SEPTUAGESIMA SUNDAY – Circumdederunt me
Introit: (Ps. 18) The sorrows of death compassed me, the pains of hell came about me: and in my tribulation I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice out of his holy temple. Ps. I will love thee, O Lord, my strength: the Lord is my stony rock, my fortress, and my Saviour. Glory be … The sorrows …
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people: that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal? When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. (Ezekiel 18.25-30)
Gradual: (Ps. 9) A refuge in due time of trouble: they that know thee will put their trust in thee: for thou, Lord, never failest them that seek thee. V. For the poor shall not alway be forgotten: the patient abiding of the meek shall not perish for ever: up, Lord, and let not man have the upper hand.
Epistle: Brethren: Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: 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. (I Corinthians 9.24-27)
Tract: (Ps. 130) Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. V. O let thine ears consider well the prayer of thy servant. V. If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss: O Lord, who may abide it? V. For there is mercy with thee, and because of thy law have I waited for thee, O Lord.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus spake this parable unto his disciples: 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. 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, thatshall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, 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. But he answered one of them, and said, 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? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (St Matthew 20.1-16)
“Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal.”
Today marks a shift in the Church’s calendar, as we turn from the glory of the Incarnation toward the glory of the Cross. Today is Septuagesima, Latin for “seventieth,” and so marks the seventieth day (approximately) before Easter. But as much as these three Pre-Lenten Sunday point us to Easter, they are primarily meant to prepare us for Lent. Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany focussed our attention on the Light shining in the darkness. At Easter we focus on how the darkness was not able to overcome the Light. During Lent we see Christ’s Light pushed by the darkness into sunset. But the Light can never be overcome; the short victory of death on Friday disappears as the Light blazes forth again on Sunday, brighter than ever before. We have been redeemed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Spirit He changes our nature, but with all the worldly distractions that surrounds us, we often fall back into our old ways. God gives us tools and equipment, but we get lazy and fail to use them, or sometimes even abuse them, and use them in ways He did not intend. These “gesima” Sundays form a sort of pep-talk before Lent, teaching us, very wisely, that we cannot just jump into the thick of the game untrained and unprepared. “Gesima-tide” encourages us and prepares us for the hard work that is coming.
Our Epistle lesson calls us to be disciplined. The Christian life isn’t a stroll in the park; it is a race, and it is a fight. Corinth was a Greek city on an isthmus separating the Ionian and Aegean Seas. This geographic fact made Corinth wealthy, as a main port connecting Europe and Asia Minor, and it made her a crossroads of ideas as well as merchandise. Corinth was also the site of the Isthmian Games, held in the spring once every two years. We have all heard of the Olympic Games, which began as a festival to honour the gods of Olympus, but they were not the only games of the ancient world. It is these Isthmian Games that form the background of St Paul’s words in today’s Epistle: “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.” This can be translated more literally as “everyone who enters into the games…” The Corinthians would have known how serious it was to take part in their Isthmian Games: there was room for only the very best and the most dedicated of competitors, and winning was the result of long and arduous training, being “temperate in all things.” This sort of temperance meant strict self-control, both in diet and in exercise. We should also remember that, in the pagan origins of these games, competition itself was meant to be an act of worship, so that only the best effort was considered a proper sacrifice to the gods.
There was a true element of selflessness in the athletes’ striving—it was for the honour of Corinth itself, and to the honour of the gods—and this higher religious purpose of the Games was also represented by the prizes awarded the winners. There was no “silver” or “bronze,” no consolation prize, no “participation award;” you either won, or you lost. The winners received only a wreath (originally made of wild celery, and later of pine) to be worn on their heads—“a corruptible crown,” drying up and withering in a matter of days, yet these competitors gave their all to win it. Thus, the question St Paul asks the Corinthians (and Christians everywhere): “If pagans will discipline themselves for an ephemeral wreath, how much more should those who claim to follow Christ discipline themselves to receive the unfading crown of life which Christ has offered to the faithful?” It is a tough but fair question. Do we expend the same amount of energy for the things of God as for the things of the world, which will all pass away like those fading wreaths?
The Christian life is a race—not a race where you run around a track and get a ribbon or a trophy. This race is about endurance—it demands a continuous effort. The runner has to be able to focus and to endure to the end. We need to be running with the Kingdom of God in our sights, but as we run, our sinful world, our own sinful natures, and sometimes even the devil, try to distract us from our goal. So we have to run wisely, not wildly. We must run with our goal firmly in mind. The runners in the games might also be tempted to look over their shoulders to see what the other runners are doing, and thus become distracted, tripping and falling. When they begin the race, they may even be uncertain of the course that is laid out for them. But this is not true for the Christian. We don’t need to look over our shoulders, because it doesn’t matter what other people are doing, but only that Christ has promised life to everyone who give their all in following Him. We don’t need to worry about the course ahead, because Christ has passed this way before us, and He will lead us to victory if we follow Him faithfully. Indeed, He is already the Victor, so that in following Him, we already know that we have taken the right path, and are assured of that crown of glory.
But we are not just racers, we are also prize-fighters. We are in a match with Satan, the world, and the flesh. The Christian life is not a show, like pro wrestling. Walking around the ring strutting our stuff will not win us the crown—we need to put all our energy into beating down the Adversary. We have to plant our feet firmly and land our blows wisely—not wildly swinging at our opponent and beating the air. St Paul says that he fights, as every Christian should fight, landing his blows against the enemies of life precisely where and how Our Lord has beaten those same enemies. Christ’s victory, however, was not just a lucky strike. Neither can the Christian’s victory be an act of chance. St. Paul explains, “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.”
The Church appoints these lessons to remind us that our time of “spring training” and self-discipline, the holy season of Lent, is almost upon us. If Christ has allowed Himself to be tempted and beaten for our sake, then for His sake we can discipline ourselves, and make every act of our lives a sacrifice to the glory of the True God. We have before us, then, an opportunity to prove to ourselves, and to the world, that our eternal life in Christ is worth more to us than the things of this world, including our own self-indulgence. We strive for a prize beyond all value, and worth our every effort to win, in the grace and mercy of God. Our Gospel parable also speaks of the reward for which we are racing, fighting, and working. In His Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Our Lord taps into the source of much of the division and anger in today’s society: fairness.
In this story, the owner of the vineyard hires workers to work all day for a denarius. That was the standard wage for a day’s work. But then the vintner also hires more workers as the day goes on, obviously working for less time – as the work can only proceed until sundown – promising to pay these workers “whatever is right.” Of course, this is the set-up for the story. At the day’s end the landlord pays everyone – beginning with those that only worked an hour – the same denarius, as if they had worked all day. The twelve-hour labourers, who “have borne the burden and heat of the day,” expected that they should receive more, but to their amazement, they were given a denarius just as they were promised. Here we run into the all-too-common problem of trying to read ancient historical texts with 21st-century eyes, or hold historical figures to modern standards. Our notion of fairness requires that everyone would be paid the same hourly rate—equal pay for equal work—but here the ones who worked longest were paid only a bit more than eight per cent of the rate paid to the ones who worked only an hour! Is it fair for people to be paid at different hourly rates for the same job? But the concept of “hourly wage” was completely foreign to people of the first century. Day-labourers were hired to work. If they didn’t work, their families would go hungry. Is it fair that their children would go to bed hungry just because no one would hire them until late in the day?
In this story, even those whom we perceive to be paid unequally are paid according to the contract. The inequity, however, would have been evident even back then, and so they “grumbled.” Today, they would probably do more than grumble. There would be strikes and boycotts, and complaints lodged with government agencies. There would be outrage on social media. There would be protests and accusations of bias and “unfair labour practices.” At any rate, our sense of unfairness today is not so different from when our Lord told this parable. But then, take note: how did our Lord begin this story? He said, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” God’s Kingdom does not operate like the world. And that’s the point! In the world, we expect employers to treat people fairly according to our own perceptions (although, as the owner of the vineyard points out, even that perception doesn’t seem to consider that the owner is still allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him, and that the workers’ outrage is indeed begrudging his generosity). This is the lesson of the parable.
Grace is not a wage. It is not something that we earn or deserve. If we received what we deserve, it would be death and hell, temporal and eternal punishment, for, as St Paul teaches, “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6.23) That is the denarius we have earned. That is what all of us would be paid if God were “fair” according to our perceptions. So do you really want God to be fair, to pay you the wages you deserve? Or do you want grace? Do you want a kingdom of God where deathbed converts and serial killers can begin to labour late in the day, even working but a single hour, and still be given salvation by the owner of the vineyard? Will you grumble about it? Will you begrudge the Owner His generosity? He is not unfair at all. In fact, He shows extravagant and unearned kindness to all—to you and me, as well. He shows grace. It is a gift. As St Paul says, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And who are we to begrudge His generosity? For that is what this perceived unfairness really is, not unfairness, but generosity. It is grace. It is the opportunity for every one of us to receive that which we do not deserve. In actual fact, we are in debt—we owe the Owner for our sins and transgressions. We are so deeply in debt that we could never pay it back. So the Owner Himself pays our debt by means of His Blood shed on the cross. Your debt is wiped out, and you receive salvation because Christ has “borne the burden and the scorching heat.” Now He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, to forsake our lives for His sake and the Gospel’s, and to love others as we love ourselves. If we are working out in the field for selfish reasons, we are not conforming ourselves to His calling or being transformed into His image. As we prepare for Lent, this is the first caution we receive: The Christian life requires that we work diligently, but it is a work that we do for the prize of being more like Jesus, not a selfish work done for our own gain.
The point is that we are all working for Christ, and it is a labour of love, not of selfishness. Life in His Kingdom is a race for an eternal crown, a fight against the sin in our lives, and requires us to master ourselves and our natural desires. We are to run, to fight, and to wrestle, not for our own personal gain, but for His glory. In our work we imitate the intensity of the worldly labourer or athlete, but we are not to compare ourselves with those working alongside us, for that is when we start putting ourselves first. Worldliness, selfishness, personal ambition and pride have no place in God’s vineyard. Far more important than either the length or amount of work we do is the spirit in which we do it. Remember, if God rewarded us only for our accumulated merit, it would never be sufficient for our salvation or justification. When we follow Christ, it matters not if we have followed Him faithfully since early childhood, or devoted ourselves to Him in the second half or even the final days of our lives; what matters is that we do it for Him.
And that is why our Lord tells this parable. It is a wake-up call, a call to humility and appreciation of His grace. We do far too much grumbling about others, when we need to get to work ourselves. We are too concerned about what others are paid for their work, and not concerned enough about our own work. Yet our Master is generous, and in His mercy, He chooses to save us. He chooses to pour His grace upon us. He chooses to absolve us of our sins and forgive all our debt. And even at this late hour, He continues to hand out the denarius of grace and salvation to any and all who call upon His Name. This is the crown promised by Jesus Himself, and it is far more than we really deserve. That is what the Kingdom of heaven is like. Thank God we do not have to earn it.
“Are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?”
Collect: Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest: to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.