Lord Palmerston, or certainly some such confident Victorian, said: “If you do well here, you’ll do well there.” Many Christians may now approve that outline of salvation, although its lightweight account of grace and goodness is the seductive Pelagian heresy. The rich young man who had kept the commandments and asked our Lord to finish the picture had more than a tinge of it. After he walked away, our Lord uttered some strong words about the weight of wealth, leading Peter to ask: “We have forsaken all and followed thee: what shall we have therefore?” The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) is our Lord’s response.
The Master pays workers a fair wage agreed upon, but those who are hired at the end of the day get paid as much as those who toiled from the start. First Christ assures His followers that they will be compensated. Then He delicately rebukes Peter’s bargaining spirit. The apostles had been His first followers and were privileged because of it, but many latecomers would receive no less an abundance of glory. They had come out of trust and not calculation. So clericalism and meretricious religiosity come crashing down.
It has become something of a trend in pious corners for well-intentioned entrepreneurs to declare that they want to die poor so that they might become saints. Dying poor guarantees nothing except a modest funeral. Spoken carelessly, this avowal carries the subtle scent of the calculator; it is a little like the remark I once heard from a cleric who said he had become a priest to save his soul. No one becomes a saint by wanting to be one; it happens by loving God. No priest will save his own soul unless his first and selfless desire is to save other souls. Otherwise, the profession of faith becomes a demeaning little question whispered behind the gauzy curtain of unction: “What’s in it for me?”
Self-love is proper, and so is the love of God for what He does for us. But both are counterfeit kinds of happiness until they result in the eternal happiness which is love of God purely because He is God. St. Bernard said it more mellifluously in his Latin, but the point is this: If a man gives up all that he has in order to have a room with a view in the Everlasting Halls, he will not be very satisfied there for all eternity. Love has to be the calculus of a life lived forever with Him who is Love. Without it, we have bargained for nothing more than an Islamic or Mormon paradise, which after a human lifetime would begin to feel like hell.
All is fair in God’s covenants, and He pays the early workers the full sum agreed upon. They are icons of free will, for the Master lets them call the shots. They rule the market, and He goes by the rule. But at the end of the day, the late arrivers are paid before the others because the rule only states that payment is to be made, not when it is to be paid. The laborers hired last are paid first because of the gratitude they show in their importunity. The Lord who loves a generous giver loves no less a generous receiver. Humans were made to give God delight, and nothing delights Him more than human delight in Him Here is courage for the convert.
Christ hints at Peter’s future dignity in Rome when He speaks this parable especially to him. It trained Peter for the primacy before it tutored us. No apostle can be what an apostle is meant to be if he begrudges anyone else an abundance of grace. Many popes have a high place in heaven, and not because they were popes but because they did in the papacy what any anonymous saint did in any anonymous situation: They pleased God by loving others with a spark of the Love that brought them into being. That the first shall be last is our Lord’s reminder that many popes and princes and billionaires, all candidates for glory, opted for its opposite.
Liberation theology, which not long ago bewitched comfortable university salons with its romantic misreading of justice, has quickly become a cultural vignette. It misinterpreted this parable, so that all who were first became last, and all who were last became first. Actually, many who were first stay first, and many who were last stay last. The status is irrelevant. Motive is all. Christ next says bluntly, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” That is where the vineyard is, and in the vineyard is the cross. Those who arrived at the end of the day missed the raw sun glistening on the Galilean lake and did not hear the leper cry with joy; nor did they glimpse Jesus transfigured on the Mount. For them at day’s end, there is only the cross and the cross and the cross…and then the Light.