Justice and Mercy

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


Is there anyone in Hell?

Hell, we are told, is a place of eternal damnation, where everything that fulfils a person is absent, and most terrible of all, when we should be enjoying the glorious sight of God forever, He is absent, forever.  All in all, to end up in Hell is simply the most awful fate that anyone can ever suffer.

We don’t need to envisage Hell as a place of fire and demons and awful screaming, no more than we need to envisage God as a white-bearded old man.  These were old and simplistic ways of emphasising aspects of the spiritual mysteries.  Perhaps better to think of Hell as just an awful boring, cold, grey, desolate wilderness where the occupants wander aimlessly about, never finding any solace or meaning to their lives.  And never means never – eternity, without end.

The problem for God is that although He has made us for Himself, to live in His love forever, He cannot force Himself on us.  He has already given us eternal life and there is a place for each one of us in His kingdom of love.  But we are radically free to accept this gift or to reject it, and He has to respect our life choices.  This is why Hell must exist – it is the very condition of our freedom.

We can be sure of this: God doesn’t want anyone to end up in Hell.  If we look at it from our perspective, imagine if someone you love was to end up in Hell – how would you be able to spend eternity in Heaven knowing that your loved one wasn’t there?  How much more terrible for God who is the greatest Lover?  For someone to be in Hell would be an eternal wound in the heart of God.

Traditional theology and practice have tended to suggest that one single act, one serious sin, could effectively send us to Hell.  In that case, Hell would be very crowded indeed.  I think we can now reject such an unrealistic and negative doctrine.  What then is the entry qualification for Hell?  I think it would have to be a deliberate and sustained life stance of hating and wounding other people, and that such a person never repented before their death.  This would be the conscious and total rejection of love in favour of hate.  I think we can all think of historical people who might fit this bill: infamous and powerful individuals who caused widespread suffering and death.  This suggests to me that the population of Hell is in fact quite small.  Might it actually be zero?  In other words, Hell exists but the entry qualification is way too high…

I think two things are clear from Jesus’ own teaching:

~ if anyone truly repents at the very last moment of their life then God forgives them;

~ we cannot ever say that any one person is damned to Hell.

The Church of course canonises individuals who lived a saintly life – effectively saying that these folk are in Heaven.  The Church never says that a specific person is in Hell.

I’m suggesting therefore that few if any people are in Hell.  Yet let’s be honest, some of Jesus’ statements would tend to suggest that it’s the other way round: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7: 14)  Does this statement not contradict what I’ve been saying?  I don’t think so.  I think Jesus is talking here not so much about eternal life but life here and now.  In other words, he’s acknowledging that few people seem to radically respond to God’s Spirit and live a life of holiness – before they die.

Ultimately the only entry qualification for Heaven is… God’s mercy,

in His love,


We are Immortal!

You, and I, are immortal. We will never cease to exist.

This present moment, in which you’re reading this, is but one of an endless succession of moments. And yes, a moment is coming for all of us – our death – but death is itself a moment in that succession, to be followed by an unending stream of other moments. Death is not the end for us, but rather a transition from one state into another.

This is the message of the Gospel of Jesus, that we are created by God, and maintained by God, and will be forever. And the dynamic of this permanent relationship with God is quite simply His unconditional love. Such a love we can barely comprehend, but one way of understanding it is that there is nothing you or I can do to stop God loving us. Nothing. He will never go back on His decision to give us life. You and I are immortal and there is nothing we can do, even if we wanted to, to terminate that immortality.

The key question is actually: what will be the nature of this unending existence? Eternal life with God, or… eternal desolation and meaninglessness without Him? And that’s our choice here and now, for He will never force Himself on us. So it’s not whether we will cease to exist but rather the quality of that limitless span. I repeat, you and I are immortal.

I cannot prove this. It requires to be accepted on faith. But there are strong pointers as to why this should be our destiny. If we stop to ponder and discern what is at the core of our being we should discover that there are two fundamental needs – and these two needs are common to all humanity, because what is most core to our being is also most universal. These two needs are:

~ to be as happy / fulfilled as it’s possible to be;

~ to be that happy for as long as possible.

Who among us would settle for only partial happiness? And who would settle for a limited period of happiness? Would you?

That profound inner truth, common to all people, that our sole fulfilment is unending joy, can only ever be fully met by a loving God. No human agency can ever do this for us. OK, you may say, faith is then the pathetic projection of our deepest wishes, never to be fulfilled – a nostrum for the weak-willed. The ultimate ‘pie in the sky’. I cannot prove otherwise, but neither can anyone discount the possibility that we might actually be created for the fulfilment of those needs placed there by a loving Creator. Faith in God is then not irrational but rather supra-rational.

The Gospel of Jesus is truly good news, the best news, ever. Understood properly, Jesus’ message of radical love resonates with our deepest nature. And moreover, it means that eternity is now: this present moment is itself part of that endless stream of moments.

God is with you today, singing His love song in your inner core,