THE KINGDOM OF GOD
15th Sunday after Trinity – Proper 20 in the Church Lectionary
This parable could be a good trade-unionists excuse for never attending church again. A person who only works for a short time gets the same pay as someone who toiled for ages. How can that be? Well the wages are The kingdom of God, and how can we be gifted only partial admission to God's kingdom? Surely we are either of the kingdom or we are not. Many years ago when I was a curate I decided to join a health club (no giggling I was very fit at the time and ran several miles a day), you know, one of those add-ons to a hotel with a swimming pool. The problem was that full membership was very expensive and beyond a curates salary, so I opted for an off-peak membership, which if my memory is correct was Monday till Friday each week from 9.00a.m. until 4.00pm, which was about half price. It sounded really good and I worked out that I only needed to go three times a week and it was cheaper than paying to go to the local municipal swimming pool. The problem was that each visit took about two hours and finding six hours a week was just about impossible in my busy schedule, so after a few months I didn't renew my subscription.
Medieval theology taught of the possibility of purgatory, or in their eyes certainty, where following our death we could earn our way to heaven from this half-way-house between hell and heaven, a place of purification. The medieval church also saw it as a nice little earner in that you could buy indulgences which were supposedly signed by the Pope which remitted certain time from purgatory. The Protestant Reformation saw purgatory as an invention which was not biblically based, but the Roman Catholic Church still holds to it and backs it up with some biblical texts that show that from even Old Testament times people have prayed for the souls of the dead, that they might be purified of their worldly sin. I suppose in my humble limited theology, I think that we earn our closeness to God and his Kingdom in this life, but I do believe that God wants us all to be with him, and I think that a God of total love cannot give his grace a cut-of point.
This parable is not really about workers, but is about the infinite generosity of God. Matthew probably adds it here in his Gospel to counteract the criticism he was getting from the Pharisees, for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He wanted to make the point that we don't just earn our passage to his kingdom though our pious acts, but through grace. The kingdom of God is not necessarily a place, but is the reign of God. One of my favourite hymns is “The kingdom of God” by Bryn A. Rees. You will probably remember it and it best sung to the tune “Hanover”. It is a great theological hymn so I have printed the words for you.
The kingdom of God
is justice and joy;
for Jesus restores
what sin would destroy.
God's power and glory
in Jesus we know
and here and hereafter
the kingdom shall grow.
The kingdom of God
is mercy and grace;
the captives are freed,
the sinners find place,
the outcast are welcomed
God's banquet to share;
and hope is awakened
in place of despair.
The kingdom of God
is challenge and choice:
believe the good news,
repent and rejoice!
His love for us sinners
brought Christ to his cross:
our crisis of judgement
for gain or for loss.
God's kingdom is come,
the gift and the goal;
in Jesus begun,
in heaven made whole.
The heirs of the kingdom
shall answer his call
and all things cry 'Glory!'
to God all in all.
Jesus displayed God's love and generosity even when he was dying on the cross, when one of the criminals who was crucified next to him said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom” to which he received the reply, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.
A problem we all have is letting God be God, and because we have tried to be good Christians we think that we should be at the front of the queue for his generosity, which brings to mind a story.
A priest and a bus driver both go to Heaven at the same time. St. Peter shows the bus driver his house, which is three houses away from God.
During this time, the priest is thinking to himself, "Since I'm a priest I should be right next to God!"
Then St. Peter turns towards the priest and beckons him to follow. The priest follows for three miles when they finally come to a house. St. Peter tells the priest that this is his house.
The priest looks horrified and says to St. Peter, "I don't understand! The bus driver is really close to God and I'm a priest! That doesn't make sense!
St. Peter replies, "Oh, that's easy to explain. When you preach, people sleep. When the bus driver drives, people pray."
The incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus all display messiahship, which was predicted in the Old Testament. The Messiah was to institute the reign of God. The Jews always referred back to their good king David, who was their great leader who they saw was anointed by God, and it was important for the early church to reinforce the fact that Jesus came from the line of David. They had had so many bad kings over their history, so it was important for them to know that their Messiah would bring about a reign that was a true Godly kingship.
The New Testament describes the ministry of Jesus, the Christ, sometimes in differing ways, but always as the coming of the reign of God. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are very keen to reflect upon Jesus' words “then they will see the the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”(Mark 13: 24-27). The second coming of Christ was greatly anticipated by the early church and St. Paul's negative attitude to marriage was probably because he couldn't see the point, if we were all imminently going to be raised up with Christ. St. John in his Gospel and in his Revelation instead stresses the present return of Jesus in the Spirit as a personal experience (John 14: 16-22).
So keep the faith, try your hardest to be the sort of person that reflects God's reign now, and when you die be confident of His grace to welcome you to the kingdom of heaven.
And one final story to end with.
An atheist is fishing in a boat on Loch Ness when all of the sudden, the Loch Ness Monster comes up and begins thrashing his boat around. The monster tosses him into the air. On his way down he shouts "God, help me!"
Everything stops. He is mere feet from the monster's mouth. Then a loud booming voice comes from the heavens and asks: "You have not followed me for your entire life and have discouraged those who did. Why should I help you now?"
The atheist thinks for a moment before saying:
"Look, five minutes ago, I didn't believe in the Loch Ness Monster either."
Keep the faith.