In the run-up to the referendum, one of the main slogans of the ‘Yes’ campaign was that ‘an independent Scotland will create a fairer and more equal society.’ Certainly it was quite a catchy and attractive idea to many. To me it raised the simple question as to how it would be achieved in practical terms. I was born and bred in a communist ‘paradise’, with constitutional guarantees of equality and fairness; in reality it was anything but. Another practical problem is how to define what actually equality and fairness mean.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells a metaphorical story about a vineyard owner hiring people at different times of the day to work in it. At the end of their working day, he pays out exactly the same wage to those who have worked just one hour, to those working twelve hours, and to all those in between. The payment is equal, but is it fair? Our sense of natural justice opposes such an arrangement as not fair. Consequently, by doing a favour to those hired late on, the vineyard owner alienates the most valuable part of his workforce.
Over the years I’ve been pondering on this parable, trying to sort out the conundrum it presents. But it’s unsolvable as long as we apply it to standard human working arrangements because of the sense of injustice it creates. In the real world we can always ask for, and expect, a higher salary, and in theory only the sky is the limit. But this parable is about the kingdom of heaven. There are two important aspects that we have to take into consideration.
God offers each and every one of us a promise of eternal, never-ending happiness. This promise is made out of God’s unconditional love. It’s not a payment for any good deeds, or a reward for behaving well. If it were, we could quantify our merits and expect payment accordingly. God offers each and every person the highest, the fullest, total happiness beyond any quantification. That’s the one denarius that the landowner in the gospel agrees with those he hires – there is nothing more that can be added.
The second aspect is a sort of envy towards those who have lived most of their lives in ways considered sinful or immoral, who have then repented and changed their attitudes and behaviours, and who eventually get the same ‘prize’ as those who have tried to live righteous and moral lives from cradle to grave. This sort of jealousy signals a complete misunderstanding of Christian morality. It perceives sins as nice and pleasant but forbidden elements of life, completely ignoring their negative and destructive impact on people’s lives. The morally good life is considered a laborious and joyless way of earning the vague and nebulous reward of eternal life. This perception of Christianity is so unappealing that many limit their religious practice to a necessary minimum, or quit it completely.
We don’t have to – and in fact we are not able – to deserve or to earn our place in heaven. It’s freely offered and given to each one of us by the loving God. Living out a good moral life is both our response to that free gift, and also a result of accepting it. We should be happy that we’ve found redemption by Christ so early on in our lives, and that we can experience the foretaste of heaven here on earth. Those less fortunate than us should be a matter of our loving concern and of our efforts to help them to find Jesus in their lives too.