“I wish to be one who conscientiously takes part in the unfolding of God's plans, and eventually have a glorious part in the final unfolding of time into the glory of God's Kingdom in heaven. If we are disciples (of Jesus) we shall be happy to spend ourselves and be spent for the salvation of souls.” — Katharine Drexel
The rich young man is walking away. He is not sure what he just heard. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Yes, he is walking away from Jesus and he is grieving, says the text. Great were his riches. Peter and the disciples asked, rightly I think, “Who can be saved?” After all, Jesus has just said: “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Yet, he added: “With God all is possible.”
Peter notes, probably puzzled, that he and his fellow disciples had left it all to follow. It was a good observation indeed. Yes, Peter had a house and a business. He was not fantastically wealthy by any stretch of the imagination but he had not been poor, and he had left it all behind. Therefore, it could be done. Peter rightly realized that there was more to the matter or at minimum, he was confused about all this. Is it possible or not?
Life changes are not improbable or unachievable. We see it around us now and again: A man or woman in a very promising career and with a fantastic and bright future sets it aside and follows a different path all together. Sometimes like Katharine Drexel or Michael Talbot they set it aside to become religious people. Other times people will pursue art, farming, primitive life. Yes, we can change.
Is the capacity and sudden or slow new decision to lay it all down something suddenly gifted by the Holy Spirit? Is it obedience? Is it repentance unbidden and unexpected, repentance that appears to come entirely from depth of the soul and not known even to the heart that is joined to that soul?
And if something is laid down, what, if anything, is picked up? Is anything gained? If so, was that the point of laying the other down? If so, then we are not looking at an emptying but at an exchange? Indeed, Jesus says: “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”
And many who are first will be last, and the last will be first and there our parable today starts as an explanation to the questions raised by the rich young man and Jesus’ comment on the episode with him.
How will you receive the Kingdom of God? We have already wrestled with that question in chapter 18 of Matthew. Jesus’ answer was that one ought to take the example of a little child. Though it seems like a cryptic answer, it is instructive. How do children receive and from whom? The answer is: With empty hands and from their parents and family.
In the parable there is bit of cultural stuff going on. One did not go looking for a job in olden days. Instead, one loitered in an agreed upon public place and waited for someone who needed day labor to come by. To ask for a job was to ask for something that belonged to the employer, specifically his money and one questioned his ability to manage his house to boot by suggesting that he needed the help. It would have been an offense. To go to someone and ask them to work was equally offensive because one asked for his time that, certainly, he had better things to do with. To stand in the market not doing anything was a sign that one had the time to give. To meet there and discuss labor on the employers volition was honorable and both sides were served.
So far, so good, except that it is too easy to look at the interactions as purely transactional. Is there a contract being negotiated in the conversations between the landowner and the worker? Indeed there is: “After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.” But this contract is only made with the first group of laborers. After that, the agreement is that the landowner will: “pay whatever is right.” What that: “right” may be is not settled or revealed until payroll is called.
There, as payroll is made, it is revealed what the owner’s definition of “right” is. That is revealing but really the minor revelation in the story. Let us go back to the matter of the rich young man for a moment. His question is what he must do to have or possess eternal life. His claim is that he has kept the commandments as Jesus has lectured him he should. Jesus then adds the one thing the man lacks, to give away what he currently is and attach himself to Jesus, with Jesus as his Lord and patron.
This is also in play in the parable. There are wages negotiated. The first hired laborers insist that they had an agreement, with the landowner, and they did. The others had a promise and went to work based on the promise that the owner would do the righteous thing at the end of the day. One had a contract and the others had trust in the owner. The former got paid what they negotiated, the latter were pleasantly surprised to be paid more than they had a right to expect.
The complaint the first hired ones make is based on an understanding on everyones status before the landowner. Were they all merely day laborers, as they certain saw themselves to be, or was the relationship to be more? The landowner seems to be dealing with the laborers as if they were members of his household. Within his own house, indeed, he can do with his money and his people as he pleases and he is pleased to be generous.
“Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (18:3) and again: “it is to such as these [little children] that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (19:14)
How do you prefer to be treated? Like one who has a labor contract or like one who belongs to the house? The landowner is happy to keep his obligations to those with whom he had a contract. But is a bargain enough for you? (If so, what kind of bargain do you think you have and is it enough?) To whom do kings give the thrones of their realm? (19:28)
Peter has given up his business and place in the social web of Capernaum. He left behind old ties to become part of new ones. Does he understand it as a bargain as day laborer’s handshake or as a new life of trust that as Jesus’ disciple all will be well and that with God all things are possible?
Bargains are made all the time, even in families even in the Family of God. But there is a difference between owing our kids something and owing a 17 year old with an attitude something. There is a difference between being told to do something by a stranger and being told the same by dad. There is a difference between being criticized by a woman on the street and being told the honest truth by ones wife. As long as Jesus is the other, outside of my circle of family, all things are merely bargains. Once the rich young man joins the Family of God all the bargains are merely the ways of the Family. To whom do kings give the thrones of their realm? (19:28)Where is eternal life found?