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. In it, we contemplated Christ’s coming to us and manifesting Himself as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John i. 14) 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. Septu means seventy. So today is the 70th day before Easter. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday. Our pre-Lenten season is probably a Western Latin approximation of the Eastern Church’s much longer Lent. In the West, it bridges Epiphany Tide with Lent. It is a season for self-discipline and for embracing the four Cardinal Virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude.
The Four Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These virtues are the hinge virtues, without which we cannot hope to lay a foundation for the Three Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Just as the Gesima Sundays hinge one season with another, the Cardinal Virtues comprise the hinge that opens the door to deeper union with God. The Cardinal Virtues are derived from Plato’s Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of the Good or God. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal Virtues and acknowledged their indebtedness to Greek Philosophy for providing forms that enable the mind to journey to God. For the Church Fathers, the Cardinal Virtues provided a stimulus for fallen man’s mind to discern God rationally at work in the world. These virtues generate a limited but valuable relationship to the Divine by way of reason. The Cardinal Virtues enable fallen man to find God and to will His goodness, if it be ever so partially. The goodness that they establish teaches the soul both its strengths and its weaknesses. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, lay a kind of foundation for knowledge of the good, the extent to which we can will it, and the vast gulf that remains between us and God.
Today, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX, St. Paul introduces us to the first Cardinal Virtue that we must study. He tells us that our pursuit of the Good or God is like 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, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. His illustration relates to a competition in which one man is determined to win the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory. The desired end is the prize of a crown and the means is running. St. Paul knows that all men run to obtain some reward. And no man can run without hope. So, with hope we must run to obtain whatever crown we seek. So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 24), St. Paul insists. Yet, our running must be ordered and tamed. Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (Ibid, 25) As it turns out, temperance or moderation must condition our running in hope towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly athletic enthusiasts. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptible and lasting. And this was the end for Plato and Aristotle as well. The problem for them was that all the efforts of reason’s appropriation of temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude couldn’t generate lasting union with God. For Christians, moderation and temperance are fueled by more hope. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) The Apostle urges us to make use of Greek Moral Theology for the pursuit of an incorruptible crown.
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. They refrained from food, drink, and sex to stay focused. How much more, then, should we Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as we condition our bodies to serve our souls with hope of obtaining the incorruptible crown?Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and likely 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 obtain a corruptible crown. Christians, with certainty through hope, run all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul uses the Greek runners to illustrate the focus, dedication, and discipline or temperancewhich is key to obtaining any crown.
Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For the Greeks there was one crown for one runner. But for St. Paul an incorruptible crown is promised to all who run the Christian race. The ancient Greeks all cultivated the same virtue in pursuit of their end. And so too must we. But we have an added interest in helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites so that we all can appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the 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 always along the lines of any man’s life in the morning, noontide, or evening. 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 the work 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 without envying and begruding that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown. The householder responds:
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 earthly justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with the hope of gaining His goodness. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the hope of running and a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept the gift of 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 us. And, as St. Gregory says:
He who desires to escape the fires of jealousy, let him seek that love, which no number of shares in it ever narrows.
Running the race with temperance is the unmerited gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. Ii. 9) The last shall be first and the first last. (Matthew xx. 16) For the Christian, work or running the race is never to be quantitatively measured by the time spent but by the freed gift of God’s Grace. If we cherish and treasure the honor and privilege of working in God’s vineyard and running the spiritual race, we might even forget whether we started at the first hour, the third, the sixth, the ninth, or the eleventh. Whatever hour we came, our attention is on the Giver and His Gift.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: