It was 2010, near the Christmas season. Back then I was living in Boston. I took a daytrip to New York City. Walking down the Fifth Avenue, I saw many luxury shops and department stores with their dazzling Christmas luminaries and neon signs.
It was quite a view. Who doesn’t like the Christmas season in New York City? But soon, from the opposite side of the Fifth Avenue, a group of homeless people came to my eyes. They were lying on the church steps and trying to sleep in their temporary shelter made of some boxes. People may say that it’s just a normal street scene of New York City. But on that day, I couldn’t pass it by. I just couldn’t ignore the stark contrast between this side and that side of the Fifth Avenue, the austere juxtaposition of the privileged and the deprived. On the same street, some enjoyed Christmas season buying gifts, and some tried to sleep on the street enduring a cold winter night. It didn’t look normal to me. The short distance between two sides of the street seemed endlessly wide. The glittering lights from the shops, which I got amazed at, were reflected on the withered faces of the homeless. It brought me to a sad awakening to the reality of the world that I live in.
Living our lives, we all have some moments when we say, “something’s seriously wrong with our world.” How frequently do you say that? Everyday? In our hearts, we all feel that the world should change somehow. And we all need to make differences in the world so that the world becomes a better place. But then, the question is…what kind of world are we envisioning? Do we have any concrete model of the good world? Not sure? True, it’s a difficult question to answer. But the good news is that for us, there is a certain model of the good world. Yes, there is a better world that we are called to make together here and now. “The kingdom of heaven.” That’s what Jesus calls this world.
In his parable for today, Jesus gives us a description of the kingdom of heaven with the story of a landowner. But according to the story, the landowner seems very strange. This landowner goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard five times on the same day. Five. Times. He goes to a marketplace in the early morning, at nine o’clock, at noon, at three o’clock, and even at five o’clock. Why does he do such a thing? Does he have a lot of work to do in his vineyard? And it is also very weird to see that there are still some people waiting for a job at five o’clock. In reality, no one can be hired at the end of the day for a daily job. That’s impossible. Then, why are they waiting for a job until then? They must be so desperate that they need any kind of opportunity to work. They just can’t go back home with nothing in their hands.
All these are strange enough, but the most bizarre thing has yet to come. At the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard pays the same daily wage to all the laborers no matter how many hours they worked. What’s happening here? This is totally unfair. The laborers who have worked for all day, of course, grumble to the landowner, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matthew 20:11-12). I think they can surely say that. And it’s true that the laborers are unfairly treated and not getting their proper due.
Then, from this strange landowner, what can we tell about the kingdom of heaven? What kind of the world are we called to make? Let us look at closely. The landowner tries to hire as many people as possible. He intentionally pays his effort to check if there are more desperate people in the marketplace and makes sure those people can also have the same opportunity to work. Then, he pays all the laborers equally. From this, we see that the landowner is managing his business not for the profit of the vineyard but for the benefit of the laborers. This landowner has much more interest in bringing people in and giving them opportunities, than increasing the income from the vineyard business. And more revolutionarily, the landowner pays the laborers according to not what they deserve but what they need. Indeed, the landowner looks very strange because he turns the usual rules of the world upside down.
From the landowner, we see that the kingdom of heaven is not a place ruled by “first come first serve.” It is not a place ruled by competition. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is the place where all are welcome at anytime, and where people always have a chance to live again by the grace of the owner. This is the place of grace. Also from the landowner, we learn that the kingdom of heaven is the place where people are not measured by what they deserve. It is not a place ruled by fairness. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is the place where all receive what they need by the grace of the owner, no matter who they are. Yes, again, this is the place of grace, the grace that is always given to us beyond our merit and beyond our fair measure.
Today, Jesus is giving us a concrete model of the world that we are called to make; it is the kingdom of heaven ruled by grace. Then, how can we make it? It seems like an impossible challenge. But I believe… if there were more Christians who run their business for the purpose of sharing more benefit and wealth with others, the world would become one step closer to the kingdom of heaven. If there were more Christians who put their focus not on their own thriving but on the well-being of all the people around them, the world would become a bit more like the kingdom of heaven. If there were Christians who actively search out those who are in their desperate need and help them before they ask, the world would become the world ruled by grace. And I believe… if we would love, forgive, and welcome as many people as we can, not because they deserve them but because they need them, we would be already making the kingdom on earth. If we would seriously think how to reveal God’s grace through our ministry and through our acts and deeds, the vision of God’s kingdom would become much clearer in our hearts day by day. Be gracious. Be merciful. Change the world with God’s grace a little by little.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, from today, let grace rule our hearts. Let grace rule our church. And let grace rule anywhere we go. Until Jesus comes in his final victory and makes his kingdom complete, let us keep our precious call to bring out the kingdom of heaven here and now. Keep the graceful landowner in your hearts. And have and share the vision of the new world. May God’s grace be with all of us beyond our measure always. Amen.