Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like some people who worked all day in a field and received the reward that they were promised for their work. No problem with that. Then the landowner hired others later in the day. Although they didn’t work as long or hard, their reward was the same as the first group hired.
How can the kingdom of heaven look like every worker in a field getting paid the same amount of money at the end of the day, no matter how long they worked? That doesn’t fit the rules of American capitalism. You should get paid in direct proportion to the labor you put into a job – and preferably – for most landowners hiring laborers, that will be minimum wage.
Let’s remember one thing. The kingdom of heaven isn’t about what’s fair by worldly/capitalistic justification. It’s about what’s good and right for all.
This is adapted from chapter two of my ebook In Living Color: Heaven that puts “the kingdom of heaven” in different words.
The Aramaic word for kingdom, malkuthakh, refers to the quality of rulership or the governing principles that guide one’s life. Neil Douglas-Klotz says the ancient roots of the word point to the image of “a fruitful arm poised to create, or a coiled spring that is ready to unwind with all the verdant potential of the earth.” A kingdom is a state of perpetual readiness to bring forth its fullness.
“The heavens” are all those things, visible and invisible, that work together in unity or perfect harmony.
The phrase “kingdom of heaven” can be more broadly understood as the potential for governing principles to bring unity – or as the harmonious interaction of all things working as one. This can be applied at many levels: (1) to the internal level and the resolution of the many thoughts and feelings within an individual, (2) to the unifying of the voices within a household, (3) to a congregation, a township, a city, (4) to a state, a nation, (5) to the global community, (6) to the natural world.
Where there is unity, all will be working for the good of each other. It’s the sense of spontaneous agreement when voices come together to work toward a common purpose.
When Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like this,” it might have sounded like this: “This is what the development of perfect order and harmony looks like.”
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During my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School, a visiting seminary professor from a third world country gave a lecture on this story of the workers in the vineyard. He said the people in his country understand this story from a different perspective. Many of them do not have work that extends from one day to the next. Sometimes they work for a day and then the work is over. They don’t know if they will be hired tomorrow. The pay they receive is usually just enough to feed their family for that day.
In his country, workers go and stand in the marketplace early in the morning, hoping someone might hire them so they and their families can eat that night. To be hired early means peace of mind for that day. And then if someone else is hired later in the day, they are grateful because a friend or relative will be able to feed their family, too. They don’t know if tomorrow, they will be that one that waits all day long to be hired. To have to wait until late in the day to be hired means they lack peace or the security that they will be able to feed themselves and their family.
It’s no party to stand in the market all day long, worrying if their children will go to bed hungry. Hope fades as the day goes on. It’s only when the landowner finds and hires them that they are assured that they will be fed and taken care of. To the people in this professor’s country, the landowner is more than fair. He is generous and they are grateful. Instead of calling this the story ‘the workers in the vineyard’, they see it as the story of the generous landlord.
In the kingdom of heaven (which Jesus proclaimed is “at hand” on earth) everyone is assured that they will eat at the end of the day, no matter who worked the hardest or longest. It’s about time we make that happen.
 Adapted from Paul W. Meier, In Living Color: Heaven, chapter two.