The Kingdom of Heaven Is Not Fair
I have never possessed a gift for horticulture. I once failed to preserve the life of a small Lucky Bamboo plant—and if you know anything about Lucky Bamboo, than you recognize the extent of my problem. When my husband and I moved into our current home we decided, regardless of my inability to keep plants alive, to embark on a gardening adventure. We gathered up gardening tools and went to work under the hot, blistering sun of west Texas. On our first day in our new yard a visitor approached us. He slouched out of his white truck and staggered towards us. He stood tall and scraggly, his clothes torn as if he had recently been in a shipwreck. Extending a hand, and in a deep southern drawl, he told us his name was James. James offered his service to us in our yard if we would be willing to pay him. My husband and I exchanged glances and a few mumbled words, ultimately deciding that we would employ him for a day’s work. The truth was, we didn’t need the help; but we could see that he needed the money. He got right to work, his proud refrain echoing across the yard, “You won’t regret this. I work for what I get. I gotta work for this.” I explained to James my lack of gardening skills, and he began to teach me about our yard—he had quite extensive experience in yard work. But as we worked and talked, he continued to tell me, “I’ve got to work for what I get. I gotta earn this.”
I finally asked James what it was that he was working for. He stopped what he was doing and glared at me with intense blue eyes. “It shouldn’t matter to you what people do with their money—as long as they work for it. They gotta deserve the money they get. I hate those beggars down the road. Why do they think it’s okay to ask for people’s money? None of them work like me.” As I reflected on James’ words, the irony began to sink in. If it doesn’t matter what people do with their money, then maybe I shouldn’t be giving any of my money to James. And what a harsh critique from one beggar to a world of beggars! The conversation never left me, but receded into the back of my mind for a few months.
I currently teach freshman Bible at Abilene Christian University. Right now we are journeying through the Gospel of Matthew together. Last week we read Matt 15:1-20, where Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and the scribes, calling them hypocrites. I challenged my class in a writing assignment to consider who in our world could be affiliated with this brand of hypocrisy. I wasn’t surprised to receive a collection of vitriolic tirades against politicians. However, I was surprised to find that many of the students took up arms against political motions that care for the poor. Citing biblical texts in a manner akin to dollar-chasing televangelists, many of my students demanded a cutthroat system where justice is defined by a person’s ability to receive what they deserve. Saddened by their responses, I speculated how we might address this notion of justice. My students, like James, were under the impression that somehow our willingness to work, or our ability to work, should determine the blessings we receive.
But how would I tell them the truth? How would I share with my wide-eyed freshmen the painful reality about our illusions of justice? How would I share with them insights like that of the Teacher from Ecclesiastes—that all our toiling under the sun is meaningless? How would I remind them that everything we have in life is a gift? I knew that the teaching was necessary—lest they grow up to be as ironic as James. Fortunately, as I sat down to work on my lesson plans that evening, Jesus told me a parable in Matt 20:1-16.
The story goes that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who goes out one morning to find laborers for his vineyard. He gathers together some workers, they agree on a typical day’s wage, and then they get to work. Throughout the day the landowner continues to find workers to send into the vineyard. By the end of the day some of the laborers had been working in the blistering heat all day, while some worked for as little as one hour. Then the landowner paid them all the same amount of money, starting with those who had worked the least amount of time. We read this parable in my classes, and I asked the simple question, “Is this fair?” Nobody felt like it was fair, so we ventured deeper into the text and made these three observations:
The landowner dispenses his resources equally, regardless of whether or not the person meets our criteria.
This tells us something about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is a Kingdom that cares equally for all. Justice in the Kingdom is very different from our worldly notions of justice. What is fair in the Kingdom seems unfair to the world.
The generosity of the landowner incites envy in those who labored longer and harder.
This teaching presents a tremendous challenge. I think it is tempting for us to interpret this parable in explicitly spiritual terms. It is certainly possible to say that those who labored in the vineyard all day represent those who have followed Jesus and labored for the Kingdom for a long time, and that those who labored for an hour represent those who got on board with the Kingdom last minute. This is not a bad interpretation; in fact I think it could be a correct interpretation. But I believe this teaching on Kingdom equity should also inform every aspect of our lives, including our resources.
I like to believe that I earn what I have—that some measure of diligence on my part resulted in the blessings I have received. But this is an illusion—it is not true fairness. We live in a broken world that demands a certain kind of justice that would allow people to go hungry, homeless, and naked. We consider it a waste of resources to give freely to those who have not “deserved” the gift, all the while forgetting that we don’t deserve the gift either. Jesus reminds us that God does not measure people by the same criteria that we would. Moreover this parable reminds us that this kind of generosity, this kind of uplifting of the least of our society, looks like the Kingdom of Heaven. If we are to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven right here and now, we have our work cut out for us. Think I’m spreading this parable too thin? Look at the church in Acts 4:32-35. They seemed to take Jesus’ teaching on equity and resources seriously.
So what does this look like for us? If we choose to go against the grain in our society, displaying the great generosity of our Master in our world, what will happen? I believe it looks like me learning from James how to tend my yard. It looks like all of us living life together and learning from one another. I think it looks like us learning to give freely because we have been given much. It looks like us putting away our envy, releasing our white-knuckled grip from our resources, and putting away all our convoluted criteria. I am not suggesting that we throw out discernment. I am suggesting that oftentimes greed and worldliness masquerade as discernment. We must allow the words of Jesus to shape every part of our lives—every interaction, every engagement, every day at work, every day at home, and yes, even our political leanings. No part of our lives should be left unchallenged.