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 she were not aware of human nature’s fallen tendency to fall back and away from the vigilance that is required in this process, she would not constantly and habitually 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 many a man is usually bedazzled by the brilliant and beautiful vision of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ. And were 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. The Church knows that man is more likely than not to fall into resentment and so to become hardhearted. She knows that her sheep are easily distracted 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 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 first Mother Church calls us to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind which will ensure that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter our Saviour’s Passion for us.
Our lections for this Season progressively 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 then on our relation to other people. 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 now, more than the grip that God once had upon him inwardly and spiritually, was the outside world and other men. Adam was first tempted through his senses. So it is here that our gesima-work commences.
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 an external and visible image 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 a spiritual and eternal prize- which is eternal salvation, 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 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) So if our passions and appetites are moderated, we shall not be consumed with the false gods of the external and visible world and our souls will be focused on the race. 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 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.
St. Paul is running to obtain the incorruptible crown.The man who has tempered his appetites and is moderate in all things desires that the free gift of God’s Grace should 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)
That the crown on glory that fadeth not away is a gift and cannot be merited by human effort is nicely summarized in today’s Gospel Parable. Here Jesus says:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an household 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 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 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) But 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) Here, Jesus warns us about that kind of spiritual attitude that might very well imperil our salvation.
The parable teaches that some, like the Apostles, who were already industrious workers, would be called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later, perhaps out of idleness, 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 tells us that the last are called first. And the order is not well-received. 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. They are moved by envy and jealousy and so want to begrudge the last the reward promised only to the first.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) As Canon 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) The first are meant to set the example of temperance. Temperance in all things must not only tame our excessive appetites but also moderate our temptation to think that we ought to receive more than what God gives to all repentant sinners or to all who are equal in their sin.
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 agree with him. 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 bitterness, envy, jealousy, and immoderate or intemperate ambition can never land a man in Christ’s Kingdom. The one penny symbolizes God’s Grace. If it is received humbly and gratefully as what we neither desire nor deserve, in body and soul because the heart is sound and the body tempered, then we shall be transformed by God’s Grace.The last shall be first…. We might even, in this Gesima Season, in body and through soul, hear Jesus’ invitation to go up to Jerusalem as the call that binds us closer to all men. We live in a sinful world. We Christians are sinners. We have contributed to the exceedingly sinful nature of our world. Perhaps God’s Grace is given to us first, so that being temperate in all things, by way of example we might behave like the last and the least. If we do so, our humility and meekness might be perceived in our demeanors and dispositions. They might even awaken the hearts of others to that householder who longs to give us all the one penny of salvation!
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: