Living in the Reign of God

I spoke on Sunday at Salisbury Baptist Church using the texts from the Lectionary for the day, particularily Matthew 20 and the story of the Landowner and the Workers.

In this parable, Jesus shows us what God is like: always keeping his promises and always acting out of generosity and compassion.

It is interesting to look at the context Matthew gives to the telling of this story. In chapter 19, a rich man comes to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus answered, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

The rich man assured Jesus that he had kept these from an early age, to which Jesus replied: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Straight after that incident, Peter is recorded as saying to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27) (In today’s terms, “What about me?”) Jesus assures his discipels that they won’t be forgotten, and then adds this: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

He then tells the story of the vineyard and how workers were hired at the start of the day, at 9 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock and finally at 5 o’clock. Then, at the end of the day, the landowner paid them all one day’s wages.

Is this fair? If they got what they were promised, yes. Generous? Definitely. Not one of them could go home without money to provide for their families. Not one of them would go hungry.

We immediately see a kingdom principle demonstrated:  no one is left out. All are provided for.

But this is not the lesson Jesus himself wanted to teach. He concluded this parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It’s the upside-down, back-to-front nature of this kingdom that he wants to illustrate. It’s like nothing we would expect. It doesn’t follow the same rules as human dominions. It is based not on what we earn or deserve, but on grace, generosity and compassion.

Richard Rohr writes this about God’s reign:

Jesus announced, lived and inaugurated for history a new social order based on grace and not on merit. He called it the Reign or Kingdom of God. It is without doubt his most common metaphor, so it must be very important. Maybe we would just call it “the final and big picture.”  In the end, all will be based on the love and mercy of God—for everyone without exception.

This now and not-yet Reign of God is the foundation for our personal hope and our cosmic optimism, but it is also the source of our deepest alienation from the world as it is, which is all based on merit and win or lose (at which almost all lose!).  Living in the Reign of God will leave you as a “stranger and nomad” on this earth (Hebrews 11:13).  Our task is to learn how to live in both worlds until they become one world—at least in us. (from Jesus’ Plan for a New World by Richard Rohr)

Later in the day, I was at home and relaxing in my favourite spot (actually, trying unsuccessfully not to doze off) and decided to turn on the TV. Hugh Jackman‘s documentary Seeds of Hope was showing how World Vision was helping Ethiopian communities break the poverty cycle by working in small villages to develop networks of growers, sellers and buyers of coffee beans. It was such an encouragement to see this positive development in such a poor area of the world.

A portion of this doco featured the Ethiopian Prime Minister sharing how he saw climate change and poverty as being inextricably linked. This echoed not only in Hugh Jackman’s and Tim Costello‘s words on the screen, but also in what I’ve been reading from Brian McLaren in books such as Everything Must Change and A New Kind of Christianity.

If God’s will is for his reign to come on earth as it is in heaven, then it involves all of creation being redeemed (not just humans). It includes our stewardship over what God has given us (our planet) and how we wisely choose to use its resources for the good of the whole ecosystem.

The reason why so much poverty is present in many areas of the world today is largely due to the change of climate bringing either floods (S.E. Asia) or drought (Africa). Both have the potential to wipe out means of livelihood and bring poverty and despair.

Repositioning people, retraining, and helping them adapt to changing global conditions goes a long way to not only breaking the chains of poverty and disease, but bringing hope and a reason to live. This is what World Vision and many other NGOs are successfully doing in our world today. It often takes docos like this for us to see the good that is being done.

And so we see God’s kingdom coming, from small seeds in insignificant places. Maybe in our lifetime we will see these seeds grow into flourishing, sustainable communities that will be the start of a what will become a renewed, refreshed, and redeemed planet . . .

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