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 the Church were not aware of human nature’s tendency to fall away from the vigilance that is required in the process of salvation, she would not 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 the brilliant vision of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ is made manifest. The Church, being conscious of man’s tendency to view the approaching Lent like a deer in the headlights, has formulated the period between Epiphany and Lent with caution. You see, the Church knows that man is likely to fall into resentment, and so to become hardhearted. She knows that her sheep are easily dissuaded 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 thwart and 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 in this Gesima-Season Mother Church calls us first to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind which will ensure that we are effectually and suitably susceptible and vulnerable to our Saviour’s Passion for us.
St. Paul helps us this morning by comparing our Gesmina-Season work or labor that we undertake with running a race. In our Epistle, taken from 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 our competitive spirit and attempts to convert the passion and zeal associated with it to the demands and conditions of running a spiritual race. If we are faithful to our calling, we all should be seeking for one prize or one reward, he says, which is eternal life. And so we are called to temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions that we might better reach the goal of our striving. And 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, and that this is our chief and even sole preoccupation, 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, what we need or desire should serve only to enhance and promote our spiritual fitness for running the race that is set before us. Thus we must embrace the virtue of temperance. 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 and tempered to the good of our souls, we shall not be torn between the false gods of the external and visible world and the one true God. 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 and treasures 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.
But our Gesima-workdays are not merely exercises in individual and personal spiritual running. The portion of St. Paul’s Epistle that we have read this morning is preceded by his defense of having given his life for the sanctification and purification of the Church or the Body of Christ. He embraces the virtue of temperance and keeps his mind focused on his end lest that by any means…[having] preached to others, [he himself] should be a castaway. (1 Cor. ix. 27) His running to obtain the incorruptible crown is no exercise in self-promotion but part and parcel of imparting to others what he has received freely from Jesus Christ. He desires that the free gift of God’s Grace, that moves and defines his life because of his faith in Jesus Christ, should move others also, and not that any should think that redemption and salvation can be earned by good works. And the point is nicely made in today’s Gospel Parable. For there we read that:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent the 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)
As Archbishop Trench reminds us, 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 to His faithful Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He had also promised that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) But He concluded His promises with the very words that finish today’s Gospel parable. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) So today’s parable is offered by Jesus as a warning about that kind of spiritual attitude that might very well make the first last, least, and thus unsuitable for salvation.
The parable teaches that some, like the Apostles, who were already industrious workers, at fishing or tent making, would be called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later, this time out of idleness, and 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 desires to reveal a danger here for those who were called first into the labor of His vineyard. What do we read? 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 are in danger of having a problem with the last. They are moved by envy and jealousy and so begrudge the other workers the same reward or prize which they have received. 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) Archbishop Trench tells us that that if those who were first hired …forget…that the reward is of Grace and not of works, and begin to boast and exalt themselves above their fellow laborers, [they] may altogether lose the things that they have wrought; while those who seem last, may yet, by keeping their humility, be acknowledged first and foremost in the Day of God. (Trench, Notes on the Parables, p. 140) The first are meant to welcome the gift of Grace for themselves and for the last man who can join their happy labor. The last are meant to imitate the first. Both are to be moved equally to humility and gratitude in the face of God’s free gift of Grace, as they share in the labor of sanctifying love.
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 think he is right. 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 such a sinful disposition can never land a man in Christ’s Kingdom. So the one penny must symbolize God’s Grace. If it is received as what is never enough because we think that our good works and hard labor entitle us to more, it will not have been received in the right spirit. We will then be intemperate in all things, comparing and contrasting ourselves with others according to earthly measures of earning and compensation, always on the brink of envy and jealousy, and thus on the way to perdition. If, on the other hand, God’s Grace is received humbly and gratefully as what we neither desire nor deserve, as what far surpasses anything that earthly effort and industry can earn, as the free Divine gift zealously at work in our hearts because through temperance our passions and appetites are right with the world, then we shall be honored to be called the last and the least, privileged to be seated under the feet of God’s Elect. Amen.