What does “the kingdom of heaven” bring up? Do you see a vision of clouds, deep blue sky, and angels flying around with wings? Does “the kingdom of heaven” inspire questions about the afterlife or does it cause you to think about life right now? Those first four words are the key to our interpretation of today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew 20:1-16. If the kingdom of heaven is only about heaven, today’s parable is a parable only about faith and belief. But if the kingdom of heaven is about the world right now, today’s parable is about living a faith-filled life.
Matthew is the only gospel that uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven.” Mark, Luke, and John instead use the “kingdom of God.” We can read these two phrases, I think, interchangeably. “The kingdom of heaven” shows us how God is more than just our personal experience of the world. “The kingdom of God” reminds us how God interacts and cares about the world we live in. God’s kingdom includes the entire world. God’s kingdom has something to say to every kingdom, nation, and even home we create. God’s vision for our life is a vision that stretches from heaven to the earth and back again.
I like Richard Lischer’s description of why parables matter. “The implication of the parables is clear: if one cannot meet the kingdom of God amid the pots and pans of daily life, of what earthly use is the kingdom?”* There are parts of today’s parable that are hard. Why does the landowner get to chose who works and who doesn’t? In the world this story takes place in, what happens to those who are willing to work but are not hired? Do we want God to really be like this choosy landowner? And why does God’s vision of justice seem to punish, or at least be unfair, to those who worked the whole day? But the heart of this story is also a vision of radical equality and grace. And this vision matters right now. The workers’ worth isn’t defined by what they do. They are valued because God says they are. And this vision of justice isn’t something we are asked to wait to experience in the world to come. This justice is something God wants in the world today.
*Richard Lischer, Reading the Parables, 2014. Page 11.
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 16th Sunday After Pentecost, 9/24/2017.