What does the kingdom of heaven on earth look like to us, in our times?
I was coming down the steps on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge this week, having crossed the bridge from the district line on the north side, on my way to work in the early morning, when I encountered a heart-warming conversation. At the bottom of the steps is usually a Big Issue seller and for many weeks in lockdown he had not been there and for many weeks neither had been his regular customers. A lady walking past was clearly a regular and stopped to greet him and gave him an extremely generous amount of money in notes that amazed him and he protested that she was giving him far too much. ‘It makes up for all the weeks of lockdown when I haven’t been here and you have not been able to be here selling either’. An act of generosity.
It reminded me of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard that we hear today as our Gospel Reading. Jesus as we know taught in parables to bring home to his disciples the essence of discipleship, what the kingdom of heaven might be like and how, as disciples they – and we today – might live for that kingdom.
We of course are invited to consider the landowner as a symbol for God and the different groups of hired labourers, disciples. The way the landowner operates in the parable stirs in our imagination something of the character of God.
Jesus in his teaching doesn’t simply give us law, he tells us stories that we have to digest for ourselves, and if we allow it to work on us, we can try and discover what they tell each of us about ourselves. Quite often with parables Jesus is asking us, where are you in the story? Are we the grumblers who were hired first to serve the kingdom of God and resent those who came after? Are we the last, keeping our head down, not doing much, then suddenly we are invited to serve, we are recognised as being of some value, and even though it may be late in the day we give our time and our efforts?
In his book ‘Being Christian’, Rowan Williams says that the Christian life is a listening life, we expect to be spoken to by God and the Bible is the territory in which Christians expect to hear God speaking. It is for each of us a lifetime work no matter how early or late we might come to faith in Jesus. And each time we reflect on something, and consider where we are in a story, we may see something fresh. I think that reading the Bible is about building analogies between then and now, and re-igniting in them your story, my story.
I saw the Big Issue seller as one of the later hires, he had had to be idle during lockdown, then someone comes and pays him as generously as if he had been there all the time, and does so lovingly, so lovingly that the seller even tries to argue against being paid too much, he is so surprised and delighted and honest.
Our reading today ends with the words ‘so the last shall be first and the first shall be last ‘but commentators on Matthew’s Gospel generally regard the verse before that, as the end of the parable.’
The landowner says ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me, are you envious because I am generous.’
We need to think this though for ourselves because as Paul says to the Philippians in our first reading this morning ‘Only Live your life in a manner worthy of the kingdom of God’.
Because the landowner is the symbol for God, the parable encourages us to consider ourselves the labourers and therefore how we relate to God. The various groups are different, the early group makes a clear agreement on what would be paid, it’s a bit less specific for the middle groups, maybe they are a bit more trusting, and the last group only know that they will receive what is right, they respond simply to the invitation to labour. Where are we?
And this isn’t a parable about a huge crop for which there were insufficient labourers, there is no focus on the size of the harvest, the landowner is focussed on the labourers need for work, not his need for workers. God loves each of us and desires each of us to have fulfilling lives. Yet turning to Christ can be costly. There is a real contrast between the first hour labourers and the last hour crew. The last hour crew is the most needy, and they know it, and they recognise their dependence on the generosity and love of God. But we see the poverty of spirit in the first group, resentful that others are valued as much as them because they the first group have done more, longer. Turning to Christ is more costly for those of us who identify ourselves in the first group, they – we – have to recognise that God’s Grace is for all who respond to the invitation. The test for us is when God shows love and mercy to those we might not think deserve it.
We meet this parable at that part of the Gospel of Matthew which, through a number of stories and parables, reminds us that it is a narrow gate to go through to the kingdom of heaven for those of us who have a very great deal, and we need to learn that grace and generosity. We also meet this parable the day before the church celebrates St Matthew. Tomorrow is the feast of St Matthew. He wrote this Gospel, we hear very little about him in the Bible other than he was a tax collector at Capernaum, a hated figure, prior to selling everything he had to follow Jesus and becoming one of the twelve.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for new believers, particularly Jewish believers, and his Gospel has sometimes been called the manual for discipleship. A key element of discipleship is learning how to live in the kingdom of heaven, on earth. It is the only Gospel to record Christ’s words about the church, both the universal church and the local church.
We need to thank God for the direct teaching of Matthew, for our opportunity to think through who we are in the different stories Jesus tells, and to consider for each of us how we can learn to live in the kingdom of heaven.
We know, from the success of our own church services on Facebook, that there is a deep yearning in human beings to glimpse something of the mystery of God and God’s son Jesus. How we respond generously will say something to others about the grace of God in our lives as we seek to be labourers for Christ in our own times without fear or favour or reward, fully understanding that the first will be last and the last will be first.