Preached February 5, 2012
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.
With the arrival of this Sunday, we have “turned a corner” in the Kalendar, so to speak. We have completed the entire Christmass cycle of the year, which comprises the seasons of Advent, Christmass, and Epiphany. During this cycle, all of the proper lessons and collects were associated with the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. There was a continually rising sense of expectation as we have seen the Son of God revealed to the world, full of grace and truth. Beginning today, we enter upon the Easter cycle, comprised of Pre–Lent, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. In the second cycle, we focus on God’s work for the redemption of mankind through Jesus Christ, culminating in His defeat of sin, death, and the devil by His own death and resurrection at Easter and then His return to Heaven at the Ascension while sending the Holy Ghost to be with us until the close of the age. Thus it is clear that the first cycle is about Jesus’ coming among us and then the second cycle is about Jesus work for our salvation.
Today we begin the period known as Pre–Lent, consisting of the three Sundays called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima which are approximately 70, 60, and 50 days before Easter, respectively. Although today we think of Lent as beginning on Ash Wednesday, in earlier times it actually began today, on Septuagesima. This was the day that new converts were first brought into the Church to begin preparation for baptism on Easter Eve. The lessons that we use today are still the ancient lessons of the Western Church, common to the entire Church a thousand years ago. We may want to consider what these lessons would say particularly to these new converts, people new to the Christian faith.
The Gospel lesson is the familiar parable of the householder who hires workers to labor in His vineyard, some at daybreak, some a little later, some at midmorning, some at noon, and so on, until the last hired work only one hour. When it is time to pay the workers, they are all paid the same amount, the amount agreed with those hired first early in the morning. There is much unhappiness and grumbling that ensues as a result, and the householder says that He has done no one any wrong, only that He has been generous with that which is His own. Now the Church does not hold this up as a model of good labor relations, but we must ask instead, what is the lesson in this parable for us.
First, let us understand that the householder is the Lord God, and the vineyard is humanity in the world. The day of work we may consider to be the time of the world from the dawn of creation down to our current age. Throughout time, God has sent His messengers into the world, to bring His message of love and salvation to His people. Before the Flood, there were special people such as Enoch and then Noah. These were followed by the Patriarchs down to Moses, then the Prophets, and finally the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Following Jesus, the Apostles were sent out into the world of the most recent age. With the exception of Jesus, the wage for each of these teachers has been exactly the same. They have been received into heavenly glory to spend eternity with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Those who came first have no greater reward than those who have come later because the reward of all is exactly equal; there can be no greater reward than to be in Heaven with Jesus.
The last group called are the Apostles to the Gentiles, called at the eleventh hour, Matthew 20:6 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? Notice the question at the end of the Lord’s statement, and then note the reply, Matthew 20:7 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. The answer they give is that no Patriarch or Prophet had come to them, so that they had not previously heard the message of God. Perhaps that was an adequate answer at that time, but what answer shall we give today if we are found standing around? We have heard the message of God, we have heard it repeatedly from Christ’s Church all the years of our lives. If we have not taken it to heart, have not become workers in the vineyard, then what shall we say? We have had the job offer for years, so we had better think very hard how we will answer why are standing idle now.
The key to understanding the Gospel lesson lies in understanding that when we understand that the reward for the day’s labor is eternal salvation, this is more than any man can ever earn. It was purchased for us by Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary and no man can begin to earn his own salvation. Thus we may say that all were vastly over paid, and no one was under paid in any sense at all. This is clearly not an earthly labor compensation situation, so we should not attempt to view it in that light at all. But there is more. We also learn that the Lord God does expect and require us to be working for His Kingdom. We are not permitted to be standing idle on the sidelines. This is not to say that we can earn our salvation at all, only that we must be working for the Kingdom.
At this point, we should turn to the Epistle lesson for the day, in which St. Paul is writing to the Corinthians regarding self discipline. He writes in terms of one training for an athletic event, specifically a race. One of his most interesting comments is with regard to intent. He says 1 Corinthians 9:24 Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. There is no point at all to a half–hearted effort. So run, that ye may obtain. This is the only thing that makes any sense at all. If you have no expectation of winning, then you are wasting your effort, and should reconsider the proper use of your time and resources.
St. Paul observes that athletes do all of this for nothing of more value than a moment of fame and a wreath of laurel leaves that withers quickly. When we compare how trivial these rewards are against the opportunity to spend eternity in Heaven with Christ, our Savior, it is evident that we must strive ever so much harder than the athlete to assure that we do not lose out in the end. Our race is different in that it is not a sprint, but rather a life long marathon. To win requires continued faithfulness and the willingness to be constantly working for the Kingdom of God.
We must ever be mindful for ourselves of the fear that St. Paul expressed for himself, 1 Corinthians 9:27 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 castaway. We must constantly keep our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our salvation. We must never think that our own salvation is so assured that we can neglect it for even a single moment, but always it must be our highest priority.
With this thought in mind, we return to the final words of the Gospel lesson: Matthew 20:16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. There are many questions about exactly how this verse should be understood. Just about any interpretation used, however, indicates that there are going to be many who will hear the word of God, in all likelihood appear to respond to it, but then in the end they will be lost to eternal damnation. This takes us back to St. Paul’s concern for himself, and by extension, the concern we should each have for ourselves. We can never take our salvation for granted. This is absolutely fundamental. Every person must be concerned first and foremost about their own salvation; nothing matters more. It is on that basis that we create our own relation with God the Father and God the Son and also with other people. How we build love on those relationships will determine our eternal destiny.
If you think that this is all obvious and well known by all, ask yourself how many of your friends and neighbors have thought about it today? On any particular day, has the man at the next desk, or the woman with the next cart at the supermarket, given any thought at all to her own salvation that day? Have they done anything about it? Offered any prayers, thought seriously about changes to their lives, done anything to make amends, given any alms or other works of mercy? Have we done anything about our own state today? These are not common considerations in America today, but nothing is more important for each of us.
We must always be aware that we can do nothing to earn our salvation, while at the same time working for the coming of the Kingdom of God. We work not because we hope to earn our salvation, but because we want to serve our Lord and Saviour and we want to assure that we maintain our place in His Kingdom. This discipline is required of all Christians.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.