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 man as a fallen creature poses for the process of redemption and salvation. If she were not aware of human nature’s tendency to fall away from the vigilance that is required for embracing and perfecting these gifts, she would not constantly and habitually provide seasonal themes in her lectionary that remind him of the dangers that accompany his spiritual journey. We have just emerged from the season of light -that of Epiphany, in which were called to be illuminated and enlightened by the brilliance and beauty of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ. Were not the Church not conscious of man’s tendency to treat it more like a deer in headlights than a vision of the glory to come, she would approach the period between Epiphany and Lent innocuously and tenderly. But thank God that the Church in her prudence has established the season before Lent with more caution and concern for our souls. The Church knows that Epiphany Tide spoils us with God’s power and glory in Jesus’ manifestations of His Divinity. She knows that we are easily enamored of the Divine Goodness and might not grasp where Christ leads us. Thus, she gives us the Gesima Sundays, between the season of Epiphany-vision and that of Lenten penance.
The Gesima Season is comprised of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays, named from the Latin words meaning seventy, sixty and fifty days prior to Easter. In this season, the Church reminds us that the Divine Glory of Epiphany calls us forward onto a journey, a spiritual pilgrimage which follows Christ up to His Cross and beyond. Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) In Lent, the Christian is called to see and experience the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way. But first Mother Church calls us to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind and acts of will that ensure that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter our Saviour’s Passion for us.
The Gesima Seasons enjoins our consciences to begin a journey and to make due preparation for the coming Lent. Our lections for this Season will help us to prepare our bodies, souls, and spirits for a closer walk with [Christ] up to His Cross. Today we focus on our bodies and our relation to other men. Our work must begin in the external and visible world before we move to the inward and spiritual. We might find this odd, but we shouldn’t. Adam chose to make a false god out of the creation. What ended up moving and defining him was time, space, and the things in it. This created world became more important to him than God. Adam was first tempted through his senses. This is where that our Gesima-work begins.
St. Paul tells us that our work will be like running a race. In 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 the physical and bodily nature of athletics to rouse our souls to spiritual exercise. If we are faithful to our calling, we should be striving to win a prize, the way runners do. For our mind’s eye to be focused on the spiritual journey that lies ahead with Jesus, we must temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions. Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. ix. 25) We must remind ourselves that because we seek the spiritual and eternal prize of eternal salvation, our physical natures- appetites, feelings, emotions, wants and needs, and desires and passions must be tamed and subordinated into the service of the soul’s good. What and how much we eat and drink should only be what is absolutely necessary for running the race that is set before us. Thus, the virtue of temperance will be needed for our spiritual race. St. Ambrose says that what we observe and seek most in temperance is tranquility of soul. (De Offic. i. 42) If our passions and appetites are moderated and subdued, our souls will not heavy laden and submerged in sloth. Our souls will be focused on the labor of running the race. St. Paul says that people whose loyalties are divided and who worship other gods do it to obtain a corruptible crown (I Cor. ix. 25) –they seek earthly rewards of impermanent meaning. But we Christians run to obtain an incorruptible crown –a gift and prize of eternal worth and enduring merit. Thus, we are called not to run blindly, erratically, pointlessly, and capriciously. Since we know our end, we should moderate and temper our physical desires and passions in such a way that best enables us to reach our spiritual end.
St. Paul is running to obtain the incorruptible crown. The man who has tempered his appetites and is moderate in all things longs for the free gift of God’s Grace to change his life and move others to share in the same. The effort is directed at all who desire to receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. (1 Peter v. 4)
The crown on glory that fadeth not away is a gift. It cannot be merited or earned by human effort. This is nicely summarized in today’s Gospel Parable. Here Jesus says:
…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)
Archbishop Trench reminds us that the Parable is a response to the question which St. Peter asks in the preceding chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter said, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus promised the Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He said also that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) He concluded his promises with the words of the Gospel parable. But, many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) St Paul’s race is the journey of a lifetime. Some, like the Apostles, may start running or working like the laborers in the vineyard because they were called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later because they had stopped running or had never started. The problem is with sloth and idleness. They are promised 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 tells us that the last are called first.
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 have a real problem with the last. Imagine St. Paul’s runner thinking he had won the race, only to discover that the laurel wreath or crown was being placed on the heads of the last to make it to the finish line. Like the laborers who came first, he would be moved with rage and horrified at the injustice of it all. The first were promised one penny. 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)
Father Crouse reminds us, It matters not when they come into the vineyard- at morning, midday or the eleventh hour; the point is that they are called into the labor and that they work for one reward- the one penny that God’s free Grace provides. (Parochial Sermons) Running St. Paul’s race is an ongoing labor that calls us to labor and run well.
Some commentators have said that the reward of one penny is the reward of everlasting salvation. Archbishop Trench thinks this is wrong. If the one penny symbolizes salvation, then the first workers or the men who are full of resentment, bitterness, envy, and a begrudging spirit would be saved, since we read that they received every man a penny. But these vices can never reward a man with Christ’s Kingdom. The one penny symbolizes God’s Grace. How we labor, run, or receive it matters. If it is received humbly and undeservedly, we shall be saved. If it is received cynically and disdainfully, we shall be damned. The last shall be first…. The race that we run is the gift that God gives. He invites us to labor in His vineyard or run in His race. Though we have sinned, He believes still that we can run and work. God’s Grace is given to us first to awaken us to the fact that we are the last and the least always because of our sin. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been running or working. God’s Grace sustains us. Jesus alone gives us the speed, wisdom, and alacrity to finish the labor and cross the finish line. Gesima Tide reveals that we should be justly punished for our sins but will be mercifully delivered and crowned with a laurel that rewards humility. (Fr. Crouse: Logic of Pre-Lent)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: