In a masterful book on grace, Piet Fransen suggests that we can test how well we understand grace by gauging our reaction to this story:
Imagine a man who during his whole life is entirely careless about God and morality. He’s selfish, ignores the commandments, ignores all things religious, and is basically consumed with pursuing his own pleasure—wine, sex, and song. Then, just hours before his death, he repents of his irresponsibility, makes a sincere confession, receives the sacraments of the church, and dies inside that conversion.
What’s our spontaneous reaction to that story? Isn’t it wonderful that he received the grace of conversion before he died? Or, more likely: the lucky beggar! He got away with it! He got to have all that pleasure and still gets to go to heaven!
If we felt the latter emotion, even for a moment, we have never deeply understood the concept of grace. Rather, like the older brother of the prodigal son, we are still seeing life away from God’s house as fuller than life inside God’s house, are still doing the right things mostly out of bitter duty, and are secretly envying the amoral. But, if this is true, we must be gentle with ourselves. This is an occupational hazard for good, faithful persons.
Jesus, himself, expresses this in the parable of the vineyard workers. This parable was addressed to Peter in answer to a question. Peter, on behalf of the other disciples, had just asked Jesus what reward they were going to receive for their fidelity to him.
Jesus answers by telling him the story of very rich and generous landowner who goes out one morning and hires workers to work in his vineyard. He hires some early in the morning, promises them a good wage, keeps hiring others as the day progresses, each new group having to work fewer hours than the group before them, and ends the day by hiring a group of workers just one hour before work is to end.
Then he tells his foreman to pay everyone a full day’s wage. But this leaves the workers who toiled the whole day somewhat bitter. “This isn’t fair!” they protest. “We worked the whole day and bore the heat of the sun and this last group worked just one hour. It’s unfair that we all receive the same wage!” The generous landowner, obviously representing God, is gentle in his response: “Friend, didn’t you agree to this wage? And isn’t a good wage? Are you envious and angry because I’m generous?”
Remember to whom those words are being addressed: Jesus is addressing Peter … and, in effect, through this parable, is addressing all good people who are morally and religiously bearing the heat of the day. And Jesus is assuring us that we will be rewarded richly for doing this. But, as the parable makes clear, there’s a catch: simply put, we will be rewarded with heaven and it will be wonderful; but, and this is the catch, we can have everything and enjoy nothing because we are watching what everyone else is getting!
I sometimes try to highlight this point rather graphically when I give retreats to priests and religious. I have them consider this scenario: imagine you live out your life in fidelity to your vow of celibacy, metaphorically, and otherwise bearing the heat of the day and, when you get to heaven, the first person you meet there is Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy. In shock you protest to God: “How did he get in here? It’s not fair, given the life he lived and the life that I was asked to live!” And God, the over-generous landowner, gently replies: “Friend, didn’t you agree to a life of celibacy, and isn’t heaven a wonderful place? Are you envious and angry because I’m generous?” And, how different this reaction is to that of a true saint who, upon meeting someone like this in heaven, would, like the father of the prodigal son, rush over in joy, embrace the person, and say: “I’m overwhelmed with joy that you made it!”
Thomas Halik, a Czech writer, suggests that one of the reasons why so many people in the world reject the churches is that they see us as “embittered moralizers,” older brothers of the prodigal son, doing our religious and moral duties, but bitterly, and criticizing those who don’t live like us out of hidden envy. Nietzsche made a similar accusation more than a hundred years ago.
Sadly, there’s more than a little truth in that accusation. Too often, we are embittered moralizers, secretly envying the amoral and criticizing our world out of bitterness. But that’s an occupational hazard for the good and the faithful. Peter and first apostles struggled with it. Why should we be immune?
We needn’t be immune, but we do need to be honest in admitting that, despite our real goodness and fidelity, this indicates that we are still far from being full saints.