The Merit of Good Works
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year. Is 55:6-9; Ps 145:2-3,8-9,17-18; Phil 1:20c-24,27a; Mt 20:1-16a
In today's First Reading God tells us that his ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts. So we should not be surprised at how God so often acts in ways that confound our expectations. The parable in today's Gospel, that of the workers in the vineyard, is certainly a moral story with an unexpected outcome. The vineyard symbolizes this present world; the landowner is, of course, God; the laborers are all those called to God's work in the world and evening is the time of death, judgment and reward. So in this parable Jesus describes the life, death and judgment of every Baptized person, including ourselves. The surprise is, of course, that those in the parable who started the Lord's work in the last hour of their lives receive the same wage as those hired at the beginning of their lives. If we assume that there should be some proportionality between the amount of work done and the reward received, God seems to act unjustly towards those who have worked their whole lives long. How, then, can we explain this apparent injustice?
The most obvious answer is that the rewards of eternity are not proportional to the amount of work done in this life in the Lord's service. Indeed, the only person in Jesus' ministry whom Jesus promises will go straight to paradise when he dies is a miserable thief crucified beside him who simply begs him for salvation, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) The thief has no time left in his life for any other work in the Lord's service, yet apparently just by asking, he is promised eternal life. So one answer to the problem raised by the parable of the vineyard is that there is no connection between labors undertaken and rewards given. Salvation is simply an unearned, and perhaps even arbitrary gift.
There is, however, a puzzle with this response. While it is true that we cannot earn our salvation by our own efforts, there are many verses in the Bible that imply that our labors in this life are rewarded in eternity. Jesus promises, for example, that “whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” (Matt. 10:42). Similarly, St. Paul promises that afflictions endured while serving the Lord in this world prepare for us an eternal weight of glory that bears no comparison to our sufferings (2 Cor 4:17). Such texts therefore seem to suggest that God remembers and richly rewards each and every one of our good works in his service. Why, then, in today's parable of the vineyard do those who have labored all day, presumably doing more good work than the others, receive the same reward as those who arrive right at the end of the day?
I suggest, tentatively, that the key to answering this problem lies in what is really meant by ‘the Lord's work’. What, after all, is the real work of God to which we are called? A moment's thought shows that the value of our work for God cannot be measured by productive output for as long a period as possible. Although our society is accustomed to measure the worth of persons by their production, our God, who created a universe with at least one hundred billion galaxies, does not need us to produce things. So what does God want from us? Well in John's Gospel, Jesus says that the eternal life he wishes us to have is to know the true God (John 17:3). Now to know someone with the knowledge of friendship requires some sort of correspondence between the person who knows and the one who is known. Following this line of thought, our work in this life is, therefore, to become like God, at least on a tiny scale, and consequently to act and to love in the sort of ways in which God acts and loves. It is not, therefore, the amount of work that we do, but the extent to which our hearts are surrendered to God which matters in the sight of God. Evidence for this answer can be seen by the way in which Jesus especially commends small but extravagant actions, actions that are materially inconsequential but which flow from a heart that is broken and surrendered. Hence Jesus praises the poor widow who gave up her last two copper coins to God's service far more than the rich people who contributed a fraction of their abundant wealth (Luke 21:2). Hence Jesus commends the actions of the woman who wets his feet with her tears above the generosity of the good Pharisee who invites him to dinner (Luke 7:36-50). Hence Jesus commends the sufferings of St. Paul and the action of the thief who humbly asks for salvation. Hence Jesus says that to give a single cup of cold water will be rewarded, not because of the material value of the water, but because of the love of God which motivates the generosity. Extravagant actions such as these do not necessarily require much time or many possessions, but they do require much faith and much love - and this is what God commends and rewards.
From this perspective, therefore, today's Gospel is a solemn warning to those apparently working hard in the Lord's service. The laborers who grumble at the landowner's generosity may have been materially productive in their lives but they fail to understand the heart of the landowner on the day of judgment. These laborers do not, therefore, really know the God for whom they have been working, which means they have not done the true work of God at all. This is why God passes a terrible sentence on them, “take what is yours and go.” To be told to depart from God's presence is not what we want to hear on judgment day. The true work of God is to have a crucified heart, on fire with divine love. A heart that is proud and envious of God's generosity is a heart empty of love and, therefore, empty of God.
May God help us to understand the true nature of our work for Him in this life. May God give us broken hearts, on fire with divine love.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 21st September 2008
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