The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
What reward will you receive in the Kingdom of heaven? I've been present at various Bible studies (Protestant and Catholic) where people have discussed the merits that we receive when we get to heaven. The opposite has been also true, people have discussed the demerits—the low rungs of the heavenly ladder. I'm always floored by the conversations. Each time I'm stricken by the arrogance. I always feel like waving my hand, so I can say, "Is this about your crown or about Jesus?"
But it was no different in Jesus' day. His closest friends did the same thing. In multiple incidents, his apostles were positioning themselves to be at his right hand in the kingdom of heaven. Even the mother of the Zebedee brothers tried to intercede for her sons:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
All too often Protestants ponder the jewels in their crown. And Catholics overly concern themselves with their stint in Purgatory. If I do this, I'll be a brighter star in heaven. If I do that, I'll reduce my time in Purgatory. It's always so sad to hear this kind of talk. When the leadership of a church engages in this type of thinking, maybe they are trying to find a way to motivate people to love God and to love their neighbor more. But rather, I think these people are obsessed with this type of thinking themselves, just like the leadership of Jesus' day. But by focusing the flock on rewards or demerits, the opposite effect may occur because people become more focused on themselves. Selfish motivation causes us to look inward rather than outward.
Our motivation for doing the work of God is not what we will get or won't get out of it. The whole problem with mankind is our narcissism. It's all about me, right? Our motivation should be simply to love and to serve others because we are all the beloved of God. We should care less about what we are going to get out of it. It's not about me. It's about God.
I could care less about of my rank in heaven. I just want to do my best loving him and doing his will—as poor of a job as I do.
The spigot of God's love and grace pours on us all, "For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike." The best way to turn off the spigot is to start looking at it and pondering what am I getting out of it. When we look at what we're getting out of God, we do what Satan was best at—dwelling at his own brightness and his glory. Satan's most developed quality is always staring inward, never looking outward toward God. It's like a leaf expecting the sap to come from itself rather than looking for the tree to send forth the sap of life. The leaf would wither and die.
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard explains what it will be like for those who expect more glory for their work and deeds. Jesus speaks to those who think more about their crown or their length of stay in Purgatory.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Jesus speaks to our hearts when he asks how many of us are envious because God is generous? How often have we said in our hearts:
I've been in the Church my whole life, who does she think she is acting like she understands the word of God. He doesn't deserve the Eucharist until he learns how to be holy. Traditional ways of liturgy are more loved by God.
But the worst thought of all in this day and age is:
I don't deserve God's love because of what I've done.
In God's justice, the forgiven past has not only been forgiven, but it is also forgotten. Jeremiah and Isaiah explain that God completely forgets our forgiven sins. The past in the heavenly realm should not be understood using human reasoning.
God doesn't think about time in the way we do. He doesn't think about rewards like we do. He doesn't think about math in the way we do. In our business mindset, we think that the more time and energy one puts into something, the more it is worth. A doctor might say, "I deserve a good salary because of all work and schooling I put into my career." Someone who has had a difficult life might say, "I deserve better than this." God's judgment and fairness is incomprehensible to us, because of our sin. God explains to us through Job, "Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?" We just plain can't.
Not that we shouldn't. As repentant sinners, we look to God for our life, our hope and our joy. There is nowhere else to turn. We should seek him in all that we do and in everyone we meet. We should have that bright, hopeful expectation of being with him forever. But while sin is being cleansed from our heart, which it will be until the very last day, we will not be able to judge properly the mysteries of God.
In this parable, both the first and the last workers got paid the same amount, if everyone got paid exactly the same amount, the vineyard owner would have been considered exacting, rigid, and inflexible. But instead we learn that our God is generous, overflowing, ungrudging, free and lavish.
Make no mistake, being in heaven is a reward and the reward is great. Jesus explains in Matthew 19, just before the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard that "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for my name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life." Yet, he qualifies this when he says, "But many who are first will be last; and the last, first."
Christians are called to a new way of living and that puts us at odds with our families, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children and our workplace. It is inevitable, because the ways of the world do not, nor ever will, coincide with the ways of heaven. Worldly ways are based on sin and selfishness. This has always been the Christian dilemma in this age: how to coexist with the world. And honestly, we will all find that it cannot be done.
We find that we can't do things the way we did them before we were Christians. The entire world is based on a structure of sin. As we go along with our lives, we discover just how incompatible the ways of sin are with the ways of the "children of the light." As we discover these incompatibilities, we end up doing one of three things, (a) we may choose to abandon those worldly ways and live differently, (b) we may decide to justify them in order to coexist, or (c) worst of all, we may table the issue so we don't have to deal with it at the present. That's what I do in so many cases. But Jesus wants us to deal with it now. And when we deal with one issue. Then we will be given another issue. Of course, each issue has to do with our own particular sanctification. We are being cleansed by God one step at a time.
This does not mean that we're called to run away from the world, as tempting as it is. We are called to do just the opposite. We are called to enter into the world and love like Jesus loved. The love that Jesus offers is alien to the world. He loves with temperance, joy, patience, long-suffering, kindness, and truth. It's a revealing love. It's a love that opens up one's heart, so the pain and fear and loss and doubt can rush out to be healed. That sort of love is scary for most people. Encountering that love requires the kind of humility that says, "If I do this and I go to the love of Christ, the me I know will be no more." It is a type of death that brings us to life. It brings us to the end of me.
What does Jesus mean when he says, "But many who are first will be last; and the last, first." This parable speaks directly to this confusing statement. Christians become so obsessed with themselves that they no longer can see the kingdom of heaven which is at hand. In our narcissism, we block ourselves from glimpsing the kingdom today. Just a few paragraphs after this parable, Jesus says:
"Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him."
Notice that he says that the "tax collectors and the prostitutes" are entering the kingdom of heaven. It's not that these people had already died and gone to heaven. They were alive. They loved Jesus and had transformed. They had nothing to lose. We, who are rich in worldly ways, have everything to lose, which makes entering the kingdom difficult, so much so that we may end up being last to enter.
Would you rather enter the kingdom first or get more gems in your crown later? Is a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush? Does your answer change if you know what we will be doing with our crowns when we get to heaven:
"The twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne...