In recent weeks the gender pay gap has been in the news, particularly after the BBC was forced to publish the salaries of its employees earning over £150,000 a year. Another pay gap, coming to the fore from time to time, is that between the highest and the lowest earners in the country. On average, a FTSE 100 CEO earns nearly £5.5 million per year. In just three days he or she rakes in more than a nurse earns in a year. Is the payment structure featured in today’s gospel a possible remedy to such unfairness or a desirable financial model to introduce? Where each worker is paid the same amount of money, regardless of whether they have worked for 12 hours or for only one? Well, we intuitively feel that’s neither fair nor just, as did the workers in the parable. The key to the right interpretation of this passage of the gospel, however, comes up at its very beginning: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’
Jesus obviously isn’t offering here a model pay-structure for a business. But even in a spiritual sense this parable can make us – proper Christian faithful folk – feel a bit queasy. I have been living a decent life, keeping the Ten Commandments, avoiding committing sins, and so on. So, surely I deserve to be rewarded with the ultimate prize at the end of my life, don’t I? And then over there, there’s someone who has wasted most of his life, perhaps who has made other people’s lives miserable, who has gorged himself on the fun and glitter that the world has to offer. At the end of his life he repents and goes straight to heaven. That’s not fair, is it? No, it’s not fair, nor is it just; as long as eternal life is considered a reward for good behaviour. But it isn’t. Access to heaven is not granted in return for living a decent life. It works exactly the other way around! Living the decent life is a positive response to the free gift of eternal life that Jesus earned on the cross for you, and for me, and for everyone else.
In the First Letter to Timothy God’s motivation is clearly stated: ‘God wants everyone to be saved.’ In today’s Gospel, this is illustrated by the landowner who goes out and offers workers a job. He doesn’t force them to go to his vineyard and work there. It’s their decision whether or not to do it. Similarly, God offers salvation to each individual. Some people accept it early on in their lives, others accept it later. There are many various reasons for that, but there’s no time to list them here and now. The first message in today’s gospel is that God’s offer of salvation never expires.
Even when we accept the above, a faint sense of injustice can lurk in the shadows of the mind. Surely there should be some kind of grading structure in heaven, based on the quality or decency of one’s temporal life, shouldn’t there? A young priest, very keen on the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass and theology, told my friends that in heaven he would have a better ‘mansion’ than them in return for devoting his life to God. What ridiculous nonsense! But that’s how many Catholics subconsciously imagine heaven to be. Today’s gospel goes against such a vision. Whether we lead a comfortable life as a Catholic priest or anxious lives as spouses, parents or carers, everyone gets exactly the same reward: the fullness of God. We have to drop the vision of heaven as a glorified and elevated reflection of the earthly life. Our ultimate destination is to be with God, and He offers each and every one of us His infinite, unbridled, unlimited love and happiness. There’s nothing more to be added when you get everything.
I admit it’s difficult to get your head round this notion. It’s counterintuitive, and it’s so different from our everyday experience. Perhaps that’s why we should pay heed to today’s first reading, particularly this passage: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. The heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.’
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