Michael Barber offers a Catholic perspective of the role of works at the final judgment in the newest Zondervan counterpoints book on the subject. One of the most interesting things for me is his discussion of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). Barber notes that many scholars, ala R.T. France, say the story reveals “It is all by grace.” (The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT p. 752)
Barber offers an alternative interpretation based on a recently completed PhD dissertation at Duke University by Nathan Eubank (“The Wages of Righteousness: The Economy of Heaven in the Gospel According to Matthew”). Barber explains:
“As Eubank states, ‘The point of the parable can hardly be that ‘everything depends upon grace’ since the early workers received exactly what they worked for, though Matthew 20:11-15 certainly warns those who have done more work against begrudging God’s generosity with those who have done less.’ Indeed, all were paid for doing some work; none were paid for not working at all. If the story were meant to teach that salvation is given only as a gift with no relation to works, one would expect the vineyard owner to walk into town handing out money to everyone he met, without any negotiations or further expectations.
In fact, Eubank points out that the story is best read in light of what immediately precedes it: the story of the rich young man, who, unlike the disciples, refuses to leave all his possessions and follow Jesus (Matt. 19:16-30). The story, then, likely functions as an extended answer to the disciples’ question: ‘Who then can be saved?’ (19:25). While this man has kept the commandments, Jesus suggests that technically the man has not done enough to be perfect. The apostles, who have left everything, have done much more. Nonetheless, by placing the parable of the workers immediately after this story, Matthew provides us with hope for the man: God is a merciful judge.
Indeed, this idea has its parallels in Jewish literature describing divine judgment. In sum, Jesus teaches salvation is not simply the result of cold calculation of credits and debits. Wages are paid out in connection with labor, but not in strict proportion to labor. The parable thus teaches the necessity of works alongside the generosity of God in paying out more than was earned.” (175-76)
In response Thomas Schreiner says “Citing parables to defend a theology of merit is precarious in any case, unless such a teaching is clearly one of the main points of the story. We must be aware of pressing details of the story in parables.” (192) Schreiner’s point is valid but is the observation enough to overcome the interpretation? James D.G. Dunn was more open in his response:
“I too have been impressed by Eubank’s thesis, particularly his treatment of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). Important elements of the parable have been too often overlooked, or they are submerged in the attempt to interpret the parable as an expression of pure grace. To be sure, the workers who work only for the last hour (no reasons given as to why their labor had not been engaged earlier in the day) are treated generously—graciously, we may of course say. But those who have worked all day are paid the wage agreed when there were engaged, the wage they had earned. Nothing in the parable denies their right to that wage. And if the parable is indeed a parable of the kingdom, that is of kingdom values, and of relations between the king and his subjects, then the failure to bring out a stronger note of ‘sheer unmerited grace’ (payment entirely unrelated to work done for all workers) must be significant.” (198)
Of course, Barber does not build his case solely on this parable. This is but one strand of his evidence. It does, however, offer a different interpretation of a parable which my bear a second look.