Laboring in God’s Vineyard

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.

Philippians 1:22

It is a misconception that Catholics believe in a “works-based” salvation. Ever since the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation, the Catholic Church has been accused of teaching that we must earn our way into heaven with our good deeds. This idea has never been part of the Catholic faith and was actually condemned as a heresy as early as the fifth century during the Pelagian controversy. 

In 1995 the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation issued a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification stating that, “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

Whether we give our lives to Christ in infancy and never fall from grace, or experience a death-bed conversion after a lifetime of sin, salvation is a gift. This helps us to make sense of the parable of the workers in the vineyard we find in the gospel for this Sunday (Mt 20:1-16). The owner of the vineyard agrees to pay a certain wage to the workers who labor all day in his fields. But he pays the same amount to those who show up part way through the day, as well as those who only arrive at the last minute. This seems unfair to us, but as our first reading from Isaiah points out, God’s ways are not our ways (cf. is 55:9). 

If we read this parable on the level of economic justice, it is true that “a laborer deserves his wages” (1 Tim 5:18). If those who showed up at the start of the day did not receive fair payment for their labor, that would be an injustice and they would be right to protest. But as long as they did receive a fair and just wage for their work, they have no basis for complaining about the master’s unmerited generosity toward those who worked less.

The generosity of the landowner is the point of the parable, which is meant to teach us more about the economy of salvation than the economy of the marketplace. When it comes to salvation, we are all being rewarded with far more than we could ever possibly deserve, no matter how early or late we arrive in God’s vineyard. 

So does this mean that there is no hurry to be converted in heart and being living a life of virtue? No. Even though death-bed conversions do happen, it would be foolish to bank on that possibility. For one thing, none of us knows the day or hour of our death. We may not have the opportunity for a last-minute change of heart. And even if we do, what makes us think such a change would be likely after a lifetime of sinful habits? A lifetime spent avoiding God is not good preparation for eternal union with Him, which is what salvation is all about. As St. John Henry Newman points out, heaven is only heaven for those who love God.

“Heaven is not a place of happiness except to the holy … Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”

St. John Henry Newman

Another reason not to delay conversion is the fact that, whether we come early or late to God’s vineyard, we all have certain work to do in the time we are given. St. Paul speaks honestly in his letter to the Philippians about his longing to depart from this life so that he might be with Christ. But he knows that the time of his departure is not up to him. God has given him certain work to do, and as long as he lives he will continue to do God’s work on earth. Even though he longs for heaven, the opportunity to spend his life serving the Lord brings him joy.

Each one of us has been given important work to do in the Lord’s vineyard during our time on earth. Let’s spend however much time we are given working for God’s purpose.

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this lift, but I shall be told it in the next. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place. Therefore I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about. He does nothing in vain.”

St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), patron saint of campus ministry