A wealthy man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life. After the man says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus tells him to go and sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. This causes the young man to go away sad because he had great wealth.
While the disciples marvel at Jesus' words about the extreme incompatibility between wealth and being his disciples, they also seem to be sort of encouraged by it. Peter replies in Matthew 19:27, "See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" In other words, Peter recognizes that he has done the very thing that Jesus told this wealthy man to do. So he wants to know what reward he will receive in return. And Jesus doesn't rebuke Peter for his thinking here. He doesn't tell Peter that his focus is on the wrong things. In fact, Jesus says that the twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones with Jesus in his kingdom and that everyone who has left family and possessions for Jesus sake will receive a hundred times what they have lost and receive eternal life. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.
But then Jesus tells a story....
Its the kind of story Jesus seems to be fond of telling, the kind that gets under our skin.
The story is one about a landowner who went out to hire workers to work in his field. He hired some first thing in the morning and agreed to pay them a denarius for a day's work. The landowner went out again around 9 a.m. and again around noon and 3 p.m. each time agreeing to pay the workers a wage that was just. He finally went out around 5 p.m., when one would think the work day was nearly done, and made the same agreement with even more workers. At the end of the day, the landowner instructed his foreman to pay the workers in reverse order. As it turned out, the foreman paid those who had come at the end of the day a denarius. When those who had been working all day saw this, they expected to receive more. But they too received a denarius.
These workers grumbled against the landowner and who could blame them? Doesn't he know how this works? Who of us, if we had been working faithfully in a career for many years and saw someone fresh out of college who had never done anything receive the same salary as us their first day of work, wouldn't be furiously upset by the injustice of it all?
There are obviously a lot of good reasons why hard work and a lifetime of experience should be rewarded in the work place. The only problem is most of us have to spend so much time in that kind of environment that we begin to think that everything in life should work that way...even the Church. Sure we want new Christians in our congregation but only as long as they realize that the Church runs by our rules because we are the ones who have been here for decades and worked hard to make this place what it is.
But Jesus says that his kingdom isn't like corporate America. His kingdom is like this landowner. It is a kingdom determined not by our hard work and long tenure, although those will be rewarded, but a kingdom determined by the compassion and mercy of its king. It is a kingdom of grace.