and sometimes by Matthew. The two terms seem to be interchangeable.
In our passage today; Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner, who went out early in the morning to hire day labourers to pick the crop in his vineyard.
He goes out at 6am and chooses a number of workers and agrees with them to pay the usual daily wage of one denarius. It was not much; barely enough to feed a family.
He then goes out later and sees other workers standing idle and tells them also to go the vineyard and he will pay them “whatever is right”.
He does this at various times of the day, including at 5pm when he hires some standing around; to do one hour’s work.
Then at 6pm, he calls in all the workers and tells his manager to pay them, beginning with the last and going through to the first. They each get one denarius. And the workers who started at 6am cry; “not fair.”
The vineyard owner (God) tells them to take what belongs to them and if he chooses to pay the same to the last with his money; what is it to them? Do they begrudge his generosity?
And the passage finishes; “so the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This seems a trifle tough on the first workers.
We can understand their disappointment, that they didn’t experience the same generosity from the land owner as the last workers.
But it does seem to illustrate the point that there are surprises a plenty in the Kingdom of Heaven.
No one has any particular reservation or priority in the Kingdom of Heaven.
No one has any particular status because they are rich and powerful.
Nor for belonging to any particular tribe or race.
Nor is there any particular benefit or customer loyalty system for long service.
It does seem the case that we should be pleased we received an invitation at all to the vineyard and be grateful for it.
Don’t expect to have a privileged position.
The previous chapter in Matthew, chapter 19 ends with the same phrase. The rich younger ruler goes away sadly when told he should consider selling his possessions and giving it to the poor. Peter then asks to the effect,
“well what’s in it for us?” Plenty says Jesus. But always remember, “many who are first will be last and the last will be be first.” So this does seem one important attribute of the Kingdom of Heaven.
What are some of the other attributes?
There are many and varied descriptions by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit (5:3).
We are to strive for it and we will receive all other things as well (6:33).
Not everyone who calls out “Lord, Lord” will enter it, but only those who do God’s will (7:21).
Many will come from east and west to eat in the Kingdom of Heaven, whilst the original heirs may be excluded (8:11).
It is for those who actually carry out the work of the Kingdom and are ambassadors for it and proclaim the message that it has come near.” (10:7).
It is like a tiny mustard seed that produces a great tree (13:31); and like a little yeast that leavens the whole flour (13:33) and like one pearl of great value that a merchant sells everything he owns to buy (13:44).
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who shows great mercy to a slave and cancels his great debt, but also expects that slave to show the same mercy to people who owe him much lesser sums (18:23).
It belongs to children (19:14) who are in fact the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven and we are advised that unless we change and become like them, we will never enter it. (18:2).
It belongs to those who go to work in the vineyard; not those who say they will but don’t actually do it.
And tax collectors and prostitutes will apparently enter it ahead of chief priests and elders (21:30).
It belongs to those both good and bad who turn up at the wedding, not to those invited but who don’t show up. But you have to be wearing the right robe. Because many are called but few are chosen (22:11).
The greatest ones in the Kingdom of Heaven are those who are like servants and those who humble themselves. (23:11).
It is made for those who are well prepared and bring oil along with their lamps to the wedding (25:1)and for those who put their talents to good use and are not afraid to use them (25:14).
And finally it is for those who provide practical love and care to those in need and who are considered by society as the least (25:31).
There are many other descriptions.
So this is a lot to consider; what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, what it means to us and how we should respond to it.
It seems it is many things to many different persons.
It is perhaps a different way to live and think and act and to be.
It is a call to all people to enter into a new experience.
It is a call to enter into the one who makes all life whole.
Let us pray:
Dear Mother God.
We thank you for the rich meaning we find in so many passages of the bible.
Such wisdom and treasure is in it.
It helps us in so many ways, as to how we should think and feel and what we should strive for.
We pray for our community in these difficult times and for those particularly who are experiencing pain and loneliness.
We also thank you that for many, it is also a time of reflection and meaning and helps us simplify our lives.
We hope that we can take forward some of the positive lessons we have learnt from this crisis and it helps strengthen our community connections and ways in which we can help and care for each other.
We know so many of the lessons of the Kingdom of Heaven are how we should try to live here today, whilst we are on earth.
And if we do so, we know we can face any challenge with courage and confidence.
We pray we can live with gratitude and love and without fear.