Reflection by Anne Stewart


So, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a place where you get what you think you deserve! Is this
news to you? Are you perhaps having some second thoughts about its appeal? How can a
slice of heaven on earth be a place where everyone gets the same reward whether they
work a full day or not? It’s starting to sound like a communist state! How can heaven not
be fair, as we understand fair to be, anyway? The other day I heard Dan describe this story
as a scandalous parable. And the American theologian and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor,
says that it is “…a little bit like cod liver oil: You know Jesus is right, you know it must be
good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” 1


If you are wondering, as I did, why Jesus told this parable at this point, then it might help to
know what comes before and after this story. The parable sits neatly between two
encounters that Jesus has, where his own disciples are jockeying for position. In the first
encounter, Peter has been asking Jesus what the disciples can expect by way of reward for
their loyalty to Jesus; i.e. will it raise their status? The second encounter is with the mother
of James and John, who tries to make a special case for her two sons, asking that one be
seated in his left and the other on his right. We like to line things up, don’t we; best to last,
and then get about working out where we come in the line-up. Then we can begin to
determine how to push ahead!


Can you remember how it feels when you’re stuck in a queue? The waiting; the frustration;
the fear that you might miss out and not get the prize at the end of the wait. A few years
ago, Martin and I were in Melbourne. We were there, with a couple of friends, because U2
were playing and we couldn’t get tickets to the concert in Auckland. Of course, as soon as
we purchased the tickets for the Melbourne show, a second concert was arranged for
Auckland – but too late, the damage was done, and we just had to go to Melbourne.

Popping across was all so simple back then, and not much more expensive than a trip to
Auckland. Not something you would contemplate this year! Anyway, on the morning of
the concert we were off wandering around having a nice time and we thought it might be
wise to check out the venue so we would know which buses and/or trams we would need
later in the day. When we got there, we discovered that people were already queueing to
get in – hours before the gates were to open. Our friends had designated seats in the
stands so they were ok, but we were on the ground, so getting in early was more important
to us. After a short discussion we made the call to drop our plans for the rest of the day
and join the queue. Our friends went off to continue their day, safe in the knowledge that
their seats were secure, enabling them to come back at a more comfortable time. So, Mart
and I sat on the concrete, not exactly dressed as we had planned to be but eager to ensure
a good place in the grounds. We sat there for, I think, about 3 hours before the queue even
began to take proper shape. As it turns out, it was worth it, we were rewarded with a good
spot in which to watch the show. That experience popped into my mind this week when I
was thinking about this story Jesus told about what the kingdom of God is like. I am sure
you will have your own stories of times spent queueing in the hope, or expectation even, of
getting the place that you deserve after all that waiting.


It’s what we expect isn’t it? That we will be given what we want according to our place in
the line. If we have been smart enough, early enough or lucky enough to find ourselves in
the front of the queue then we should be rewarded by a good seat. I imagine there would
have been some consternation if the officials at the U2 concert had wandered to the back
of the line and pulled some people out and led them into the venue, in front of us. We
might have had to dig deep to restrain the indignation if that had happened! Most of our
social structures reinforce the idea that we deserve what we have earned. You do the
mahi, you get the treat. For instance, we are generally paid according to the hours we have
worked and pity help anyone who messes with that!


We hope we are better than this; but really most of us get a little jumpy when we see
someone get more than what we think they deserve. This often plays out in families. Older
siblings often think the youngest gets all the good stuff. After all the work the older ones
did to ‘train’ the parents, it’s not fair that the younger ones get the benefits of their hard
work. Yet the thing that strikes me in this parable is that the workers who worked all day
still got what they had agreed to, it’s not like they were short-changed in order for the
landowner to be generous to the others. They still got what was promised. But they were
very offended when others received the same money that they did, for doing less work. It’s
not fair, this business of messing with the unseen, unspoken of line that we all need in
order to keep things seemly. That line that says that those at the front of it are more
worthy than those who find themselves further back down the line.
And we are quick to look for reasons as to why they are down the line; they are lazy, they
don’t want it badly enough, they didn’t take school seriously. We need a reason because
then we can justify leaving them there, while we get about pushing ourselves further up the
line.


This ‘line’ is why some people objected when benefits were raised as the pandemic hit.
Why should they (those less worthy further down the line) get a handout when we have to
work hard just to get by? It’s why some people cry foul when entry to university is made
easier for Maori people when others feel they have worked hard to get in front of the
queue. I recall a friend’s child asking her parents to please have a really good look to see if
they could find any Maori blood in their background because her good friend had some,
and this had enabled her to gain preferential entry into her course and some financial help.
It wasn’t fair, the girl said, from her position near the front of the line.


And this, I think, is the heart of the problem that Jesus is alluding to. Not all of us start from
the same point. And those of us near the front of the queue, are generally unaware of
where our starting point is. We are not aware of it because most of us have always been
near the front of the queue. In Aotearoa New Zealand we live with the view that all people
have the same opportunities. Some of us just make better use of the opportunities offered,
better than others. If we get ahead it’s because we have worked harder. But this is a myth.
It’s not the even playing field we like to think it is. Nobody would choose to be at the back
of this line! For instance, as Pakeha, we start from a very different place in the line than
Maori do. For far too long, our systems and processes have been geared directly at Pakeha,
and Maori have had to try and fit, and if they can’t fit then they get left to slip further down
the line. So, some recalibrating has had to happen to shift the balance and enable them to
find their way up to the place where the opportunities are offered. But when our systems
do take account of this, and offer a hand up to Maori, to redress the imbalance, the outcry
echoes, usually from those whose advantage is so deeply ingrained that they are not even
aware of it.


I recall as a child the Maori language was considered a dying language and therefore
learning it was a waste of time. Many Maori around that time were forbidden to use the
language in public, or at school, so it was forced into homes, or dark corners where it
wouldn’t cause offence. The cry then, and in places still today, was that we are all one
country so we should all speak one language as in Hobsons pledge – by that, of course, we
mean the Pakeha language, Pakeha systems, Pakeha ways. It didn’t matter that we had
signed up to a Treaty that spoke of partnership, a covenantal partnership to boot! That
too, was ignored or reinterpreted to ensure a privileged European worldview and
dominance.

There were more of ‘us’, we thought we were smarter, so we win and get it all on our
terms. Doesn’t that sicken you, that many of us got all caught up in that stuff! Can you see
how important it is to be in the business of trying to right some of these old wrongs? We
have been brought up in a system where there was very little room or consideration given
for what we might learn from these people of the land, because we were too caught up in
the arrogance of advantage. You might have heard Jim Bolger on Radio NZ this week
talking about how important being comfortable with Te Reo Maori is to our identity as New
Zealanders. He fought in the 70’s to make the teaching of Te Reo Maori compulsory in all
primary schools. Sadly, that failed and we are still not there yet. There was even an outcry
when the current government made the teaching of Maori history compulsory a year or so
back.


I think Jesus has something to say to us here and now, in this uncomfortable story about
what the kingdom of heaven is like. He has something to say to our ideas of fairness. I
think he is telling us that it’s not the line that matters, or our place in it – it’s us, all of us,
that matters. We can be part of this way of seeing our world for what it is. We can stand
against systems that enable people to stand on those further down the line for their own
advantage. We can learn what it really means to be in genuine partnership with the people
of the land, the tangata whenua.


We set aside one week a year to celebrate the language of the land, we have to do this
because we haven’t given it nearly enough room or attention for far too long. We still have
significant imbalances to address. This will take time, there are years of wrongs to right.
Remember the outcry when the treaty pay-outs were being made a decade or two back.
They are giving the country away, some yelled, ignoring the reality – that tribes like Ngai
Tahu settled for something like 3% of what they were legally owed.


As followers of Christ, we, of all people, should be able to see why some work is needed to
correct the imbalances. We should be able to see it because we know of another way, the
kingdom of heaven way where the line and your place in it is immaterial to your value as a
person. We should be the ones cheering when someone in power walks down the line and
gives someone a hand up. Because this is what it is like in the kingdom of heaven, where
the last will be first and the first will be last. Where all receive the same welcome, whether
they are early or late, black or white, male or female, straight or not so. Yes, it is a
scandalous story, but praise be to God for his scandalous love!!

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven. Pp100