So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (St. Matthew xx. 14-16)
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. The season we have observed has been a time of illumination and manifestation. In it we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us whom we discovered to be the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to a period in the Church’s life extending from Septuagesima Sunday to Ascension Day. In it we shall be studying the salvific work of Christ in our lives. In it we shall be called to pay close attention to our response to Christ’s work for us in the vineyard of His love.
Specifically, on the three Gesima Sundays prior to Lent – Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima – the Latin names for the seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter, we are reminded of God’s original vocation for us, the dangers that bring about our Fall from God’s Grace, and the preparation for our return. If Lent will be about the necessary death to sin, then the Gesima season will help us to discern and identify the sins themselves. This work is essential since we believe that in the end times what shall be judged on whether or not we have confessed our sins and died to them. Sin is what separates us from God. So at the Judgment, we pray that Christ will conclude that we have died sufficiently to everything that separates us from His wisdom, love, and power. Of course, this is a tall order! I could never do! Don’t worry, the Church has always known that radical and complete conversion is a rare thing. And so she provides us with this Gesmina season in order to make a shrewd, judicious, and prudent attempt to begin the hard work of discovering our sins and trying to overcome them. Trying is of the essence.
In today’s Gospel Jesus provides us with some rules that will help us to locate sin and to begin to combat it in our lives. As is His usual style, He makes use of a parable. As you know, a parable is an illustrated story that makes use of images to convey a message of spiritual or moral meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that it is a casket that it is like a casket of exquisite workmanship…in which jewels yet richer than itself are laid up, or, as fruit, which however lovely to look upon, is yet in its inner sweetness more delectable still. (Notes on the Parables, R.C. Trench, p. 30) In today’s parable, Jesus desires to instill a truth that will condition our search for sin and the successful victory over it. It is a parable that is all about our method. What He is keen to impart to us is a kind of rule and pattern that will situate our souls in right relation both to our problem and God’s solution for it. In this parable, He intends to warn the Apostles and us about one serious temptation that might very well destroy the work before it has begun. What I mean is that Jesus wants to show us that the work that leads to God’s Kingdom requires a very particular disposition of soul.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, 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. (St. Matthew xx. 1,2)
Jesus teaches us first that the work of God’s Kingdom begins not with man but with God. He is an householder or the ruler and governor of His own property or estate. He has a work to be done and He intends to call us into this work. His work is His desire for us and His calling is the gift of His Grace. That we are called is a good indication that He knows what is best for us. That He went out early in the morning means that His first priority is what moves Him most. What moves Him most is our laboring for Him. That we are to work in His vineyard is a sign that the work He intends should yield joy. Wine maketh glad the heart of man. (Ps. civ. 15) That the laborers are promised one penny suggests that somehow something small ought to be sufficient to satisfy those who will work for God. It is only to the workers who are hired early in the morning, to the first, that the specific amount of payment – one penny is promised.
Next we read:
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. (Ibid, 3-5)
God calls men into His vineyard at all times. Some hear the call early in the morning and others hear it later in the day of human life. Those who are called later are rebuked mildly for being idle, slothful, lazy, unoccupied, distracted, or even busy about the wrong things. No matter; God’s desire for men’s good work is greater than their sinning. His yearning and longing for all is expressed in His ongoing intention to find and employ them. God is the householder and He knows that the work of His vineyard is incomplete until all men are given a job to do in it. He promises to pay those whom He finds later what is right, just, or suitable. Those whom He calls later are no doubt surprised by joy that God would want them at all, especially since they must see that since they had been idle, had God been like all other employers they might not have been called to work at all! Therefore, God’s desire for them stirs them up with grateful hearts to join the others in the labor of His vineyard.
We read then:
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. (Ibid, 6,7)
God’s moves and finds those whom His heart always desires. Those whom He finds at the eleventh hour seem to need to be needed more than the others. They are often those for whom love has been experienced only as hate and ill will. They have felt forever unwanted and are far from confident that they would ever have anything to contribute to the work of God’s vineyard. And so they must be encouraged a bit more into joining the work.
Finally we read:
Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every
man a penny. 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, 8-12)
Man’s work in the vineyard of God will pay out one reward or income to all. But notice that those who came last are paid first. The Lord reverses the order that normally prevails in the business of earthly men. Worldly employers pay the managerial staff first and handsomely. Then, with what is leftover they pay johnny come lately -the filipino gopher, the cleaners, the window washers, and so forth. Not so with God. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. (Ibid, 16) For God knows that the first think that they ought to be paid more (Idem) because they came first, worked longer hours and harder than the others. So, they murmured against the good man of the house. (Idem) The householder responds:
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)
Employment in the vineyard of God is a privileged gift that far exceeds what any man could ever deserve, earn, or merit. Fallen man is forever unemployed without God. Fallen man deserves nothing but just punishment for his sins. Yet, God desires him all the more for it. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. (St. John xv. 16) The eye of the first is evil and yet the heart of God is good.
If the first had been paid before the last their true spiritual character would have gone unnoticed. You see, the first have become consumed with themselves. They see themselves as superior because they came first. But seniority does not secure immunity from sin. Nor does lateness of call bar the path to saintliness. (E. T. Marshall) These men think that their working hard should earn them a greater reward than others. They have forgotten that the work itself is an unmerited gift that is meant to be shared with all others. The work of God is given to melt the human heart into cherishing and sharing His goodness. What should have moved the first was the gift that increases with the giving. Instead they begrudge the gift of God’s spiritual privileges that are to be shared with all. They have forgotten that the gift is God’s desire to give one reward to all men.
Archbishop Trench says that the workers who were hired later in the day reveal a true spirit of humble waiting upon the Lord, in full assurance that He will give far more than his servants can desire or deserve… and that God will not fail to show Himself an abundant rewarder of them that seek and serve Him. (Ibid, 141) These men reveal a humble trust and deep gratitude for a gift that they neither desired nor deserved. Those who were hired at the eleventh hour reveal something to us of that heart-felt warmth that instinctively soars up into a love never anticipated.
The last shall be first…. To be last and least in God’s Kingdom is a disposition of soul that alone can try to combat sin and embrace God’s gift. Let us become the last and the least so that we might truly embrace the gift that makes us poor sinners into God’s generous saints. Let us accept God’s conditions so that we do not fall short of His reward. Amen.