The parable of the workers in the vineyard can seem quite offensive to us who are brought up to believe and expect that you should be justly rewarded for the amount of work and effort you put in.
But I think the context of this parable is very important. Jesus wasn’t addressing the crowds or even “seekers” he was addressing his own disciples – people who naturally enough would have considered themselves as insiders.
It is a parable that seeks to tell the disciples that although they do have an important place as the people who responded first and boldly, they don’t have any special privileges for being first and working harder and longer. Those who will join them later will be receiving the same amount of generosity as they do. In terms of salvation, no-one gets more than anyone else. All who turn to the Lord are saved no matter when they turn to God.
And that phrase “when they turn” has become more important to me lately.
One of the greatest theological conundrums I have faced and had to work through over the last ten years is this notion that God forgives everyone no matter what they have done or how they feel about it. To be true to myself though I can no longer hold to that position where to cite a recent example; That is, a man cuts off the head of another man in cold blood and sees it not as a crime but a good thing. Is he automatically forgiven? No he is not - not automatically at all. To be forgiven, to seek God’s forgiveness one has to repent. In the most famous parable of God’s Grace even the prodigal son had to turn back nervously towards his Father. Of course his Father was waiting for him and rushed towards him to hug him overjoyed that he had decided to return....but the Son had to want to return.
Of course If true repentance is forthcoming, then we can be confident that the graciousness of God will elicit God’s mercy.
What I realise after all these years is that I have been looking at “Grace” in a vacuum divorced from the righteousness of God who seeks righteousness in us.
I looked again at the words in the penitential rite I say every Sunday and the words I say are not, “Almighty God who forgives everyone no matter what”. What I say on God’s behalf is “Almighty God who forgives all who truly repent”. God forgives those who are truly sorry and who turn and want to sin no more and want to transform their lives.And then, through the merits of Jesus we are treated not according to the laws of Justice, but with mercy, and then forgiven and accepted.
Grace, if it is not to descend into what is known as “cheap grace” and perverted into a license to do whatever you like, must not be divorced from repentance and the righteousness of God. But of course not everyone by a long chalk does repent in this life.
So where does leave the Biblical hope that “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32)
Where I differ from many people is that I don’t believe that death is the cut off point for repentance. This is entirely Biblical. We know from Paul’s letter to the Romans that neither “death nor life” can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus but easily the most startling tract from the New Testament is in 1 Peter which states boldy “For Christ who died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteousness, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formally did not obey,
when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons were saved through water”.
Saint Peter is convinced that Jesus reached out his hand to all those people who had already been judged and killed many years ago to save them! The Spirit of God transcends time and place. Grace and mercy to the dead is also always on offer. To turn and be saved in this life is preferable obviously, as this will make this a happier more just and righteous world, but if not, God never retracts the offer of eternal life.
And even then, in death as in life, the outstretched hand needs to be sought and grabbed hold of.
Repentance has to be genuine. And for genuine repentance there will be much pain in the soul when the full realisation of the monstrous things you have done is brought to light and you are forced to face their reality in the seering light of God’s sight.
I think this is what St. Paul meant when he wrote “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:15)
In the act of retaining the relationship between Grace and repentance to avoid it becoming a cheap excuse and a licence to do whatever we like and just expect forgiveness I am constantly reminded of the words attributed to St. Augustine and which provided the strap line to the recent film “Calvary”.
Do not despair. One of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume. One of the thieves was damned.