Is the Kingdom of God an Entitlement Program?

Matthew 21:33-46

This is a dangerous question to ask. Why? Because grace is holy ground for many people. The majority of these people have been trained since childhood that grace is the magic word that brings salvation. Except there’s one problem. Salvation isn’t about life after death. Salvation is about finding life during life. For a hungry Haitian child, salvation is about finding food and potable water each day.

When a rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said, “Follow the commandments.” Jesus didn’t say, “Trust in the grace of God.” Many commentaries remind us that eternal life to the New Testament writers was not about life after death. Eternal life is the quality of life God desires you and me to have today. Life during life.

When the young man said, “I’m following the commandments” (the I’m-not-hurting-anyone commands), Jesus said, “Okay, since that’s not bringing you what you imagine eternal life is supposed to bring, then take the next step and do something to help someone else. Sell your possessions and help the poor. And join me in my healing ministry.” Give up living only for yourself and do something to help others.

In the Gospel story of the tenants of the vineyard, Jesus didn’t specify trusting in the grace of God as the way to please the Owner. It sounds like the Owner has expectations. It sounds like there’s no free lunch. The first workers hired to tend the vineyard may have worked hard to make the vineyard flourish and they may have produced much fruit for themselves. But they didn’t want to share it with the Owner. Their selfishness kept them from receiving the kingdom.

So the kingdom of God (which we were told by Jesus and John the Baptist is a present day reality – not something you get after you die) will be received by those who return the expected portion of the fruit to the Owner of the vineyard.

That’s what makes me ask the question: Does Paul’s explanation that we are saved by grace through faith match what Jesus said is needed to receive the kingdom? Or are we comparing apples to oranges when we talk about saved and the kingdom?

I’m at a conference as I write this. The focus has been on how to bring greater meaning and flow to worship on Sunday mornings. It’s very instructive and important and helpful. But as I consider this parable about the workers in the vineyard, I wonder if making Sunday morning worship meaningful for privileged people who have been given the vineyard is the kind of fruit the Owner wants?

Does God want well-performed worship, even if it’s performed with great thanksgiving for the favor we’ve been given by God? Churches across the country say, “Thanks, God.” And then we all go to the local buffet, spend more money than is put in the collection plate and say to each other, “Wasn’t that a wonderful service?” Meanwhile, thirty Christian schools in Haiti (with over 6000 children) have applied to start feeding programs through Trinity/HOPE but are waiting for sponsors to fund them. Twenty-five cents feeds a child one meal. Forty-five dollars will feed one child for the entire school year. 90% of these children eat one meal a day, and that’s if they go to a school with a feeding program. Will anyone share the fruits of their labors with them?

Martin Luther said that ritual and religious ceremony mean nothing to God if my neighbor lies hungry outside my door. In 1 John 3:17 it says, “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

Yes, grace is important to understand. So much of what we have been given has been nothing you or I “deserved.” What did I do to deserve being born Caucasian? In the United States? To loving parents? A male? A heterosexual? Right handed? I’ve certainly been “saved” by the grace of God in these ways. Now, more important, how will I receive the kingdom of God while I journey through the rest of this blessed life?

According to Jesus, possessing the kingdom of God is about sharing the fruit of our labors. And that makes me think what I do or don’t do has something to do with receiving the kingdom. What do you think?

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