As I reflected upon tomorrow’s Gospel reading (Matt. 20:1-16), the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, I found myself considering the different reasons that we should be thankful for the merciful character of God, even though our human nature is to cry out for justice (for everyone except us, since we desire to keep mercy for ourselves). I kept coming back to two issues that I’d been reading about recently. The first is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of bearing/accepting guilt, that is, his notion that responsible action inevitably requires a willingness to become guilty. The second issue had to do with the way God seems to view guilt. It is a well known statement of Jesus’ that a person who has looked upon another with lust or anger is guilty in their heart of the immoral action that might lead from it (Matthew 5:21-30). While some could say this is simply hyperbole, the Christian tradition has often placed at least as much emphasis on intent as on actual actions or results. A common example would be what Augustine says regarding lying, i.e. that a person who tells a falsehood believing it to be true is not guilty of lying. Similarly, a person who conveys the truth while intent on spreading a falsehood is guilty of the offense. This sort of thinking is expanded upon in the works of folks like William of Ockham, who tends to believe that no action has intrinsic moral qualities, these being derived from the intent of the actor. The Cambridge Companion to Ockham [also Occam} puts it this way:
First, one and the same act is good when combined with one intention and evil when combined with another. His typical example is of a person who sets off to church intending to praise and honor God but at some point continues his journey out of vainglory. So too for the case of someone who hurls himself from a cliff intending to commit suicide but sincerely repents halfway down. In each case the act–walking to church, falling to one’s death–remains the same in respect of multiple acts of the will, although it changes its moral quality: from good to evil in the former case, conversely in the latter case. [...]
Second, Ockham argues that the performance or nonperformance of the act does not affect moral evaluation–this is, in effect, an argument against moral luck. If each of two people wants to perform a virtuous deed and attempts to do so, and one succeeds while the other fails through no fault of his own, we still hold that they have equal moral goodness. To hold otherwise would be to allow luck to play a role in moral evaluation. Likewise, a person who would commit adultery given the opportunity is no less guilty than the one caught in the act.
If I’m remembering correctly, this is reflected in Aquinas in a somewhat different way, when he argues that engaging in a seemingly virtuous act is not actually virtuous unless one has the freedom to choose otherwise.
At any rate, this understanding of guilt, should we take the time to reflect upon it, should draw us all up short in thinking “I’m basically a good person, God won’t judge me too harshly,” since, in judging the heart, God is not simply judging what we have managed to do, but what out hearts would allow us to do given the opportunity or situation. This is why we stand in such need of mercy.