One of Jesus’ most astonishing and unsettling parables is that of the ‘workers in the vineyard’: (Matthew 20: 1 – 16). This parable seems to be dreadfully unjust. The landowner is of course God, and He pays everyone the same wage in spite of the fact that some workers toiled all day in the heat of the sun, while others just started at the final hour. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus also states that the ‘lucky’ guys who came to the vineyard late in the day also got paid first! No wonder that the early starters grumbled against their employer (God). What on earth is Jesus telling us in this parable?
We can make a couple of points:
~ the landowner (God) goes out to recruit workers (us) to work in his vineyard (to live a life of love and service) – as with all Jesus’ parables, it is about us;
~ the single ‘wage’ for all is eternal life in His kingdom of love – as such there is no greater wage imaginable, beyond all price.
So the wage for our loving service in this life is eternal bliss in the next life. Wage is perhaps a misleading term here because we can never earn eternal life, so it doesn’t matter when we start to live a life of love as long as we do start! But why does God make such a point of paying those first who came late (to love)?
We can point to Luke 15: 7 where Jesus declares that the late-repenting sinner is the cause of God’s greatest rejoicing because they were ‘lost’ and now are ‘found’. This echoes the great parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11 – 32). In this story Jesus makes it very clear that the older son, who never ‘sinned’, was blazing angry with his father (God) for being so merciful to his wastrel brother. It was manifestly unjust.
I think the key point in all these Gospel texts is that God is not interested in justice – He is only interested in mercy. We need to appreciate that there is a huge difference between these two qualities:
~ when one is shown justice, one gets what one deserves;
~ when one is shown mercy, one is let off ‘scot-free’.
Mercy is therefore all about a relationship where one party acts freely and is entirely gracious to the other party. The party shown mercy can never demand or merit the gift of the other’s mercy – it is the giver’s free choice. In the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s abundant mercy has literally been poured on all humanity. One image of our salvation is that Jesus himself carries us ‘piggyback’ through the mercy-gate into Heaven. There is therefore no place for human pride – the workers in the vineyard who worked all day and received a very fair wage were still angry, precisely because their pride had been injured by having to wait in line while the late starters got paid the same, and got paid first.
So we sinners do not earn God’s mercy – not only it is God’s free gift to us, it is a done-deal, given already. But while it is God’s free gift already given, there is an important corollary to our receiving mercy: having been shown mercy by God, we in our turn must show mercy to our sisters and brothers. Jesus makes this very clear in his parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18: 21 – 35). Moreover, because God’s mercy is so immense and so vital for our eternity, there is no human situation where we can righteously withhold mercy to our brethren. No matter how we feel we have been hurt, we must always be merciful – because God has been so radically merciful to us. So often it is our sense of hurt pride that stops us doing what we should. Many spiritual teachers hold pride to be the ‘root’ sin.
My short poem ‘Justice and Mercy’ tries to express these deep realities:
Justice and Mercy – Poems for Pilgrims