Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto

Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 145.1-8, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20:1-16


“…they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.”
(Mt 20.11-12)


Back before Covid, when we could fly to wherever we wanted to go
(weren’t those the days), there was always that moment of boarding the plane
where we were reminded of how society works.   There was a pecking order
of boarding, depending on whether passengers were Super Elite, Elite, First
Class but Still Better than You, and then Everyone Else.   If you boarded
last, you had to make your way through the luxury section where the various Elites
were sipping their first champagne, through the curtain and to the back where
Everyone Else were crammed together.   That’s just how boarding works
because airlines reflect society and its levels of status and wealth.  

Imagine though what would happen if one of the Elites looked
behind the curtain and saw that everyone else on the airplane also had hot towels,
and super comfy seats, and champagne, because the CEO of the airline wanted to
give them the same comforts, even though the Economy passengers couldn’t afford
them?   And what if, when the Elite
passenger complained that he’d worked hard to be able to afford his Elite ticket,
the CEO smiled and said, “Sir, you got your comforts, as per the agreed fare,
but it’s my airline, and I can do what I want with it.”   Would that passenger have a right to
complain, and even sue the airline?  Perhaps, according to the rules of the
world, he might have a good case, but probably not according to the laws of the
kingdom of heaven.    

When Jesus begins a parable with “the kingdom of heaven is like”,
he’s alerting us to a story that reflects how God sees things as God wants them
to be, rather than how things actually are on earth.    The parables offer us a vision of what we
might call the Economy of Heaven, God’s value system.  Just as my parable of the airplane does not
match how airlines actually work in the economy of human society with its tiers
of wealth and privilege, the Parable of the Vineyard does not match with how
work and its rewards are distributed in the Economy of Earth according to how
humans rationalize inequality.  Just as the
Elite passengers might think that they have earned and fairly paid for their
luxury flight,  , the workers in Jesus’ parable, think that their hard
work entitles them to more wages than those hired at the last hour.   Are
the workers entitled to grumble to the Landowner? Do they have a case?

Yes, according to the Economy of Earth, which teaches that hard
work should have rewards while ignoring scarcities of work.   The Landowner brings in people that no one else
has hired, because there’s not enough work to go around, but for the workers
who grumble, the unemployment of others is not their problem.  Their point of view only encompasses their
own interests within a limited view of fairness as what’s right for them.  The Landowner’s point of view encompasses the
unemployed labourers in the market and sees them as having equal value

We can see how the Economy of Heaven plays out not just in the
seemingly perverse incentive of the landowner’s pay scale, but also in his
almost manic activity in hiring workers.  After the workday starts, he
makes four additional hiring trips.  Why?  We aren’t told anything
about need, that the job was too big for the original workers.   His determination
to hire as many workers as possible reminds me of another Matthean parable, of
the king who insists that his wedding banquet be filled with guests (Mt
22.1-13).  Other parables, like the lost sheep (Mt 18.12-14) or the lost
coin (Lk 15.8-10) convey the same idea that the kingdom of God doesn’t leave
anything behind if it can be found or rescued.

The economy of the Kingdom of Heaven is also revealed in the
spendthrift quality of the landowner’s wage policy (“Am I not allowed to do
what I choose with what belongs to me?” Mt 18.15).   If we ask why the
landowner chooses to throw his money away, we might as well also ask why the
king in last Sunday’s parable forgave a debt of ten thousand talents (Mt 18.27)
or why the Prodigal’s Father in Luke throws a lavish party to welcome home his
ne’er do well son (Lk 15).   The gospels teach us that it pleases God to
give, and that when it comes to grace, love and forgiveness, here is no scarcity
or austerity in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

As we better understand the Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, it
becomes harder to understand the human systems of rewards and incentives, of
merit and equity, that I tried to illustrate in my parable of the airplane. 
Those systems of thinking only lead to reward for some and scarcity for many
others, as seen yesterday when the United Nations food chief called on the
world’s two thousand billionaires, with a net worth of eight trillion dollars,
to help save thirty million people worldwide from starvation.    The
fact that such imbalances exist in our world show how far removed God’s
economics are from human values.  We, as
baptized citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, should be scandalized that such
injustices exist.

At the same time, we need to take care that we are not
scandalized by God’s extravagant love and grace in our own faith lives.  Human ideas about fairness and rewards can
easily migrate into our systems of religious belief, especially if when we
allegorize today’s parable we put ourselves into the shoes of those who
laboured all day in the vineyard.  Like them, or like the virtuous brother
in the Parable of the Prodigal Son,  we
might turn to God and say, you’re forgiving THEM when WE’VE worked so hard for

There has always been a school of thought that the economy of
heaven should reward good behaviour, strong faith, keeping the commandments,
good church attendance, and so on.  In the gospels, the Pharisees, who
clearly saw themselves at the top of the spiritual economy, condemned Jesus for
hanging out with sinners.  The Reformation was fought, in part, over the
question of whether we could buy our way into heaven with good works and
donations.   Today’s prosperity gospel is a new take on an old idea that
the righteous can be recognized by their above average lifestyles.   The
idea that God might also love sinners, hypocrites, backsliders, and atheists is
always a potential scandal to the faithful.

I talked earlier of the Landowner’s perverse wage and incentive
system.  If God is determined to rescue
and reward as many of us as possible, then is there still an incentive for us
to live a godly life?  St. Paul answered this question in Romans when he
wrote “Why, when God has rescued us, would we spend another minute in our old
lives?”. (Rom 6.1-4).  In other words, we don’t live a godly life in
expectation of reward, but rather because the godly life is the reward.

In our second lesson, Paul encourages the Christians in Philippi
to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”, but he doesn’t tell them
to live a life of toil and misery so that someday God will reward them. 
Instead he tells them that they already have their reward, which is “joy in
faith” (Phil 1.25).   If “joy in faith” means knowing that we are loved by
God, and that our lives have design and purpose, why would we not want to share
that blessing with anyone who walks through our doors and wants to join us,
however late in the day it is?   Why would we, who have been forgiven so
much and welcomed so warmly, begrudge others their own place in God’s banquet

The fact is that when God looks at us, God does not think of us
as Super Elite, Elite, First Class, Economy, or worse.  God only sees
God’s children, all loved, all valued, and desperately wanted.  On God’s
airplane, we all fly Super Elite.  Which leaves us with the question – if
all are valued in the kingdom of heaven, why is it not so on earth as well?