Homily for Septuagesima at Christ Chapel, 30 January, 2021
Rev. Dr. T. Y. Hiter
What’s it like, in Heaven, do you suppose? Are the streets really paved with gold, like is suggested in the Book of Revelation? Is Heaven really a fifteen-hundred miles on a side cube? If so, how will we get air? And, imagine the plumbing! Is that the real heaven? The New Jerusalem?
Or, maybe, is that not the question I ought to be asking, in the first place? Maybe I ought to be asking, “What’s it like in the Kingdom of God”? We use the two terms interchangeably, it seems, but, are the two really the same thing? Is “The Kingdom of Heaven” the same as “Heaven, and is either one the same thing as “The Kingdom of God”?
It’s clear to me that Jesus got asked the same questions, on occasion, and He tried to answer them. He was, first of all, we need to remember, a teacher. And, so, in this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, He was trying to answer this question, or a version of it. As remembered by Matthew, He used the words “kingdom of heaven”, so I think we’re on pretty safe ground if we use the same words. Actually, Matthew, and so I think we can safely do the same, said “kingdom of the heavens”, Basileia ton ouranion, which is somewhat different from the language that John uses in Revelation: polin hagian… katabainousan apo tou Theo ek tou ouranou. John uses the singular; Matthew the plural, but that just further confuses the issue, doesn’t it? Not too many years ago, people around here spoke regularly of “kingdom come” as eternity, with an imputation that it coincided with heaven, even if they didn’t regularly actually spell it out. And, then, we ought to remember that Matthew may very well have written his Gospel in either Hebrew or Aramaic, which had to be translated into Greek even before the earliest copies we have were made. We cannot ignore the possibility of a translator error, when it comes to a single letter of a single word, even if it is a very important word.
So, what did Jesus say? In our lesson, it says: “1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. 8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. 13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” That’s what Jesus said.
But, what did he mean? Did He mean that Heaven is, literally, a vineyard, and the inhabitants there mere laborers? I have to confess, I can imagine far worse environs in which to spend eternity, but that’s not exactly what He said. He said the Kingdom is like a vineyard. And, elsewhere, Jesus routinely used “Kingdom of God” instead of “kingdom of heaven’, anyway. Note Luke 4: where Jesus says he must go to the other cities of Galilee to teach about the Kingdom, or chapter 7, where He says “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”, during the Sermon on the Mount. “Basileia tou Theou”.
Interestingly, to me, is that no matter what Matthew and John talked about, Jesus didn’t necessarily even specify “heaven (or the heavens)” as the location. It’s “the kingdom of heaven”, but we all talk about things like that all the time without really expecting others to take us literally. Where is “the animal kingdom”, for instance? Isn’t it wherever there’s an animal? Ditto for plants. Ditto for all sorts of things. So, I think we can stop all this semantics stuff and assume that Jesus, himself, saw “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven” as being the same thing. I don’t think He was talking about a physical entity, city or farm, even in this Universe. I think He was talking about a spiritual state that exists here and now.
So, there you go. Where’s Heaven? We’re living in it. Or, we can be, if we’ll just try. How will we know? Because it’s different, there. This is, arguably, the world. The physical Universe. We have no choice concerning the place where our bodies live. Our bodies are physical, and they are part of the physical Universe, subject to its laws and rules and logic. But our spirits…, our spirits do not have to be so constrained. They MAY, make no mistake! Our spirits may be just as bound to the trees and dirt and rocks and waters of this world as our bodies are, but they don’t have to be. Our spirits may, if we want them to, join other like spirits and become the body of Jesus Christ. In that way, and ONLY in that way, can we live in the Kingdom of God. I think that’s what it means.
I think that’s what Jesus was saying in our lesson, this morning. “15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” The Kingdom of God is different. It is completely turned around from the physical world. In it, the rich may be poor and the poor rich. The last may find themselves first and the first last. Some people who’ve gone to church their whole lives, but never really understood what God wanted of them, may be left out, come the Judgment, and some who only saw the light late in life may find a warm welcome. Fair? Not in the world, but those are the laws in the Kingdom. Meekness will rule. Weakness will find itself holding great power, while strength will accomplish nothing.
Do I really understand all of this? No, I confess I don’t. I’m very much a man of this world. I dedicated over 20 years to thinking like a paratrooper, and then another 20 to thinking like an administrator of education. In my world, for most of my life, there wasn’t much that couldn’t be fixed with an M-16 or a paddle. But that’s not the Kingdom of God, and learning that is a struggle for me. But I think it’s important that I keep trying. I think we all should. I want to be first in Heaven. Or, at least, I’d like to get there.