September 27, 2020

“Life in the Vineyard”

(From Matthew 21: 23-32)

    Several years ago, a story was shared with me by a friend about a woman who stopped for a quick bite to eat at a local fast-food chain, McDonald’s, I believe.  Inside, she saw a man who appeared to be homeless sitting in a corner slowly sipping a small cup of coffee. As she waited to order, she caught an employee approach the man out of the corner of her eye.  He was trying to coax the man to leave.  The man quietly protested that he still had a few more sips of coffee left before he would have to leave the area.  The employee stood eyeing the man, who sat uncomfortably on his seat, holding out to spend a few more moments inside the restaurant.  When the woman’s turn to order came, she ordered two sandwiches and two cups of coffee—one for here, and one to go.  When she received her order, she walked over to the homeless man and placed the “for here” tray in front of him.  “This is for you,” she said.  As I recall, she also said something like, “Please know that God loves you, and I am a messenger of God’s love for you today.”  The man was humbled to tears.  “Thank you,” he replied, for he was now able to spend more time inside, and also able to feed his nagging hunger.  “May God bless you,” the man responded to the generous woman, who was already well aware of being very well blessed. 

     Last week, we explored “The “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.”  Jesus used the imagery of the vineyard to represent the kingdom of God, and the person of the vineyard owner to represent God.  As with all of Jesus’ parables, this parable was shared by Jesus with his Disciples to help them better understand how God and the kingdom of God operate.  Parables always compare and contrast common earthly people and events with attributes of God and God’s kingdom as God has designed it to be.  In the parable, a landowner hires laborers for his vineyard early in the morning, offering them a generous wage. He continues to go back into the marketplace to hire more laborers for his vineyard throughout the day.  When the day is over, the landowner paid all of the laborers the same generous wage.  Those who had worked longer began to grumble that they deserved more than those who came later.  But, the landowner reminded them that they received the generous wage he had promised them; he was simply generous to all of the laborers who came to work in his vineyard.

     From this parable, we learned that God is very, very loving, merciful, and generous toward us, just as the owner of the vineyard was generous with all his laborers.  We also learned that God does not operate from the world’s value system of equity and earned reward.  All who believe are invited into God’s eternal kingdom, God’s vineyard.  The proof of this statement can be found within Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion with the 2 thieves. One thief asked Jesus to remember him in the kingdom to come.  Jesus replied to him with a promise that he would, indeed, be with Jesus in paradise.  When, even in the final moments of his life, this thief believed, the thief was promised a place in the eternal kingdom of God, life in God’s vineyard.  It was a generous gift of mercy and love he could not possibly earn by worldly standards.

     As believers, we know that our life in the kingdom of God begins right in the here and now, the very moment that we become believers, and it continues on with us into our wonderful and eternal afterlife.  Many call it heaven; Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, called it paradise.  The kingdom of God is already here; but, as we are often painfully aware, it is not yet fully realized in this life.  This means that there is a time for believers when living in God’s kingdom also involves living within the confines and realities of our present natural world.   

     Both the Apostle Paul and Jesus realized the difficulties believers would face in navigating through the natural world living according to God’s standards and value system.  Therefore, they attempted to guide believers along their journey.  In Romans 12 verse 2, Paul reminded believers that while they were living in this world, they were not to be conformed to it.  Rather, Paul called upon believers to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, so that they may discern the good, acceptable and perfect will of God.  Paul was admonishing the believers to continuously remind themselves both who they are and whose they are, lest they become distracted from their true calling and holy purpose by things of this world such as wealth, power and status. These are not the values of God’s kingdom, nor are they appropriate for believers’ lives in the vineyard.

     In Matthew Chapter 25: 31-45, Jesus shared with believers about his second coming in glory with all of his angels.  He will come to separate the righteous sheep from the unrighteous goats. To the sheep he will say:  “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me:=; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”  Then, Jesus said, the righteous will ask him when it was that they did all of this for him. Jesus replied, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  Jesus accounts every act of kindness we show to others as if we had shown it to him.  Then, to the goats Jesus will say, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye did not visit me.” The unrighteous will, likewise, inquire when it was that they did not do these things for Jesus.  Jesus replied, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” When we neglect the needs of others, Jesus, in a similar manner to the above, accounts this neglect as our neglect of him.

     Thus, we come to understand that although the kingdom of God is at hand, this kingdom is not yet consistent with the reality and value system of the present world.  Anyone who has followed current events across our nation, or the political arena on a local, state or national level is painfully aware of the truth of this statement. Therefore, as believers, we are called upon to be salt and light, to be the blessed bearers of peace with justice, and mercy with love in this world.  We must speak the truths regarding issues of racism and injustice, with love, into the reality of our current racially charged environment.  We must hold our elected officials to the highest of moral, ethical, and social standards that are to be expected of those who govern us.  Life in the kingdom of God, God’s vineyard, begins for believers right here and now.  We, as believers, are called to bring the kingdom of God into the kingdom of this world—right in the here and now.  So, let us go forth in righteousness to strive and to work to make our life in the kingdom, the vineyard, even in the here and now, all that God wills us to help it to become.  Amen.

Jesus, united by thy grace and each to each endeared, with confidence we seek thy face and know our prayer is heard.

Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear; let all their friendly aid afford, and feel each other’s care.

This is the bond of perfectness, thy spotless charity, O let us, still we pray, possess the mind that was in thee.  (“Jesus, United by Thy Grace” words – Charles Wesley, music – John Dykes).