Being Mercy: Way Beyond Merit

Author: Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div.

Most of us are familiar with “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.” In brief, the parable tells us that at various intervals during the day — 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. — a landowner went to the marketplace and hired more people to harvest his grapes. He did not negotiate. He simply told them, “I will pay you what is right.”

We hear that even at the eleventh hour he went out again and found a few idlers who had been hanging around all day. They were probably already half-drunk, or had a hangover from the night before. Nevertheless, they too stumbled out into the vineyard and may have picked a grape or two before it was time to quit.

Photo courtesy of Jill '88 and Naji Boutros '87

People often think this parable is about the generosity of the landowner. Hardly. Imagine asking the people who went to work at 6 a.m. if they think the landowner is generous. Besides receiving the same wage as others who’d hardly lifted a finger, they were paid a denarius, the minimum wage for peasants.

The landowner’s behavior seems unjust and unfair. Those listening to Jesus’ story would naturally have sided with the workers who felt they were mistreated even though they received what they contracted for — raising for them and for us questions about the standard of justice in the kingdom of God. Should not those who work longer hours receive more money?

Evidently, entry into the kingdom of God is not a question of merit.

Human judgment is subverted in this parable. Ordinary standards of justice cannot explain how the Kingdom of God works. Justification and sanctification are gifts that have nothing to do with personal merit or social status.

How we do we get into the kingdom of God if it is not something we earn?

That explains why this parable can greatly upset those of us who were trained in pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Back then it seemed as though it was all about piling up our good deeds — going to Mass on Sundays, spending time in prayer, abstaining from meat on Fridays, giving alms during Lent, et cetera — and thereby cancelling out the punishment we were due for our sins.

The Church no longer embraces this view, but the temptation remains for us to think this way. The truth is that we ought to thank God when our prayer is completely dry, when we get no special favors. If we get special favors from God, we might be in great trouble. We might risk slipping into the presumption that our good deeds earned those gifts. We must trust in God’s mercy and not in our own spiritual experiences or accomplishments.

How we do we get into the kingdom of God if it is not something we earn? We enter not by merit, but by consenting to the invitation.

In the parable, grace is symbolized by the landowner’s need for more workers. His need seems urgent and boundless. Grace is God’s need to respond to our need. God must respond, so to speak, to our needs.

Jesus says the landowner approaches people who are standing in the marketplace and wasting their time — gambling, drinking, gossiping, snoozing or whatever. Their behavior does not merit anything, but their need is great. It is their need Jesus is meeting. Hence his behavior subverts our ideas of how to win God’s favor. We do not win God’s favor. God’s mercy is evoked in direct proportion to our misery — to our lack of inner and outer resources. Our need creates God’s need to reach out to us and pour out his mercy upon us.

The invitation to enter the kingdom comes again and again and again. No one is forced to accept. God extends it because of his total largesse and goodness. His greatest gift is to offer us the divine life itself. This is why Jesus reached out to public sinners. He had to show his Father’s urgent concern for those who most need his grace and help.

Of course, grace and help are just as free for the well-behaved. It’s just that they often do not realize it.

One possible pitfall faced by the faithful and virtuous is how those gifts of faith and virtue can create the sense of having earned something from God. Fall into that pit, and you miss the invitation. Justification does not come through good works but through the divine greatness.

When I preach on this truth, students and others will often ask me, “Well, Father, if it doesn’t matter how I act and God is going to save me anyway, then why should I be good? What difference does it all make?”

I gently explain: Now, listen to what you just said. Doesn’t it sound a little bit like Johnny asking his mom and dad why he must be good if they are going to love him anyway? Why should he do the right thing if they are not going to punish him?

When we realize in the first-person singular what God has done for us, how much God has loved us and forgiven us, how tender and merciful God has been to us, then we will want nothing else but to try to be good, to do the good thing, to show our gratitude by living lives of love and service. We will still sin, but we will hate sin for the right reason — not because we might be punished, but because we feel so wretched in the face of a God who loves us more and more.

When I was a boy I wanted to be good because I feared my father might scold me or punish me if I were not. Now I try to be kind and loving to my dad because he has given his life for me these past 61 years. In the Christian life, intention is very important. Sometimes I think it all boils down to intention.

Imagine you’ve eaten dinner at a restaurant, and when you go to pay the bill, the cashier says, “It’s already been taken care of.” That’s how it is with Our Lord. The bill is paid. There’s no admission fee. Nothing to pay for. Nothing to merit. Nothing to earn. When we begin to realize all Our Lord has done for us, we will never take it for granted. Rather, we will be grateful. Eternally grateful.

Father Joe Corpora, CSC, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage campaign within Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis has appointed to serve this year as Missionaries of Mercy.