So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
St. Matthew xx. 16
The Church in her ancient wisdom is nothing if she is not keenly aware of the dangers that human nature poses for the process of redemption and salvation. Think about it. If the Church were not aware of human nature’s tendency to fall away from the vigilance that is required in the process of salvation, she would not provide seasonal themes in her lectionary that remind man of the dangers that accompany his spiritual journey. We have just emerged from the season of light-- that of Epiphany, in which the brilliant vision of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ is made manifest. The Church, being conscious of man’s tendency to view the approaching Lent like a deer in the headlights, has formulated the period between Epiphany and Lent with caution. You see, the Church knows that man is likely to fall into resentment, and so to become hardhearted. She knows that her sheep are easily dissuaded by theories of good works and comparative goodness, and so she has given to us the Gesima Sundays, between the season of Epiphany-vision and that of Lenten mortification.
So today we begin the Gesima Season- comprised of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sunday, named from the Latin words meaning seventy, sixty and fifty days prior to Easter. In this season the Church reminds us of the temptations and dangers that most commonly thwart and interrupt the Christian’s preparation for the coming Lent. In Lent the Christian is called to see and experience the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way. So in this Gesima-Season Mother Church calls us first to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind which will ensure that we are effectually and suitably susceptible and vulnerable to our Saviour’s Passion for us.
St. Paul helps us this morning by comparing our Gesmina-Season work or labor that we undertake with running a race. In our Epistle, taken from his First Letter to the Corinthians, he compares us to athletes or runners who are in training and will compete to win the prize. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (I Cor. ix. 24) St. Paul appeals to our competitive spirit and attempts to convert the passion and zeal associated with it to the demands and conditions of running a spiritual race. If we are faithful to our calling, we all should be seeking for one prize or one reward, he says, which is eternal life. And so we are called to temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions that we might better reach the goal of our striving. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. ix. 25) We must remind ourselves that because we seek a spiritual and eternal prize- which is eternal salvation, and that this is our chief and even sole preoccupation, our physical natures- appetites, impulses, feelings, emotions, and desires, must be tamed and then subordinated into the service of our soul’s good. What and how much we eat and drink, what we need or desire should serve only to enhance and promote our spiritual fitness for running the race that is set before us. Thus we must embrace the virtue of temperance. St. Ambrose says that what we observe and seek most in temperance is tranquility of soul. (De Offic. i. 42) So if our passions and appetites are moderated and tempered to the good of our souls, we shall not be torn between the false gods of the external and visible world and the one true God. St. Paul says that people whose loyalties are divided and who worship others gods do it to obtain a corruptible crown (I Cor. ix. 25) –they seek earthly rewards and treasures of impermanent meaning and unlasting significance. But we Christians run to obtain an incorruptible crown –a gift and prize of eternal worth and lasting importance. So we are called not to run blindly, erratically, pointlessly and capriciously. Since we know our end, we should moderate and temper our physical lives in such a way that best suits us to pursue our spiritual goal or end.
But our Gesima-workdays are not merely exercises in individual and personal spiritual running. The portion of St. Paul’s Epistle that we have read this morning is preceded by his defense of having given his life for the sanctification and purification of the Church or the Body of Christ. He embraces the virtue of temperance and keeps his mind focused on his end lest that by any means…[having] preached to others, [he himself] should be a castaway. (1 Cor. ix. 27) His running to obtain the incorruptible crown is no exercise in self-promotion but part and parcel of imparting to others what he has received freely from Jesus Christ. He desires that the free gift of God’s Grace, that moves and defines his life because of his faith in Jesus Christ, should move others also, and not that any should think that redemption and salvation can be earned by good works. And the point is nicely made in today’s Gospel Parable. For there we read that:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder,
which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them
into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others
standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the
vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and
saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him,
Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard;
and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (St. Matthew xx. 1-7)
As Archbishop Trench reminds us, the Parable is offered in response to the question which St. Peter asked in the preceding chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter had said, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus had promised to His faithful Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He had also promised that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) But he concluded his promises with the very words that finish today’s Gospel parable. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) So today’s parable is offered by Jesus as a warning about that kind of spiritual attitude that might very well make the first last, least, and thus unsuitable for salvation.
The parable teaches that some, like the Apostles, who were already industrious workers, at fishing or tentmaking, would be called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later, this time out of idleness, and with no more specific promise of payment than whatsoever is right [or just]. (Ibid, 4,7) When the workday was over, the Lord of the vineyard would instruct his steward to pay the laborers. But notice this interesting detail. We read that steward was to pay the laborers beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. (Ibid, 8,9) Jesus desires to reveal a danger here for those who were called first into the labor of His vineyard. What do we read? But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12) It appears that the first are in danger of having a problem with the last. They are moved by envy and jealousy and so begrudge the other workers the same reward or prize which they have received. But the Lord rebukes them with these words: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (Ibid, 13-15) Archbishop Trench tells us that that if those who were first hired …forget…that the reward is of Grace and not of works, and begin to boast and exalt themselves above their fellow laborers, [they] may altogether lose the things that they have wrought; while those who seem last, may yet, by keeping their humility, be acknowledged first and foremost in the Day of God. (Trench, Notes on the Parables, p. 140) The first are meant to welcome the gift of Grace for themselves and for the last man who can join their happy labor. The last are meant to imitate the first. Both are to be moved equally to humility and gratitude in the face of God’s free gift of Grace, as they share in the labor of sanctifying love.
Some commentators have said that the reward of one penny is meant to symbolize the eternal and incorruptible reward of salvation. Archbishop Trench thinks this is wrong, and I think he is right. If the one penny symbolizes salvation then it would appear that the first workers, or the men who are full of resentment, bitterness, envy, jealousy, and a begrudging spirit, are saved, since we read that they received every man a penny. But such a sinful disposition can never land a man in Christ’s Kingdom. So the one penny must symbolize God’s Grace. If it is received as what is never enough because we think that our good works and hard labor entitle us to more, it will not have been received in the right spirit. We will then be intemperate in all things, comparing and contrasting ourselves with others according to earthly measures of earning and compensation, always on the brink of envy and jealousy, and thus on the way to perdition. If, on the other hand, God’s Grace is received humbly and gratefully as what we neither desire nor deserve, as what far surpasses anything that earthly effort and industry can earn, as the free Divine gift zealously at work in our hearts because through temperance our passions and appetites are right with the world, then we shall be honored to be called the last and the least, privileged to be seated under the feet of God’s Elect. Amen.
Nay lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
(St. Matthew xiii. 29)
We have said that our Epiphany-tide is a Season of Light. And the Light that we have been trying to follow in faith, to see and understand, to embrace and cherish, is Christ’s Light. And so we have been learning that this Light comes to us to make new life and love in our hearts and souls. But there is a danger associated with this Light. We must remember that there is a difference between flashing, blazing, or sparkling light on the one hand, and enduring, growing, and maturing Light on the other. The first light is experienced as fleeting, occasional, and at best temporary. It is found, generally, with the kind of person whose spiritual life is characterized by part-time highs, cheap thrills, and instantaneous gratification. The second Light, being Christ’s Light, is far more demanding, since it desires and longs to overcome, overtake, rule, and guide the whole of a man’s life. It is found in the kind of person who intends that his conversion should be the first moment on a long journey into healing and transformation, redemption and sanctification, with the reward of salvation.
Now the problem for most of us is that we are always wanting Christ the Light to manifest and reveal Himself to us in the manner of the first light. We want signs and wonders, we want glamour and glitz, we want our walk of faith to be full of transfiguration moments. We expect that because we are faithful church-going Christians, our journey should not be marked by struggles, difficulties, temptations, and distractions. We expect that our common life together in the church should be perfect and that our soul’s journey into God should be the same.
But our Lord knows otherwise and never intends that we should be mistaken about the nature and character of our journey into His Light. This is the reason for the parable which he offers for our meditation this morning. Let us listen to what He says. The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field….(St. Matthew xiii. 24) In this parable we are told that the kingdom of heaven is identified with a man, whom we should recognize as Christ the Son of Man, the Life and Light of God the Father, who wishes to sow the seed of new life into the hearts and souls of new Christians who would follow Him. And yet no sooner has He done this than we read that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares – which we ought to see as temptations – among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade [of wheat] was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. (Ibid, 25, 26) What is interesting is that God, through His Son, sows only good seed, but that a devious and mischievous enemy, the Devil, comes in the night – while men slept, when they were weak and powerless. St. John Chrysostom tells us that the Devil did not sow before this, because he had nothing to destroy, but when all had been fulfilled that he might defeat the diligence of the Husbandman [the Son of Man]. (Catena Aurea) The devil had always tried to trap the ancient Jewish people; but with renewed vigour and determination he attacks Christians. The enemy intends to quash, quell, and quench conscientious and earnest Christians as they journey into Christ the Light. And the devil’s ways are so devious and cunning that until the Christian begins to spring up as a blade of righteousness, the Christian does not recognize the temptations that come from the field of tares that surround him. Prior to his growth into holiness, through Christ the Light, the Christian sees only other men or other plantings that look very much himself. The tares are men who have surrendered to the devious corruption of the Devil. For, as Christ says in another place, ye shall know them by their fruits. (St. Matthew vii. 16)
So we read in the parable that the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. (Idem, 27, 28) What the Christian realizes, as Calvin remarks, is that wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed. (CC: volume xvii) The Devil desires to interrupt and prevent Christ the Light from reaching and growing the good seed, and so he plants potentially distracting and corrupting tares in the Lord’s field or the church. And the Christian’s response to this invasive malice and malevolence seems logical enough; he wants to pull up the tares and burn them so that his spiritual experience is free of temptation, struggle, and distraction. Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up (Ibid, 28), the servants ask?
But the Lord’s answer is direct and deliberate: Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Ibid, 29, 30) Here we find a rebuke of that Christian zeal and passion to root out all evil with force and suppression. Before God’s judgment day, it is always wrong for Christians to use violent means for the suppression of error (R.C.T.,Parables, pp. 80, 81), as Archbishop Trench remarks. The Lord clearly means to warn Christians against forced conversion of the evil to the good. For one thing we do not really know who is wheat and who is a tare. You will remember that the wheat and tares look very much the same before each grows up and bears fruit. God [alone] knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) Christians must not uproot the tares before the time of harvest, since their hope must be not for the destruction but for the conversion and salvation of tares into wheat. A man who is a tare today might become wheat or fruitful seed tomorrow.
Come to think of it, shouldn’t we all beware of the danger of becoming tares ourselves? Isn’t the real point of the parable that we all are liable and susceptible to the temptations and enticements of the Devil? To be sure there are men who become tares rather easily and quickly since they have never experienced the desire and passion of Christ the Light. But if the tares bother or distract us, so that we judge and condemn them, hasn’t the Devil made us into tares and not wheat? Haven’t the tares become false gods or idols to us because we are so moved, defined, and obsessed with their sins that we have forgotten the need to confess our own in the Light of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy? Then the Devil shall have so possessed and moved us by his corruption and perversion of the world, so that we truly become tares ourselves.
This is where I think the parable reveals its true force in our lives. The Lord allows the Devil to tempt, provoke, and distract us. The point is that we must not be overwhelmed by the temptations of sin whether they confront us in other men’s lives or in our own. To be sure, we are called to resist the continual presence of temptations, their determination to sever and break our complete reliance and dependence upon God. But this is just where they can be turned round for our good, and we can beat the Devil at his own game. Far from being the occasion of our unfaithfulness and disobedience to God, they can yield in us a more vigilant, acute, and cautious determination to please God in all our lives. Temptations are not sins, and they need not make us into tares. In a positive way, they can reveal and disclose to us, through Christ the Light, our own weakness, fragility, frailty, and powerlessness. What we learn through the tempting and alluring lives of the tares is that we can become the wheat of God or the good seed only through his power and constant care. To be made good, we must depend all the more upon Christ the Light to grow us up and into the fruit that he intends us to become. And more than this but just as important and instrumental to our becoming that fruit is the need to pray for the conversion of those who are now tares into the good seed or faithful sons and daughters of God. If the tares have helped us to become good seed, why shouldn’t we help them into the same state?
Today, my friends, let us be determined to become the good seed sown by the Son of man. To do so, let us thank God for the temptations, struggles, and difficulties that the tares of this world bring to us. When we become aware of sinful behavior, let us look within our own souls and see if we don’t often indulge the same sin or follow the same temptation. Let us thank God for the temptations of the tares, which in their own way, remind and recall us to our deeper dependence upon Christ the Light. Rather than their being flashing, blazing, or sparkling lights that lead us into superficial spirituality, and thus sin and sorrow, let them generate in us that deeper need for the Light of Christ that alone grows us as good seed into perfection. And, let us never be content that those tares should remain tares. When the Apostle this morning, tells us to put on…bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another…putting on [also] charity, which is the bond of perfectness, (Col. iii. 12-14) he means that we should desire that the tares become wheat because Christ the Light desires that all men should become His good seed. If our relation to the tares is one of hope for their conversion, the Light of Christ shall shine forth out of us and into the lives of the tares, whose conversion is no less intended and desired by God. For, Christ the Light longs to shine into all men’s lives, drawing us and them closer and closer to the day, as Archbishop Trench remarks, [when] the dark hindering element [of the tares will be] removed [from the lives of the faithful]…[and] the element of Light, which was before struggling with and obstructed by it, shall come forth in its full brightness. That shall be the day ‘of the manifestation of the sons of God’; they ‘shall shine forth as the sun’, when the clouds are rolled away, they shall evidently appear, and be acknowledged by all, as ‘the children of Light’….(R.C.T., Parables, p. 86)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: