The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a punch line. This means that we can follow it very easily.
An employer pays his workers according to the agreement he made with them. They are greatly surprised, and annoyed, to find that he has paid them all the same amount, even though they have done significantly different amounts of work. The problem, though, is not simply to understand the story. We also have to ask what lesson are we supposed to draw from it.
Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace. They take the message to be that Christian employers ought to pay their workers equally rather than on a meritocratic basis. Sometimes, they have found warrant in it for an even wider principle of Christian social ethics, one that supports something like the Marxist dictum ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is not talking about ordinary life, but about ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other.
Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the labourer who complains that he has worked all day, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. At one level that is plainly true, but is it a good enough response to the complaint? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the labourers who worked longer deserve more?
These questions have familiar religious parallels. If the redemption of the world is universal and includes everyone who repents, this means that repentance wipes out past sins. However wicked anyone has been, it seems it doesn't matter in the end. Could such a doctrine be squared with our sense of justice? Can it be just for God to treat fraudsters, child abusers, serial killers and terrorists in the same way as those who have been decent Christians -- or simply decent citizens -- all their lives, provided they express repentance, should it only be on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness, if it makes no difference in the end?
To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’ (as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). That is to say, unlike payment, the value of knowing the love of God in Christ can't be measured in any meaningful way. Duration does not determine the value of love between people. Love is not lessened in or for those who die young. Similarly, living in awareness of God's love is supremely valuable regardless of how early or late in life we have come to it. Nothing can improve upon it because there simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. And this remains true, quite irrespective of how God treats other sinners.
Knowledge of our own salvation, then, should dispel any envious glances we might be tempted to cast at those who, from a materialistic point of view, ‘got away with it’. Are the years they lived in self-indulgence, dishonesty or cruelty a way of life we would have chosen, if only we had known that we could be forgiven just before death? What kind of life could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible? Of course, we know that we will always fall short. That is why repentance and forgiveness have such an important role.
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