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 Epiphany-tide pilgrimage and now are entering what is called pre-Lent. The season we have left behind has been characterized by 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 (St. John i. 14). Now we turn to a period in the Church’s life extending from Septuagesima Sunday to Ascension Day. In it, we shall be moving from contemplating the Divine presence to a call to pilgrimage that will end in death. In it, we shall be called to receive God’s labor of love and the work of His Grace that reaches down from heaven to reconcile us to Himself.
Specifically, on the three Gesima Sundays – 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 we 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, power, and love. And, of course, the Church knows that the work that we are contemplating is no easy business. So, she provides us with this Gesmina season so that we can attempt to begin the call to labour (R.D. Crouse) for the discovery of our sins.
We begin with today’s Gospel. In it, Jesus gives us a way that will help us to locate sin. To do so, 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 and moral meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us 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 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 of it. So, 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 His work can begin only when we embrace a unique 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 owner of His own vineyard –a plot of land destined to be fruitful with what makes glad the heart of man. He has a work to be done and His work is His desire for us to labor at identifying and discovering our sins. That He sets out to find us shows that He knows what is best for us. That He went out early in the morning means that man’s salvation is God’s priority. Man’s salvation is the work of redemption. It will involve working out sin and working in righteousness. That the laborers are promised one penny suggests that something equal for all is the reward for those who will work for God. Notice that 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….
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
God calls men into His vineyard in all ages. Some hear the call early in the morning, some at noon, and some at dusk 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 salvation labor is greater than their sinning. His yearning and longing for all is expressed in His ongoing intention for them to labor in discovering their sins at all hours of the day. God is the householder and He knows that the work of His vineyard is incomplete until all men are invited into this labor. 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 He knows that they had been idle, and 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 envy, wrath, and resentment. They have felt forever unwanted and thus are convinced that they have nothing to contribute to the work of God’s vineyard. So, they must be encouraged more earnestly to enter this labor.
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 to all. But notice that those who came last are paid first. The Lord puts idle people to work at the end of the day and then pays them before the others. Worldly employers pay the managerial staff first and handsomely. Then, with what is leftover the idle –the johnny come lately –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 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. It should generate a disposition of soul through which we become self-consciously the last and least. Fallen man is forever unemployed without God. Fallen man deserves nothing but just punishment for his sins
Yet notice the wisdom of Jesus. If the first had been paid before the last we might never have learned the danger that accompanies work in God’s vineyard. The first show us what happens when we set our eyes on what we should earn and not on the free gift of God’s Grace that reaches down to lift up fallen man –the last and least. They see themselves as advanced beyond the others 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 coming earlier and working longer should earn them a greater reward than others. They have forgotten that the Grace of God was under no necessity to help them out of their fallen condition. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. (St. John xv. 16) They have forgotten also that the labour into which God has invited them bestows a reward that is unrelated to man’s efforts and good works.
On the other hand, 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 deep gratitude for a gift that they never desired and whose power and reward would be beyond their wildest imaginations.
The last shall be first…. To be last and least in God’s Kingdom is a disposition of soul that alone can obtain God’s Grace in the battle against sin. Let us pray to be as the last and least so that we may be mercifully delivered by God’s goodness. In becoming the last and the least, we are best positioned to appreciate the gift of God’s mercy. The gift of God’s mercy generates goodness in the soul. That goodness will make us stronger and stronger and better and better. With it will come a profound humility, with which we can hope more earnestly for the joy that reconciles us to God. Then we shall rejoice in the glory of His Name, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.