Have you ever had a day where you used your words, just like your mother taught you, and you thought you were being so clear, but then it turned out that no one understood what you were talking about? That no one was really listening?
You were using your words, but you might as well have been writing on an Etch-a-sketch when your plane hit a patch of turbulence for all it mattered. The words were there and then they were gone, shaken away.
Jesus had a day like that. I actually think that Jesus had a lot of days like that, but I want to tell you about one in particular. It started out with people bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed, and his disciples helpfully telling the seekers that their Rabbi was far too important to be bothered with such trifles.
Everybody knows that’s the way it goes. Powerful men are at the top of the hierarchy, surrounded by their favored assistants. Lesser men are sometimes granted an audience, and if we want to go hog-wild we’ll let the women in too. (and we’ll definitely let them fund the whole circus, whether or not they’re invited, as the female disciples were noted for doing)
Everybody else takes their place on the sidelines. You definitely don’t just sack the whole agenda for the day because some little brats need a blessing.
That is, you don’t unless you’re starting to think like Jesus.
Jesus tells all his important disciples that the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children, blesses them, and goes on his way.
Then this rich and powerful guy comes up to Jesus. He says, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus told him to keep the commandments- don’t murder, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t disrespect your parents, and love your neighbor as yourself.
The rich man said that he’d done all of that, and then asks, “What do I still lack?”
That’s a pretty perceptive question, actually. He’s following all the rules, but he still knows that he’s lacking something, that there’s some other way of living that he’s not getting.
Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush with this guy. He says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
That’s the thing that had the man enslaved. He was winning in the kingdom of accumulating and ranking and comparing, but that sort of winning doesn’t translate into the kingdom of heaven.
More than that: the conquests and the trophies of winning in the kingdom of the world were preventing the rich man from entering the kingdom of heaven. It was there, he could see it, he could see that there was something happening in this band of disciples that he wanted to be a part of, but he couldn’t let go of all of these markers of success.
He couldn’t give it away, couldn’t stop letting himself be defined by his success, and he went away sad instead. The Gospels don’t even tell us what his name was.
Later on, Jesus tells people that they’re heading to Jerusalem. He says, the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.
The only thing that Mrs. Zebedee heard, though, was that they were heading to Jerusalem.
Mrs. Zebedee wasn’t lacking in the faith department. She knew what happened when you followed the Messiah to Jerusalem- you fought the Romans and won and Israel was a free nation again. And two of her sons were important disciples, the kinds of men who got to do important things like shoo little kids out of the way.
So, she made a request of Jesus: “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
This is basically the equivalent of asking if your kids can be the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State while you’re still on the campaign trail, so I think we should recognize Mrs. Zebedee’s moxie here- it makes it all the more sad that she never gets her own name.
But also, and more importantly, she has completely misunderstood what this new kingdom is about. She thinks that in Jesus’ kingdom, power is going to be portioned out just the same as it always has been, except that now the right people will finally be on top and in charge.
It’s the same as with the kids not being important enough to see Jesus, and with the rich man not being willing to let go of his junk back home. It’s the same trap, the same one that we know so well.
When I was a kid, I heard a lot about the distinction between worldly and spiritual things, and I had a pretty clear sense of what that difference meant. Spiritual things were hymns and stained glass and memorizing Bible verses and sitting quietly no matter how boring the sermon was.
Worldly things, on the other hand, were like the time my friend Sarah and I went to see Mrs. Doubtfire in the theater for her thirteenth birthday. PG-13… scandalous! And it’s worldly to listen to raunchy music, or to drive a car that’s too nice, or spend too much time thinking about makeup.
And maybe that’s all true, but it misses the point. Worldliness isn’t about the little stuff like how many tubes of mascara you own even though you know you only use the one in the yellow tube anyway. It’s about this whole system of power in which we’re constantly trying to win, trying to accumulate, trying to rank higher, trying to dominate, trying to make sure that we compare well.
Sure, you can do that by making sure that your car is the nicest one in the lot. But you can also set out to be the holiest person ever, just the best religious person that anyone has ever met, and memorize all the Bible verses and listen to extra sermons during the week and always be humming a sacred song, and you’ll end up just as insufferable and just as obsessed with winning and just as trapped in the kingdom of the world.
So in the middle of this day in which the kids were turned away and the rich man was way too important to be a disciple and Mrs. Zebedee wanted her sons to be in Jesus’ cabinet when he conquered Jerusalem, Jesus tells a strange story about a man who owns a vineyard.
There’s this lot, in the story, where day laborers gather hoping to get hired. The vineyard owner goes out early in the morning and hires some workers, promising to pay them a fair day’s wages. He goes back in the late morning, and again in the afternoon, and both times he takes more workers back to the vineyard.
And then around 5pm, the owner goes back to the lot where the day laborers gather, and people are still standing around. He asks the workers why they’ve just been standing there doing nothing all day, but the answer is painfully obvious: nobody hired them.
Vineyard managers and lentil farmers and olive grover tenders have been showing up all day to hire people, and these people were the rejects. It’s like if we were picking teams in gym class, and then all the teams were full and you were just left to watch on the bleachers.
And now it’s the end of the day, and there’s no reason to think that anyone will hire them, and they’re going to go home with nothing- which maybe means that their kids aren’t going to eat tonight.
The vineyard owner gathers up all of these 5 o’clock rejects and puts them to work, too. Then, in the evening, he calls people over to receive their wages, starting with the people he hired last.
And here’s the parabolic twist: he paid those guys who had only been working a few hours as if they had been working all day.
So as you can imagine, the workers who’ve been there all day start to get excited. If the 5 o’clock rejects are getting a full day’s wage for just a few hours work, then just imagine how much they might be getting for working all day!
Not so much, though. They got exactly what they had been promised: a full day’s wages. That’s what they had agreed to, and the owner of the vineyard kept his word.
That seemed like a good deal, when they took it in the morning, but now they’re comparing themselves to these 5 o’clock rejects and it doesn’t seem fair at all. Why should these losers who barely worked at all get paid the same as them?
They’re stuck in the kingdom of the world, see- the one where we compare and we rank and we judge and we do our best to be worthwhile and we get resentful when we don’t get what we deserve.
But that’s not how the kingdom of heaven operates. The disciples are blowing off kids, and the rich man wants to follow Jesus while dragging a U-haul of his stuff behind, and Mrs. Zebedee wants her kids to be on Jesus’ cabinet, because they’ve all misunderstood what this kingdom is about.
So Jesus tells this story about the 5 o’clock rejects getting a full day’s wage because that’s how we find power in the kingdom of heaven. It’s not by being the best laborer, or the richest businessman, or by gaining political power.
Power comes in the kingdom of heaven when we start to realize that we’ve all been 5 o’clock losers. We didn’t earn this life. It’s a gift and it always has been.
That’s the economy of the kingdom of heaven. That’s God’s economy.
There’s an irony and a lightness to it that’s foreign to our worldly way of understanding. It’s not about ranking and comparing and winning. It’s about opening your hands and taking the gift… and learning not to get upset or resentful when those around you get gifts as well.
That’s how God runs the vineyard.
Let’s be honest, here: that’s a terrifying way to live. I mean, the world in which we’re judging and ranking and competing doesn’t work at all, but at least it’s familiar. At least it’s what we know.
Paul refers to this as a kind of slavery. He writes to the Galatians: Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
That’s an easy question to answer, actually- it’s because what’s familiar is comforting, even when it isn’t working.
You remember the setup here, I’m sure- Paul planted a bunch of churches in the region of Galatia, in the middle of modern-day Turkey. These churches were largely, if not entirely, full of Gentiles.
This was a new and radical idea at the time, that people could follow this Jewish Messiah without first becoming Jews and following the food laws and the men getting circumcised. After Paul left town, some other teachers came along and said that Paul had messed up the Gospel, that he meant well but he didn’t really understand, and that all these new Gentile believers in Galatia needed to convert to Judaism if they wanted to really follow Jesus.
The book of Galatians is the letter that Paul sent in response to this crisis, trying to convince these new Christians that they were already a part of God’s family, already participating in the kingdom of heaven, and that getting circumcised and giving up their bacon-wrapped shrimp wasn’t going to change a thing.
He writes, The other lot are eager for you, but it’s not in a good cause. They want to shut you out, so that you will then be eager for them.
These people, in other words, aren’t judging you for your own good. They’re judging you so that you’ll start focusing on impressing them, on following their rules, on getting their permission to be part of a community that you’ve been part of all along.
Isn’t that always the story? Paul told the Galatians that they were welcome, based on faith and nothing more. That’s a big promise and it’s hard to hold.
So when these other teachers show up and tell the Galatians that they actually do have to earn their way in, it may have been a bit of a relief. Too much grace can feel like a danger, and the economy of God is terrifyingly free.
Give us some rules, instead, so we can determine who’s in and who’s out, who deserves a full day’s wage and who should be left unhired, who should get to be in positions of power and who should be shooed away.
Nobody’s coming here to Wilmington, in 2017, to tell us that we can’t eat pork or that you can’t trim the corners of your beard or whatever. But as we settle into silence, maybe consider the ranking systems that we rely on to tell us that we’re loved and valued and part of the family.
How can we let go of those systems and walk more fully in freedom?