The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a hundred dollars for the day and sent them into the vineyard. About 9 in the morning he went out and found others standing around on the corners doing nothing. He told them, “You also go to work in my vineyard and I’ll pay you what is right,” and they went to work. He went back out at noon, and then at 3, and did the same. About 5 he went out and found others standing around. He asked, “Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?” “Because no one has hired us,” they said. He told them, “You also go work in my vineyard.”
When evening came, the workers who were hired at 5 were each paid a hundred dollars. So those who were hired early in the morning each expected more, but they also received a hundred, and so they began to grumble against the landowner. “Those who were hired last worked only an hour, but you have made them equal to us, who worked hard all day in the heat. But he answered them: “Friends, I’m not being unfair. Didn’t you agree to a hundred dollars? Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because of my generosity?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
I used to think that in this parable that G-d was the landowner, and the workers were people who, upon working in the vineyard, became saved christians, and that how long they worked in the vineyard was indicative of at what point in life they became Christians, or how much good Christian things they did. The hundred dollars was heaven or salvation, and the point of the parable was that no matter when in life you became a Christian you had the same reward. And that more or less fits into the American evangelical Christian idea about what the gospel means, which I no longer hold to all that much. What I read now is that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner, and Jesus sets up a situation around this landowner, and waits to see what the landowner does in the midst of this situation:
There are several different classes of people in this parable, grouped into how many hours they worked for the landowner, and what separates these people is how much they seem to deserve. From any normal, worldly perspective, the people who started working early deserve the most, and the people who worked one hour deserve the least. Not many of us would argue with that. They deserve more money, because they worked more. Then it goes down to the lowest. They worked one measly hour, barely enough to break a sweat, barely enough to do anything useful. They maybe deserve ten dollars, and they should feel lucky to get anything at all, probably. They are the undeserving, the unworthy, the useless, the leeches, the ones who deserve less. If the landowner gave them more than 10 bucks, he was being irresponsible, probably enabling them to be lazy. They are the unworthy, the lowest.
But what happens? They get paid the same. The unworthy ones get 100, and the worthy ones get 100.
THE WORKERS’ COMPLAINT: “You have made them equal to us.” To me, this is the crux of the whole parable. These lousy ones, these lazy ones, these undeserving ones, you have made them equal to us! “They are addicted to drugs, they are more sinful than me. They aren’t even supposed to be in this country! They should have gone to college like I did, they should have made better decisions in life, they should be trying harder, they aren’t white like me. They should have chosen not to have kids until they were ready, they should have tried harder in school, they aren’t American citizens like me. They haven’t worked as hard as I have, they haven’t tried as hard, they aren’t as smart as I am, but you have made them equal to me! I deserve more than them! I deserve my nice house, my nice car, my nice job, and my nice things, and they don’t! I deserve to have more than enough, to live in luxury, to go on vacations, to have lots of money in the bank, and they don’t. This isn’t right! I went to college, so I deserve a better job! Worked hard while they just loafed around, me and my parents spent tons of money for me to go to Texas A&M, and I am a smart, independent person, so I deserve more. I am white middle class American. They are Iranian, North Korean, gay, felons, illegal immigrants, drug addicts, Muslim, mentally disabled, foreigners, single parents who are not there for their kids, poor workers, undereducated, homeless, unemployed, Afghani. They are different, but you have made them equal to us.”
In the early church’s seeking of the kingdom of heaven they fleshed out this parable: “Nobody claimed that they owned anything, and so they shared everything they had… and God’s grace was working so powerfully in them that there were no needy people among them, because people with land and houses sold them and brought the money to the apostles to be distributed to anyone who had need.” It was not only evident in what they did with their money and resources, but was also evident in who was welcome: the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the lepers, everyone whom Jesus welcomed and served, was welcome.
Sunday evening me and a young friend were out of money and we wanted some food to eat, so we went to a big rich church where they were having their youth group. Knowing that there was food at the youth group meeting, we went in and asked for some plates. They told us we could have some food, just to wait in line to make sure the kids ate first. It was nice that they were sharing food with us, but I couldn’t help but tell my young friend and fellow beggar, “If you ever grow up to be a youth leader, which you probably will, and two homeless people come begging for food, you should make sure you let them go to the front of the line, because you’re trying to teach the youth how to be Christians. So you should go out of your way to make any homeless beggars feel extra welcome.” After this the youth leader came up to us and apologized, but we would have to eat outside, because since we didn’t have criminal background checks we couldn’t be in there with the high school / junior high kids. My friend with me was a high school student incidentally, but they didn’t ask, and I forgot to tell. She was black, and all the other kids were white. We didn’t complain because we were pretty happy to be getting any food at all, but I did tell her, “When you become a youth leader, don’t do segregation. Christ taught us to welcome strangers.” Then we went and drove around a country club called Miramont looking at the million dollar houses, then drove over to the east side, where black people live, and looked at the houses that could fit in one of the rooms of the Miramont houses.
Things like the potlucks, things like offering hospitality to homeless people, these simple acts of fleshing out the gospel of Christ are where the rubber meets the road for this parable. Many of us are the workers who were picked up for work in the early morning, and we come from a background of White-privilege that no longer thinks of itself as racist at all, and in living out the simple teachings of Christ we come face to face with the people of the parable who showed up to work only the last hour, the poor, the disinherited, the wretched. And we are challenged. Do “these people” really deserve what we think we deserve? In our efforts to love them, are we just enabling them to be poor? In our white-privileged lens through which we have viewed the world our entire lives, you can see a black man hanging out in his yard on his day off from work and instantly think “look at this drug-dealer who probably abandoned his kids and hasn’t worked a day in his life.” We are the worthy ones, they are the unworthy ones. We can see a Latin-American riding his bike to slave away in a restaurant for minimum wage while we drive our car to our cushy job with a cushy salary, and we see nothing wrong with that because we are the worthy ones, and they are the unworthy ones. We know that millions of Americans are in prison right now, largely for non-violent drug offenses, and that doesn’t bother us in the least because we are the worthy ones, they are the unworthy ones.
“But you have made them equal to us.” And so the last will be first, and the first will be last.
From reading Jesus’ teachings, it seems that one of the fundamental questions of conversion is “How do we treat each other?” There’s the worldly way, and there’s the converted way. The worldly way at least involves this structure of who is deserving (people like me) and who is undeserving (people unlike me). The converted way is the opposite, and the whole structure collapses. “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi’ because you only have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven . . . the greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One was brought who owed him millions of dollars. The servant didn’t have the money, so the king ordered him to be sold into slavery along with his family in order to repay his debt. The servant fell on his knees and begged, “Be patient with me, I’ll pay you back when I can!” The king felt sorry for him, so he forgave him the entire debt and let him go.
Then the man went out and met one of his fellow servants who owed him 10 bucks. He grabbed him and started choking him. “You better pay me back!” but his fellow servant couldn’t pay, so he had him thrown into debtors prison. The other servants were upset about this and reported it to the king, so he called the servant in. “You worthless slave! I forgave you the whole amount you owed me just because you asked me to. You should have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you!” And the servant was sent to jail to be tortured until he paid back everything he owed.
This is how my father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
So becoming a Christian is to become the most unworthy beggar of all time. We are all the most entitled, unworthy beggars ever. We ask again and again for forgiveness which we do not deserve, we rely on a free gift of grace every moment of our lives. This whole idea of private property, that “I have something and I have the right to deny it to someone else, and it is ok for me to have more than I need while others don’t have enough” is extremely contrary to our identity as absolutely unworthy servants who are constantly begging from G-d his mercy. It’s easy to conceptualize ourselves as unworthy beggars asking for forgiveness and mercy, but when placed in real world, actual situations with, say, a poor drug addict, do we still think of ourselves as less worthy than this person? Do our actions shout out that we are less worthy than this person? Christianity is not about religious ideas, it is absolutely an incarnational thing, just as Christ was G-d incarnate as a human being, how we relate to others is the incarnation of our relationship with G-d, as Christ’s teachings are so fundamentally about how we act in relationship to everyone else in the world. When we drive by a hitch-hiker are we thinking about how to best serve this person, how to best treat this person as we would want to be treated if we were hitch-hiking? Or do we do the “safe” thing? When we share food with homeless people, do we do it because we think they are more worthy of this food than we are? Or do we make them our projects that we are trying to fix so we can feel good about ourselves? When we drive a homeless guy around, or young people with bad attitudes, or people who don’t thank us for giving them a ride, do we do it because we know that they are worthy, more worthy than ourselves? Or do we do it because we think we are good people, even though it’s kind of a pain to give people a ride, but we’ll do it anyways?
When we offer hospitality to strangers, or to people who are unemployed without resources, it is not always fun. It is so fundamentally important to remember that it is Christ who is with us in our homes when (and only when, perhaps?) the poor and despised are welcome in our homes. “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or sick or a stranger or naked or in prison and not help you?”
So, dear friends, dear fellow unworthy beggars, let’s remind each other of our unworthiness, and our worthiness. Let’s sell our possessions and give to the poor. As we step out to serve the poor, let us truly serve them. Not tolerate them despite their unworthiness, but welcome them as Christ in our midst. The last will be first, and the first will be last, this is not bad news, this is good news!