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.
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. As Canon Crouse reminds us, 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. Septuagesima Sunday is the beginning of our short Gesima season; Gesima means days. Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima refer to 70, 60, and 50 days before Lent. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent. Our seasons and the appointed readings come to us from patterns established in the Ancient Church. So, as men of old in the ancient Western Latin Church did, we must use our season for self-discipline. Today’s lesson in self-discipline will include the virtues of temperance and justice.
The virtues that we study today are two of what are known as the Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These then are the hinge virtues without which we cannot hope to obtain any kind of goodness. Goodness here is that holiness and righteousness which we can find by the use of our reason and free will. The Cardinal Virtues were first formulated by the great Greek philosopher Plato in his Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of goodness and virtue. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal virtues which come to us by way of reason’s study of the universe and human nature and then the will’s expression of them in the habits of human life. The Fathers taught that they were not especially dependent upon Revelation or Scripture. Instead, they formed a kind of goodness that man can find prior to his need for the Divine Grace and Intervention that lead to salvation. So, you can imagine the Cardinal Virtues are laying a kind of groundwork for the acquisition of goodness in this world. The goodness that they establish conditions the body and soul for an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, provide us with a character of soul and body that will better situate us to pursue the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Holy Season of Lent.
Our first virtue is discussed today by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX. In it, he likens our pursuit of Heaven to the spiritual and bodily preparation made by ancient Greek runners who competed in the Isthmian Games. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? (1 Cor. 9. 24) Using an earthly paradigm illustrated by comparison to what the Cardinal Virtues can achieve, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. Of course, his illustration relates to a competition where only one man can win and receive the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory in pagan life. St. Paul wants to assure us that as Christians we all can run to obtain the prize. In fact, we cannot receive it unless we run. And run we must since without such a commitment of enthusiasm, energy, and effort, we shall never reach the finish line! So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 25), he says. Yet, our running must be conditioned. …Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) As it turns out, our running must be tempered and moderated towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly men. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptibleand lasting. And if this is the case, then our moderation and temperance must be of such a sort that best conditions our hearts and souls for the eternal prize of Heaven’s gift in the offer of salvation. The Apostle wants us to remember that we are aiming for a prize of inestimable worth and value. The temperance and moderation that we embrace must be applied to our souls as well as our bodies. The runners at the Isthmian Games kept to a strict diet and discipline. Also, they refrained from those freedoms that stand only to corrupt the body and disrupt focus. How much more then should Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as they condition their bodies to serve their souls that seek after the prize of God’s Kingdom? The Greek runners were fighting for an earthly prize but Christians for an eternal reward. Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and more likely than not to distract us from running the race. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away. (Ibid, 26, 27) Runners’ arms beat the air as they push their legs onward to an uncertain victory where one wins and the others lose. Christians, with certainty through hope, run all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul calls us to imitate his example as we run with him.
Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For Christians, the end is one reward for all. We are invited into collective labour. The ancient pagans were in combat with one another. We cannot afford such a luxury. We must run all together. But their virtues can be used in the service of our Gospel prize. By helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites, we can all appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the reward or gift of God the Giver. We do not deserve, earn, or merit it. We have been invited to run or to labour in the Vineyard of the Lord, as today’s Gospel would have it. 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.(St. Matthew xx. 1) The offer to work in the Vineyard of the Lord is God’s gift. The work is offered at different times of the day or different times of life to men who will come in the morning, noontide, or evening of their lives. Those who come first to work are promised a penny. They have been awakened by the Lord in the morning of their lives and so come early to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. Others are roused or stirred later in the day of their lives. They have been idle, negligent, slothful, careless, or ignorant. Nevertheless, they are given a chance to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They are told that they will receive what is right in payment for their labour. Others are found at the sixth and ninth hours of their lives. Some are even found in the twilight of their lives, at the eleventh hour or the end of the day. They too are welcomed to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They too will receive what is right as a reward. These men are even rebuked for their sloth. Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Ibid, 6) Yet, the householder’s desire for their service is greater than his bewilderment at their delay in accepting the offer to run to the work that leads to an incorruptible crown.
In today’s Gospel Parable, at the end of the day, all are paid. The last to come are paid first and the first to come are paid last. The moderation and temperance that have conditioned the running and working of the Johnny-come-lately men are of equal value and worth to the first in the heart of the householder. Every man receives a penny. Every man receives the same reward. All run. Some come early and some come late. All are called to work for one end.
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)
Christians are called to run and work not that one may receive the prize but that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown.
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)
Moderation and temperance prepare us for the virtue of justice. Strictly speaking, as fallen and sinful men, we deserve nothing but just punishment for our sins. That is real justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with something greater than we could ever deserve or earn. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the running and onto a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept His invitation to run and to work, we shall be rewarded with a crown whose worth and value far exceed anything that is right or just for men. And, as John Henry Newman says:
We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world, we
must be right in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God; in denying
our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our
lusts, in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: