Rich, but lost in the Vineyard

Gospel: Matthew 19:16 - 20:19 

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ 17And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ 18He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 

20The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ 21Jesus said to him, ‘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.’22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again 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.’ 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 26But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

27 Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ 28Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And 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. 30But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

20:1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, a denarius, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing without work in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right (and just.)” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here without work all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage— a denarius. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received… a denarius. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “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.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ 

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’

 

To really hear what's going on in Matthew Chapter 20, we need to back up to the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus, in Chapter 19, "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?"

Eternal life is not about getting to some place called 'heaven' when we die. Eternal life is life in the presence of God… now.  It is life listening to God… now, and seeking to follow God… now.  It's a life which pays attention to God. And we either pay attention to God… or we don't— we may not even have noticed God. Or, like the rich young man, we may find something is blocking our relationship… that something is missing, despite all our riches.

Dying makes no difference! Where we are now, is where we will be then. Dying is not the end; it's just a biological marker which does not change our relationship with God.

So the man was not asking Jesus how to get to heaven. He was asking Jesus, "What good deed must I do to be alive with God— relating with God— now."

Jesus said to the young man, "If you want to be complete— to find life coming together— that's what the word "perfect" implies, then sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

Get rid of your possessions— the things that are stopping you following me—  be free of them, and you will enter the life of the kingdom, the life that lives with God, which we call Eternal Life."

When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions which he didn't want to give up. So at that moment, he chose not to enter into eternal life, but to continue a life separated from God.

And Jesus said, "It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again 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."

And I tell you, by the standards of the New Testament people Jesus was speaking with, every last one of us in this place is incomparably rich. And like the disciples, there is something in us that thinks that being rich is a sign of God's blessing. In fact…

   our whole culture thinks that eternal life— the good life— the Australian Dream — comes from having more things and more status. These possessions get between us and following Jesus.

Jesus says it is easier for someone to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich in things and status to enter the kingdom of God; that is, it's easier for a rich person to get through the eye of a needle than it is for them to live with God.

There is no way around this. Either we put our faith in our possessions, what we have, or we put our faith in God. Every time we put our faith in ourselves we narrow our way in life down to the eye of a needle which we can't get through.

Well… when Jesus says this, Peter replies, We've given up everything for you!

Now we could read this line as Peter needing reassurance: will you reward us? Will you give us what is right and just?

I'm wondering if there was also something else in Peter's question. I wonder if he was like the Café Primo ad: "Pretty good, hey? We've been with you from the beginning. We started work in the Vineyard of the Kingdom at 6 a.m. Pretty good, hey?"

And Jesus says, Yes, but...   Yes… you will be first in the kingdom of heaven, but… I do not think you know what that word means, because many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

In fact, because Peter is among the first, he and the other disciples of Jesus, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And 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. 

The lives of the disciples will be the standard by which discipleship and relationship will be judged. It's not that they will pick and choose people, but their lives, and the life of Jesus who they followed, will be the standard that measures, or shines a light upon,  the relationship people have had with God,  because… the first will be last, because… those who are first have given everything to enable the last to come into the kingdom.

And at this point we can imagine Peter saying "What!??"

Well, says Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven… the kingdom of God… life in relationship with God… is a bit like a man who "who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard."

We know the story… but what we miss is what's behind the men who were standing idle… it's not about laziness. These men were day labourers. There was no work for them because of the way society was structured, and because those rich in power and money had stolen society for themselves. So these men were not only the last ones hired, they were the last ones in society, the ones at the bottom. They were the ones our society blames for being poor.

“Their situation was more precarious than slaves,” (writes William Carter, author of Matthew in the Margins,) “since an employer had no long-term investment in them.”  And yet the landowner promised to pay them "what was right."

Society tells us that "what was right" for those who are last is 1/12 of a day's pay… and when it comes to unemployment benefits, and pensions, and the NDIS, the rich and powerful in society constantly claim you don't even deserve that! But the landowner puts the last first. Not only [are] the people at the end of the line … paid the same as us, they also get it first…. (thanks to Stan Duncan for this.) The Kingdom of Heaven is quite different to what we do.

Can you see how, in these verses, Matthew specifically relates justice to salvation and to eternal life? Relationship with God turns everything on its head. Relationship with God says life is not about us!!!

If we will not seek to live justly, if we walk away with our riches, or quarantine our riches from our following Jesus, if we say, "Yes, but…" we will find we are facing the eye  of a needle!  There will only be so far we can go in our relationship with God,  not because God rejects us, but because we refuse to let go of the things that stop us relating to God more deeply.  I'm talking to you here as someone who keeps head butting the eye of a needle!

You'll notice that the young man is referred to in two ways:

Jesus implies he is a rich person (Matthew 19:23-24), but Matthew merely says he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:22)

I have many possessions which are not directly related to money: status, respectability, popularity, pride in what I do.  And I possess, or is it that I am possessed by… envy? I am envious of those who get more kudos for their efforts, even when it seems to me I have done more and I have done better, and I have seen more deeply what the Gospel implies, and I've been a minister for much longer…   

Put in the words of the Gospel, I am seeking to be the rich young ruler of my own life…

  —— and I wonder if there was a time, after a certain amount of healing, that I understood very well what had happened to me, what had been done to me and, in my privilege, I held onto that like a possession. I would not let go of it— I owned it and held onto the right to be angry at the injustice. I made it a possession— and it possessed me ——

Here's the thing: Like the landowner, God has given me what is right, and what is just. But the landowner was not God. The landowner could have paid more to the men who worked harder and longer! Why doesn't God do this?

It's because God gives "to each of us the whole of what there is to give." (Michael Hardin) There is no more that God can give us than giving us relationship with God.  All of us will sit at the right hand of God, at the table, because that is what salvation is. That is all God can give us, for relationship with God is everything.

We heard the verses which followed this reading:

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.

Jesus, who was first, went to Jerusalem and gave himself to be the last of society. He calls us to do the same. God save me from hanging onto what I have and who I am and finding I can't go with him because what I have and who I am means I'm like a man trying to fit through the eye of a needle. God help me let go of all the stuff that weighs me down.

What  I'm saying is that if I seek to give my life to Jesus through my living for others, even just beginning that living for others, it begins to strip off the stuff that holds me away from God. And if I will not, then even though God offers me what is right and just, I will not be able to see it, and will stand outside grumbling in the vineyard, and then go away grieving with my many possessions.  Amen

Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on this text

Matt 20:1-16 - Labourers in the Vineyard
Matthew 20:1-16 - Labourers in the Vineyard (2)
Matthew 20:1-16 and Dr. Temperance Brennan
Matthew 20: 1-16 - It's not what you think, Peter





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