Jesus talks about “the kingdom of God” a lot. Or heaven. Sometimes he says “kingdom of heaven,” but biblical scholars generally think he means the same thing.
No surprise there, right? In the Gospel of Matthew especially, I think Jesus’ point isn’t about the life that’s next, but to teach how that “kingdom” can come here, in this life. When you couple the number of times he says “the kingdom of heaven is near” with the number of times he says “the kingdom of heaven is like …” and the very earthy way in which he describes it, I think it’s pretty clear it’s about making this world something more heavenly.
But that’s not easy. At least, it can be easy to talk about. Love, grace, compassion, justice, equity – Jesus tells lots of stories about bringing those things into the world and making things “right” in our relationships with each other, the world around us and, of course, God. And when we tell those stories and talk about them abstractly, as we so often do, well, “it’s a nice thought, but …
Thing is, the real “but” is that this isn’t the kingdom Jesus talks about and bringing it here is going to be – as it always has been – hard work. Jesus knows that the kingdom of God won’t come without a struggle. That’s why it’s so important to not hear the stories as a third party observer, but to get in them, live in them and own them.
How else will we discover the perspectives that will cause us to engage the kingdom in our own lives, work at relationships in our own lives and make our own lives more life-giving? Perspective is so important.
In Matthew 20, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven with a story about a landowner who hires workers first thing in the morning to work in his vineyard. They agree to a wage for the day and off they go. At several other times during the day, he sees other workers in the market with nothing to do, so he hires them, too. At the end of the day, when he pays them, he pays the last ones hired the same as the ones hired first. Those who worked the whole day grumble that the landowner is treating them equally, though they didn’t do as much work. The landowner replies that he is giving them what they agreed to and has chosen to give the others the same, it’s his right to do so. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Is this story about the generosity of God’s grace? Is it about equity and social justice? Is it about both, engaging the tension between the world that is and what it could be? There are many interpretations, but take a moment and step inside the story. Be one of the workers hired first and toiling all day. How do you feel about what happened? What do you think of the landowner and their explanation?
If I were one of those workers, I think I’d feel tricked. I’d feel offended and hurt that my work was undervalued, that I was undervalued. I don’t know that I’d struggle to understand or just go away angry and not want to work for this guy again. I just don’t know. But I know I’d be struggling.
That, too, is a learning from this story. I don’t think Jesus anticipates the coming of the kingdom without that struggle, without there needing to be moments of hurt, questions of value and feelings about conditions and expectations that we’ve learned and lived by. The landowner here has the power to do as they did. But perhaps we should ask questions about that, too. I wonder if we should consider that struggling together, hearing each other and considering other views could be more meaningful than simply imposing change. What’s your perspective?