Preached January 27, 2013
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.
The season of Epiphany has come to an end for this year, and we are now come to Pre-Lent, beginning today at Septuagesima, roughly seventy days before Easter. In this short season consisting of three Sundays, the readings for the Mass focus on the teaching of Christian virtues in preparation for Lent. Today the Church asks that we consider particularly the virtues of temperance, hope, and justice. Three little words, and yet so packed with meaning for our present day!
Let us begin with the Epistle lesson for today in which St. Paul speaks about preparing to run a race. 1 Corinthians 9:25a And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Again in 1 Corinthians 9:27 But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: Paul is speaking about disciplining his own body, to bring it into subjection. What St. Paul is describing is called Temperance.
Temperance is the restraint and control of our natural appetites according to Godly reason. It applies to any natural appetite, particularly those that are most essential and pleasurable. Classically these are considered as eating, drinking, and sexual activity, although you can apply the concept to everything from playing the piano, watching TV, or exercise. We see a great lack of temperance in today’s society with people who become fixated on some one activity, whether it be rock climbing, computer gaming, or alcohol consumption, to the point that they loose sight of all else in their lives. These things become addictions which take over their lives and rule them, rather than the individual remaining in control of his own life. This is a complete failure to exercise temperance, and results in the destruction of the person.
All pleasurable human activities are directed towards some necessary goal, so this raises the question, “how much is too much?” What is intemperate? Temperance takes necessity as the goal, and allows these activities only in so far as they are necessary to meet the goal. Thus the goal of eating is to provide the necessary nourishment for our daily needs. Temperate eating provides what we need in the way of nourishment, but intemperate eating provides more than we need and we get fat or ill. Consider something as seemingly innocent as playing the piano. Done temperately, it can provide relaxation, an opportunity to relieve stress, and a means of self expression. Done intemperately, it may simply become an excuse for sloth, a place to hide when one should be doing other things.
The temperate use of alcohol is a matter much discussed in our society today. Most would agree that a glass of wine with dinner is often a good thing, but most would also agree that drinking until you pass out on the floor is a bad thing. Far too many people fail to recognize where the line is between the two. We seem to have come to a time when our young people have lost all sense of temperance, with so–called “binge drinking” becoming very common on our college campuses today. This is the very opposite of temperance, because the goal seems to be to lose all control of yourself.
The hallmark of our modern society seems to be freewheeling, casual sexual relations on demand, most particularly among the younger people. This is, of course, specifically condemned in Holy Scripture, and we know very clearly in today’s society that it leads directly to death. In the context of our discussion of the virtue of temperance, this is the very opposite of temperance. The temperate use of our sexuality is only within marriage as provided within God’s law, and to abstain when not in the married state. It really is not surprising that this does not go over very well with modern man, because temperance is about self–control, self–discipline. These are not pleasant words for modern, self–indulgent man for whom “fun” is understood to mean the complete loss of self–control. But that is the whole message of temperance.
The second virtue we want to consider this morning is Hope. This is a word we often use carelessly, such as, “I hope we can get home before it rains,” but that is not hope in the theological sense. What is hope? Hope is a rational desire for a future good that is difficult, but not impossible, to obtain. Thus we do not hope for what we already have, and we do not hope for something evil. We do not hope for something that is impossible. So in summary, we hope for something good, in the future, that is difficult, but that is possible. In my simple example, the object of the “hope” is immediate rather than future, and it is not difficult to accomplish if we simply get busy and get along home.
In American political discourse in recent years, “hope,” has been perverted to mean the push for political power and dominance. Hope has become associated with massive public vote buying schemes that have nothing at all to do with the theological virtue of hope.
What is it we ultimately hope for? We hope to see and be with God eternally. The ultimate end of man is God Himself. This is what we hope for. This is not the same as hoping for our own eternal happiness, but it is the desire to be with God, to be in His presence eternally. It is true that this will provide for everything we want and desire, but that is secondary. This desire to be with God as our true hope is all too often obscured with talk about rewards and punishments.
It is true that men are rarely attracted to a virtuous life simply by the rewards that such a life gives in and of itself, even though we know that virtue is its own reward. Matthew 10:41 He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. It is entirely legitimate to hope for that reward. We should not worry too much about the purity of our motives.
Finally, let us move on to the matter of Justice. Justice is a word much used in America today; we hear a lot about it. But do we really know what it means? It is rarely used correctly. Justice means that each man is to receive exactly what is due to him, no less, but also no more. It is the “no more” portion that frequently evades the understanding of modern Americans who often think in terms of “deep pockets” that should compensate those they think harmed unjustly.
Consider again the story our Lord tells in today’s Gospel lesson. It is the familiar parable of the laborers hired to work in the vineyard. Some are hired early in the morning, agreeing to work for a penny a day. As the day wears on, the owner of the vineyard hires more laborers, saying to them, Matthew 20:4b and whatsoever is right I will give you. The owner of the vineyard does not promise the later laborers a specific wage, but the implication is that it will be at the prevailing labor rate of a penny for a full day’s work, presumably prorated for the time that they actually work. He promises them justice, and they accept this; no man has a right to expect anything more than justice. This goes on through the day, until the last group that is hired works in the vineyard only a short time before the end of the day. Then the owner of the vineyard instructs the paymaster to pay the laborers each one penny, beginning with the last first and progressing to pay last those who were hired first. Not unexpectedly, those hired first are disappointed and object. They thought that they should have received more than those who worked only a short time. The owner of the vineyard defends his actions saying that it is his choice to pay them all the same, and that no one has been mistreated.
Has any man been defrauded? Has any laborer not received justice? What is justice in this situation? What is justice in general? Justice is to render to each that which is his right. There is a very important point here in this matter of right, that is, there must be something strictly owed and due. A laborer is most definitely entitled to his previously agreed wages. But he has no right to anything more at all. This is somewhat difficult for modern people to understand, with all of our relativistic thinking. We have a tendency to think in terms of “deep pockets.” If the owner, the business man, has a lot of money, let him pay more, more than is strictly owed, simply because he has a lot and the worker has little, we tend to think. The ancient Jews understood justice much more properly. Consider Exodus 23:3 Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause. Although brief, what this is saying is simply, that you do not give any special benefit to the cause of a poor man in his case before the court simply because he is poor. Being poor is not to be an advantage when dealing with a person of greater means. This is made more clear in this quote from Leviticus 19:15 Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. Notice what it says: Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgement: that would be to do injustice. It spells it out that you do not respect the persons of the powerful, the VIPs, nor do you give extra weight to the persons of the poor. All are to be treated equally in order to do justice. People must receive what they are due, not less, not more. This is a very difficult concept for modern America to deal with.
It also goes beyond matters of who is rich and who is poor. Justice demands that all people be treated exactly the same before the law, without exception for who they are. In particular, no exceptions may be made for groups, such as the muzlims, who let it be known that if they do not get their way, they will retaliate with violence. To cower before such should be utterly beneath the courts, and their people, when charged with a crime, should get absolutely no special consideration at all. If there is violent retaliation, then the courts have a duty to see to eradicating the whole group from the land. The same applies to the chicanos who claim that the American southwest was stolen from them. They are ignorant of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the large cash payment that went to Mexico in the 19th century to settle all of the land claims in the American southwest. People who would dispute those claims today should receive their just due, deportation to Mexico immediately where they can share in the benefits of those settlements. They must not be given any standing, nor must they be allowed to press their claims in the US today.
Then the owner of the vineyard says to the unhappy laborers, Matthew 20:15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? He is calling attention to their envy. Now envy is the vice most strongly opposed to both justice and to charity. He points this out clearly when he says, Is thine eye evil… Envy is being used daily as a tool by the American government to divide the American people. They foment envy at every opportunity; it is usually called “class warfare.”
Then we need to look at the entire parable again from another perspective. The vineyard is the Kingdom of God, and the owner of the vineyard is Christ Himself. Through history, He calls to each of us to work in His Kingdom here on earth. Some heard the call long ago, some hear the call now, some will hear the call in the future. Some hear the call when they are young, some hear it in middle age, others only hear it in old age. The time that each of us spend in the Lord’s vineyard is different. Should those who heard the call first expect a higher honor in Heaven? Should the ancient Jews expect to have a place of greater honor than all Christians, simply because they came before the Christians in time? Should Mother Theresa expect a place of greater honor in Heaven than the old man who comes to Christ just shortly before he dies? The message of the parable is that Christ will give everyone their proper due in Heaven. We are not to worry like the mother of the Apostles James and John about where we will sit in Heaven, to be sure that we will have a good seat. Christ is promising that everyone will get his proper due in Heaven, Justice, this time in a heavenly sense. Those who thought themselves important will find themselves less important while those who were the meek and humble will be exalted. Many are called to the Kingdom of Heaven, but only a few are chosen to be truly exalted there.
We should seek to cultivate these virtues in our lives as we move toward the season of Lent and preparation for the great feast of Easter. Let us consider seriously how we can be more aware of living these virtues in our daily lives.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.