Preached February 20, 2011
1 Corinthians 9:24–27
St. Matthew 20:1–16
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
As I often do, I want to begin with a few words about the Kalendar. We have come to the end of the Epiphany season during which we have, in a sense, been looking backwards at Christmass. Today we enter into the short season of Pre–Lent, the ‘Gesima Sundays – Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima in which we begin to look forward to Easter. These Sundays are, very roughly 70, 60, and 50 days, respectively before Easter.
There was a time in the history of the Church when Lent began today, Septuagesima, and the logic of the whole longer cycle is still evident. Beginning today, the first three weeks (Pre–Lent) is a period of preparation, a call to go on pilgrimage with Christ to Jerusalem. We are given instructions regarding the spiritual preparations required for this journey. The first three weeks of Lent present us with the hazards of the journey, Jesus tempted by Satan, healing of Canaanite woman’s daughter vexed with a devil, and Jesus casting out a devil with the house then swept and garnished. The final three weeks focus on the end of the journey, events very close to Jesus’ passion. All of this, of course, then leads to Holy Week and Easter, the climax of our journey.
From last Sunday’s Epistle lesson, we have this verse, 1 John 3:3 And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. While we know that we cannot overcome sin by our own means, we cannot sit idly by and say, “I don’t have to do anything at all.” No, we have to make every effort to remove sin from our lives by every means at our disposal. We have to try, we have to work at it, we must realize this effort in our daily lives, in spite of the difficulties and contradictions of life.
In our Epistle lesson, St. Paul describes the Christian life as that of an athlete, preparing for a race or a wrestling match. We are all aware that an athlete in training is careful about what he eats, about getting enough rest, enough exercise of the right kinds, about avoiding harmful things or excesses. Some of our modern day “sports heroes” are not particularly good examples in their off seasons, with drug, alcohol, and other public problems. But for a serious athlete who is in a training regimen, we know training includes moderation in many things and complete abstinence in other things.
And they do all of this to win a completely perishable goal. In St. Paul’s time, it was a crown of laurel leaves; today it is a fat paycheck of highly perishable money. In neither case is the goal a thing of eternal value. What St. Paul is urging temperance for is a matter of so much greater importance, namely our eternal salvation, where the goal is truly the imperishable crown of eternal life.
Traditionally, temperance has been associated primarily with self–control in the areas of eating, drinking, and sexual activity. The three have often been lumped together because the first two, carried to excess, seem to frequently lead to the third. It is easy to see, then, how calls for temperance would be understood to be directed primarily toward these parts of life. But that is too narrow for our modern lives. It is easy to find people caught up in the intemperate use of television, computer games, games such as bridge, fitness, etc. Any of these obsessions that take control of people cause them to lose balance in their lives and thus need to be seen as intemperate.
To continue the sport metaphor, life is a long distance run, not a sprint. Thus temperance is something that must be practiced over the long haul, for a lifetime, not simply for a weekend, a month, or even a season. It has to be a way of life for us, not something we do on special occasions. This is the only way we can win the imperishable crown of eternal life for which we strive.
In the Gospel lesson for today, we have one of the most difficult of our Lord’s parables, difficult in that it strikes us as so very unfair. It is the story of the laborers hired to work in the vineyard, some hired early in the morning, some a little later, other later yet, until the last group were hired quite late in the day. At the end of the day, the workers were paid, starting with those last hired. All were paid the same amount, and those who had started work early in the day thought that this was unfair because they had worked so much longer, through the heat of the day. It was true that they had received exactly the wage for which they had agreed to work, but they were still disgruntled.
If we are honest, I think that most of us, as modern people, will tend to agree with those hired early in the day and say that they got a raw deal. Why should those who worked only a short while receive exactly the same pay as those who have worked hard all the day long? In so thinking, we miss the point entirely!!
This is a parable of Jesus Christ, not to be understood literally, but rather to be understood in an allegorical sense if we are to get the point. The vineyard is the world, and the owner of the vineyard is God. God calls various people to work in His vineyard, the world, at different times. The Jews he began to call first through Abraham. More recently he has begun to call Gentiles through the Church. The eternal reward for them all is the same, eternity with Him.
The critically important point to note here is that none of the workers earned their reward. Each of them receives far more than they have earned because of the goodness of God. Thus we are rewarded not for what we do, but for who we are, children of God. None of us has a right to salvation, but all receive it as the gift of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The Gospel lesson ends on a cautionary note: Matthew 20:15b-16 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. Is thine eye evil – are you jealous – simply because the Master is good? Are you jealous of what you see as your neighbor’s unearned windfall, simply because the Lord God is generous to him? Does this blot out your own sense of gratitude? Are we in danger of failing to recognize the great gift we have received, simply because we think our neighbor has received a greater gift? What rank ingratitude!! To see that our neighbor has received salvation, and be so put off by that fact because we have long thought so poorly of that neighbor that we cannot imagine him as being saved, that we now fail to notice that we too have been offered salvation and thus risk turning our backs on our own salvation. What could be more deadly?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. This appears to be clearly aimed at the Jews, the ones first called by God in His covenant with Abraham and called again by Jesus Himself in His public ministry, although few responded. He is saying implicitly that others, the Gentile nations, will inherit salvation before the Jews, although He is not saying that the Jews will not be saved.
As we begin our preparations for our pilgrimage to Jerusalem, let us be mindful of our destination and the goal that awaits us there. We will be traveling with Jesus as he makes His last trip to the Holy City and we must be properly prepared for the journey and for what awaits us there. Let us discipline our lives and develop an appreciation of God’s justice.
+ In the Name 0f the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.