Today’s gospel parable of the landowner and the workers in his vineyard (Mtt 20:1-16) reminds us of an essential equality which is present in heaven: Just as all those who worked in the vineyard (from the first who worked all day, to the last who worked only one hour) received an equal payment, so too, all those who die in Christ’s grace receive the reward of heaven. There is a certain equality about this reward, since all who are in heaven enjoy perfect happiness.
However, the feast of the Assumption, celebrated this past Sunday, reminds us of a degree of inequality in heaven as well. For the Blessed Virgin Mary is exalted over all the angels and saints to a higher place of blessedness and honor – she is Queen over all creation. Thus, there are levels of glory bestowed upon the saints, some are raised to high place and others are raised even higher. At the highest height stands the Virgin Mary; it is likely that St. Joseph comes next, or perhaps the greater angels, then the many saints of the Church together with the angles of God.
What then is the nature of this equality and relative inequality?
The essential equality of heaven lies in the unicity of the object in which the saints delight – God himself. Heaven consist essentially in the vision of the divine essence and, as the divine essence is one, so too heaven is essentially one and equal. All the saints, from the lowest to the highest, see and take delight in the one God.
The relative inequality of heaven consists in the diversity of glory and honor given to the saints. Mary is given the highest honor and is exalted above all the saints and angels. Though all the saints participate in the same essential happiness, Mary can be said to be happiest and most blessed above all, since she receives greater glory and higher honor from God and from creatures.
All the saints and angels are as happy as they can possibly be, but some are happier than others. Take, for example, three cups of unequal sizes. If all three are filled to the top with water, then they are equally full. Yet, the largest will have more water than the middle, which will in turn contain more water than the smallest. Heaven will be something like this!
What is the cause of the equality and diversity?
The equality of heaven is caused by the unicity of the divine essence – because God is one, all who delight in him share in an equal joy. Moreover, this equality is brought about by the fact that the attainment of heaven relies upon dying in the state of grace. Thus, all who die in this state (though some be great saints and others be only average believers) attain to the joys of heaven.
The inequality of heaven is caused by the diversity of honor and glory given to each soul by God. This diversity is caused, according to St. Thomas, by the charity of the soul during the earthly pilgrimage. The place and exaltation of the soul in heaven is merited by a man’s works on earth. Thus, he gains greater glory in heaven who merits more on earth. But the degree to which any particular work on earth is meritorious relies principally on the charity of the soul of him who does that work. Thus, the one who lives with greater charity in this life, merits greater glory in life everlasting. So it was that Mary, who was most perfectly filled with charity in her life on earth, has merited, by God’s grace, to be assumed to the highest place in heaven.
What does this mean for us in our earthly pilgrimage?
This teaching should give us encouragement and spurn us on to glory. We are encouraged and consoled to know that we, who have not lived with such purity and love as did the Blessed Virgin Mary, may nevertheless attain to a certain equality with her in heaven – for we too will see God face to face, if only we persevere to the end! Since all that is required for salvation is to die in the state of grace – that is, to die with love in one’s heart – there is great hope for us all, since we only need turn to the Lord in humility and ask for his mercy and love.
However, the diversity of glory and honor among the saints also encourages us to strive toward greater holiness in this life. While it is true that all who are in heaven are perfectly happy, we can see that some are happier than others. What a waste it would be for us to live this life with even one ounce less of charity, for this would result in less glory in heaven. The sacrifices of the present life are as nothing, compared to the eternity of the glories of heaven! We must then strive to merit, through charity, greater glory in heaven – even an ounce more of charity in this life becomes invaluable in everlasting life!