Of the more than fifty thousand people that will hear this broadcast this week, many will think my cheese has slid right off the cracker. The topic of justice is so central to our framework of ultimate reality (God) that it’s nearly impossible for us to see beyond it. As an online pastor, I’m not paid to pander to my core base and I don’t receive a single dime for this ministry, I’m free to teach this parable how it was intended. Do I have your attention?
In case you think I’ve misinterpreted this passage, I have prepared a list of 132 verses throughout scripture where you can read for yourself that God’s goal of justice NOT about getting even, but about making all things whole.
Last week I explained why truth is always disappointing at first. We pridefully assume we posses the truth and thus we immediately disregard alternative perspectives due to our binary framework of thinking. Will you be a student (disciple) and remain humble enough to receive this? If so, your life is about to change.
The only justice most of us have is retribution. Retribution is the idea that justice is about evening the score (eye for an eye). Retributive justice is the lens through which nearly everyone we know has understood God and the bible. Retribution is the basis of Religion’s power plays and fear tactics. It’s a tribal and mythological way to understand and thus fear deities. In the bible, there are countless texts that reflect this human bias, however if we keep reading, an alternative form of justice (restoration) always emerges (included in link above).
Retribution means God will do something severe to “those people” who aren’t as good as us, or who don’t believe like us, or who aren’t as smart, clever or lucky as us. In fact many religious people are strangely comforted by believing God will get even with those not like us. Our core belief says; “I’m on God’s side, and they aren’t.” Like Esau, we comfort ourself with the death of our brother (Genesis 27:42)
Jesus told a story about the Justice of Heaven and it destroyed the expectations of his audience and if I tell it correctly it will do the same to much of mine. How do you understand the justice of heaven? Do only a few get to go? Among most religions, God fails to save most of humanity. The story line is theologically untenable, but for lack of an alternative we hold on to it.
It was the same in Jesus day. Historical Judaism was the elite religion that had the one true God. The temple and its leaders then ran roughshod with ethical violence to gain compliance from the masses and appease their angry God. Like all of Jesus teachings, he subverts these ideas by reframing reality, I hope to do this for you today.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) eradicates retributive justice. The story tells of a manager of field who hires workers at the beginning of the day and each worker agrees to work for a denarius (a days wage). Every couple of hours the manager goes out to the city and finds more people to come and join the work, offering each a day’s wage. He does this up to the very last hour of work.
When it’s time for payment, those hired last are given a full-days wage. This continues down the line to those who bore the work in the heat of the day (v.12), each getting a denarius. Those hired first are furious. “It’s unfair” they say (v.12). That is precisely how we know Jesus is teaching about justice. We latch on to retribution when we perceive life as unfair.
The hiring manager responds unexpectedly (v.14). He scolds those hired first for trying to begrudge the manager for his generosity. This is our clue to Heaven and why some people will not accept heaven on its terms. For them, an “unfair” Heaven is not heaven. Many hate how unfair heaven actually is (both now and later).
The manager (God) is not dividing us up into good, better and best, that’s what religion does. The goal is to make everyone whole (thus the symbolism of the denarius). Each person receives enough. Heaven is not a meritocracy. We don’t earn it. Regardless of our proximity to it, first or last, (19:30, 20:16) wholeness is given to all.
Restoration for everyone are the terms of heaven, we all must agree to those terms (v.13). That easier for those who haven’t labored much. Those with the most skin in the game (entrenched in religion) prefer retribution and merit over restoration and wholeness. Imagine a roller coaster that everyone gets to ride, but our place in line has no bearing on when. Heaven is not “First come, first serve,” it’s “all come, all served.”
Hell then, is hating the justice of heaven and clinging to what is fair. Does this message disappoint you too? I think this is why the gates of heaven are always open and the river of life flows out of the city to heal the disappointed (Revelations 22:2).
The justice of heaven is not based on the merit of some. It’s based in love for all. Restoration is justice because it makes all things whole, complete and justified. Restoration understands we all fall short (Romans 3:23). Small or large it’s still an uncrossable gap. So at the right time God makes us whole for no other reason than love and desire. Restoration, not retribution most optimally glorifies God. The athlete who never drops a ball has more glory than the one who only catches perfect throws.
Jesus concludes with the famous words: “ The first will be last and the last will be first.” It’s paradoxical that those who think they are closest to Heaven are actually farthest from it, while hose who can’t even describe themselves as insiders are so much closer because they understand that it wasn’t them that put them there. Prostitutes and sinners will enter before the religious (Matthew 21:31).
Do you realize that both the humble and the proud are shocked at Ultimate Reality? This means none of us got it right? How could we? None of us possess all the truth. Restoration is far better than meeting our expectations. Those who expected ruin find new life, those who expect congratulations find disappointment.
Only when all comers lay down our “right” to complain, do we create the space for restoration and gain the eyes to see the Kingdom of Heaven. The question before us today is: are you ok with the managers generosity? If you insist on fairness, then heaven will be your greatest disappointment.