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? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
(St. Matthew xx. 14-16)
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany tide. The season we have observed has been a time of expectation, coming, and manifestation. In it we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we observed the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to the period spanning between Septuagesima Sunday and Ascension Day. In it we shall see the work of God in the life of Jesus Christ for us. This period of time shows us that God intends that we should enter into the labor of our Lord Jesus Christ or the cultivation of His Grace in the vineyard of our souls.
So on the three Gesima Sundays prior to Lent – Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima – the Latin names for the seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter, we are reminded of God’s original vocation for us, dangers that bring about our Fall from God’s Grace, and preparation for the way or return. If Lent will be about a progressive death to the self, then the Gesima season’s theme will be about preparing for our deaths that will culminate on the Cross of Good Friday.
The theologians teach us that with God everything matters. And everything means the quality and type of every thought, word, or deed. And these three constitute the works that will enable us, in the end, either to die and rise or to die and drop. And that will depend upon whether we have begun to die and rise in this life, as the soul dies to sin and comes alive to righteousness. In the end times we pray that Christ will conclude that our lives have been a consummation of dying and rising through Him, because we have been habituated to those virtues that bring the old man on the old way to death and new man on the new way into everlasting life. But the Church has always known that radical conversion is a rare thing. And so she provides us with this Gesmina season in order to make a shrewd, judicious, and prudent effort at beginning the work of becoming the old man on the new way.
In his earthly sojourn, Christ Jesus was well aware of the dangers of becoming the old man who steps back onto the old and not the new way. Last week’s Gospel, used for The Conversion of St. Paul, comes from the Chapter immediately preceding this week’s and reveals Christ’s discomfort with St. Peter’s concern about the reward that would await the faithful. You will remember that St. Peter said, Jesus, Behold, we have forsaken all and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus responded, Ye which have followed me… shall sit upon twelve thrones. But he adds that those who follow Him truly, have forsaken… all… for his name’s sake… and shall inherit eternal life. (Ibid, 29) He then concludes with (M)any that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) In today’s Gospel Jesus continues his teaching and moves on to tell the Apostles a story -or parable in order to illustrate his point. He wishes to warn the Apostles about the temptations that assault those who think that they are first – new men on the new way, when in all reality they will have to learn out of their own weakness and suffering how vulnerable they are to the habits of the old man on the old way.
Jesus teaches them the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: For 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. (St. Matthew xx. 1,2) It is only to the workers who are hired early in the morning that the specific amount of payment – one penny is promised. The householder goes out also at the third, sixth, and ninth hour and hires idle men, promising to pay them whatsoever is right. (Ibid, 3-5) Finally, … 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. (Ibid, 6,7) We should remember that the parable is addressed to St. Peter and his fellow Apostles. And what the parable is going to reveal, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, is that St. Peter’s question – What shall we have? – which compelled the need for the parable in the first place, was not a right one; it put their relation to their Lord on a wrong footing…bringing their obedience to a calculation of so much work for so much payment. There lurked, too, … that spirit of self-exaltating comparison with others....(Parables; 138) Jesus knew what was lurking in Peter and the other Apostles’ hearts, i.e. they thought that because they were the first to be called, they should be the first to be chosen, and given the first and foremost seats in the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, they thought that because of they were first called, they were specially chosen, to reveal a unique and perfect faith, obedience, and surrender to Christ that would put them ahead and above all others as exemplars and models to be followed by those who came later and knew less. But Jesus perceived that the old man was retreading the old way instead of the new.
He unravels the potentially sinful thoughts of their hearts as His parable unfolds. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 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, 8-12) The warning to St. Peter and all of us is that the old man on the old way is threatening always to rear his ugly old head of self-importance, pride, and hubris. This is the natural man who thinks that he should be paid first because he has worked longer than all others. This is the same natural man who thinks that his reward should be greater because he was chosen first. And finally this is the man who because he was chosen first and worked longer has produced virtue of finer quality and more durable substance. He thinks, in the end, that his good works have earned him a greater reward.
Jesus has this to say to the old man in danger of traveling down the old way – the man hired early in the morning. 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? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Ibid, 13-16) Jesus reminds us that the householder, who is really God the Father, is under no compulsion to invite mankind into the labor of salvation. Employment in the vineyard of the Lord is a privileged gift that far exceeds what we deserve, earn, or merit. The unemployed who are taken into the householder’s labor have no prior claim on him and are entitled to nothing. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. (St. John xv. 16) Furthermore they have agreed to one reward, just as St. Peter, speaking for the Apostles, did not question the equal seating on identical thrones in the Kingdom.
But the sin that is threatening to undo those who have borne the burden and heat of the day (Idem) is resentment or bitterness. What they do not want to do is to share an equal reward with those who came into the vineyard later than they. And yet the other workers took the job, promised only what was right, without any specific mention of the amount of payment for services rendered. They were thankful for the work and for whatever wage they might earn, since some employment with some pay was better than none. Archbishop Trench says that the workers who were hired later in the day reveal a true spirit of humble waiting upon the Lord, in full assurance that He will give far more than his servants can desire or deserve… and that God will not fail to show Himself an abundant rewarder of them that seek and serve Him. (Ibid, 141) So what those who were hired later in the day reveal is a humble trust and deep gratitude for a gift that they never expected to receive. Those who were hired at the eleventh hour reveal something even more moving to us. When the householder asks them, Why stand ye here all the day idle, they answer, Because no man hath hired us. (Idem) These are they who at present are ignorant of God and his saving power, wisdom, and love in Jesus Christ.
And so we must ask: Why is this so? Because no man hath hired us is the same as saying Because no man wanted us. We claim to be here because God wants us and has given us a job to do – namely, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) St. Paul likens it to running a race… in order to obtain an incorruptible crown. (1 Cor. ix. 24,25) He reminds us too that we must practice self-restraint, temperance, or moderation and buffet or tame our bodies, so that instead of being castaways we might lovingly welcome all others in Christ’s labor of love. Many are called but few are chosen. Let us pray that we may persist in that humility that makes us the last and least of Christ’s elect, always honored and privileged with the gifts He brings to us through them, no matter what time of the day they arrive. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: