Matthew P. Schmidt
The Laborers in the Vineyard
There is a common belief among most Protestants that the reward of all the just is equal in Heaven. This is not the teaching of the Church, and indeed it was one of the hardest teachings to accept when I became Catholic.
The immediate problem is a logistical one, but only for a naive salvation algorithm. Suppose one pictured differing beautitude as a kind of high score. It is immediately obvious we do not all get the same hand to begin with. Some of us are born rich, some of us are born poor, and some of us are not born at all. No, this world is not a giant complicated tournament of duplicate bridge. If anything, duplicate bridge exists because the world is not fair, in bridge or anything else.
As the Lord teaches us, some of His servants receive five talents, others two, and some only one. I never heard a satisfactory explanation of this as a young Protestant, because, ultimately, there is none. The Lord does not treat us all equally. It is impossible to construct some kind of cosmic point-buy theory of human creation without dehumanizing those who clearly have less points to “buy” the elements of their lives. But that is a rant for another time.
After much stress, contemplation, and prayer, I eventually moved beyond that immediate logistical problem. There is no high score list, because no two human beings have ever lived the same life. Those who have more must do more, and those with fewer cards to play must play them as best as they can, even if they run out on earlier turn.
But that was the second obstacle I encountered. Life is short. You do not have infinite time to do good, and ultimately the day of your life will end and you will have no time to do any more good at all. No man, not even those who would attempt suicide, may choose the moment of his death.
Consider the problem of evil, however. God allows his creatures to murder each other, though he does not desire it. But suppose you are destined to become a great saint–but then some random mugger shoots you on the way to church? Your time to merit more has been sharply cut short.
Or suppose it is not another who does it. People commit suicide all the time, and the Lord does not always stop it. Are suicides consigned to a lower place in Heaven, for they could have done more, but did not?
But that simply makes it all worse. Certainly you cannot compare yourself with another who lived a similar life. But what about a hypothetical-you, who never did wrong and always did right? Would you not be eternally inadequate compared to the perfect-you?
These thoughts, combined with an already extant perfectionism, made life a living hell. I spent my days in total misery knowing the truth, but not wishing it to be true. But I did not really understand that truth, and I struggled until I did understand.
Or at least partially.
I considered that the Lord has foreseen all events, even those free choices of His creations. Ergo, if a man died one early, perhaps it was simply time for him to die, the Lord not being obligated to prolong any man’s life. That poor girl who cuts her life short has chosen less, can it really be just for the Lord to reward her with more?
And yet I’ll admit I was never satisfied with this. I had another hypothesis: Perhaps the Lord has fixed some goal of holiness for all of us, and once we reach it–once the Lord no longer wishes to keep us in the world for the sake of His other creations–the Lord returns us home. Perhaps if, on the way to the market, a robber comes, murders you, and takes your talents, of which you had only invested two–well, perhaps the Lord only needed two. Or perhaps it is on our return trip to the market, to trade and invest even more for our Master, that we have reached our goal, and are “randomly” murdered by the aforementioned bandit.
There is nothing wrong with this per se, except that it is not found in the writing of the saints. But that, in itself, is not a point against it. We do not know how the Lord judges our lives, and for all I know I’ve stumbled upon how it actually works.
Then I considered, just yesterday, the following paradox:
Suppose the Virgin Mary has a holiness rating of x. (Assigning holiness a numerical quantity is foolhardy in the first place, but that’s a topic for another time.) She, of course, was already doing whatever good she could, every day. Let us say that is an increase of d holiness points every day. It comes the day of her dormition. The Lord will return her home, having merited x reward. But would this really be just? After all, by waiting another day, she could merit x+d. But the same logic applies two days from now, she would merit x+2d. And so on, ad infinitum.
Since theologians generally agree the Blessed Virgin is not infinitely holy, being a mere creature, and the consensus of the faithful is that she lived a maximally holy life, we must logically conclude that mere extent of life does not translate into more holiness. You can’t simply pile on more goodness, or perhaps only to a limit, by doing the same thing. At some point, the effects on you have reached their maximum.
Which brings us to today’s readings. Jesus tells us the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, a story about a landowner who hires men throughout the day, and pays the same to each, both those who worked much and those who worked only a little. While much ink has been spilled on this (which, to be fair, describes all of His parables) let us contemplate the meaning. No one, no matter how short his labor, is denied the reward. Each of them ultimately did the same task–manual labor in the vineyard. And each of them ultimately received the same payment, to which they had all agreed.
I believe there is one easy resolution to our initial question: the Lord deals with thresholds, not quantifying every exact minute detail of our deeds. “I was thirsty and you gave me to drink,” not whether it was water, soda, or milk. It is more important that we work in the fields as the Father has asked us, not that we could have zipped over there at the crack of dawn and zipped right back for the next mission at the last ray of sunlight. Over and over again we see that God from the beginning does not require mathematical perfection, only action.
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