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)
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways.”
“Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal.” Like any household with children, the cries are oh-so-familiar. “It’s not fair!” “We were there first! We deserve more because we did more!” We are born into this world with a huge sense of entitlement, followed, at a very early age, by an intuitive sense of fairness and unfairness. Like little sister Sally in the classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: at one point she is writing a letter to Santa Claus, and in the process generates an enormous list of toys she wants. Then at the conclusion of her letter she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share! All I want is what I have coming to me!”
And that is what most of us want, even after we grow much older than Sally Brown. We want our fair share. So we champ at the bit, and stomp our feet when we spy apparent unfairness in life. When we are children, we count how many jelly beans Joey got from grandma to make sure we got the same number. When we grow up we do the same thing, albeit tallying up more than just pieces of candy. So we assume God also serves our notion of what is fair, our sense of justice; that somehow those who come to the vineyard early are more deserving, and have stake to a higher claim on God’s generosity, love, and forgiveness than those who came straggling in late. The temptation is to believe that we can earn the right to more than someone else.
Today marks a shift in the Church’s calendar, as we turn from the glory of the Incarnation toward the glory of the Cross. This Sunday is called Septuagesima, Latin for “seventieth,” as it is roughly seventy days before Easter. But long before it received that title, it originally marked the beginning of Lent. Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany focussed our attention on the Light shining in the darkness. At Easter we rejoice that 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. 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 surround 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, employing them in ways He did not intend. We often think of Lent as “spring cleaning,” but considering today’s Epistle lesson, we might also think of it as “spring training,” teaching us that we cannot just jump into the thick of the game untrained and unprepared. “Gesima-tide” encourages and prepares us for the hard work ahead. Thus, St Paul calls us to be disciplined.
The Christian life is no 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 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 offering 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 promises 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 this world, which will all pass away like those fading wreaths?
The Christian life is a race—not a race where we 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, with our goal firmly in mind. 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. They may even be uncertain of the course that is laid out for them. But this is not true for the Christian. We have no need to look over our shoulders, because it matters not how we compare to others, but only that Christ has promised life to those who give their all in following Him. We need not 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, 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.” 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, a vineyard owner needs his grapes harvested. He begins at daybreak, hiring a group of workers, agreeing with them on a denarius (“penny”), the usual daily wage, which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family for a day. Then at 9 o’clock he goes out into the marketplace and hires more workers, promising that he will pay them “whatsoever is right.” Of course, this is the set-up for the story. He does this several more times during the course of the day, right up to 5 o’clock in the evening (each group obviously working for less time). To us this seems strange, but in that day it was not so unusual. Given the urgency of the grape harvest and uncertainty of the weather, probably he just wanted the job done that day, and work could only proceed until sunset. But however that may be, it seems likely that he hired these last workers simply out of compassion.
But then there is a strange twist to the story, as there usually is in a parable. The signal that it is coming is the fact that the man decides to pay first those who were hired last. And he pays them, although they had worked only an hour, as if they had worked all day. Naturally, the twelve-hour labourers, who “have borne the burden and heat of the day,” expected that they should receive more, but to their dismay, they were given a denarius just as they were promised. To them, and probably to us, this seems grossly unjust. They certainly should have received more than those who came in only for the last hour to help clean up. But the lord points out that he was not unjust: he paid them what they had agreed upon. Here we run into the all-too-common problem of trying to read ancient historical texts with 21st-century eyes, or holding historical figures to modern standards. Our notion of fairness requires that everyone should 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 those who worked only an hour! But the concept of “hourly wage” was completely foreign to people of the first century. Day-labourers were hired to work. If they found no work, their families would go hungry. Knowing that they depended on a full day’s wage to meet their daily needs, the landowner treats these workers with amazing generosity. After all, is it fair that their children should go to bed hungry, just because no one would hire them until late in the afternoon?
“It’s not fair!” “We deserve more because we did more.” But with God, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked but a few hours. In the words of the vigneron, “Are you envious because I am generous?” A proper interpretation of this parable is going to hinge on this point. But we must admit that this is no way to run a business, not even in first century Palestine. To pay the same wage for an hour’s worth of work as for twelve hours’ worth might have gotten the man a reputation for generosity, but it would not have made many of the workers eager to sign up early the next time. And it would certainly eat up his profits if he maintained this policy year after year. Also, note that no argument is made that it is fair, only that it is not unjust to those hired first. They received what they agreed upon. The act might be wilful and arbitrary, but it is also good and generous. The lord was being compassionate to those who had not been hired and whose families might otherwise have gone hungry that night.
This is not a parable about good business practices, it is a parable about grace. How did our Lord begin this story? “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” God’s Kingdom does not operate like the world. And that is the real point. Our Lord told this story to illustrate a great truth about God and how He deals with people, and the lesson here is one of extraordinary grace and generosity. Everyone got a day’s wage—even on the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures—because the recipient cannot add anything to the grace, but must simply receive it. The standard for what is just is established by God, not by our own standards of merit, qualifications, and grounds for staking claim. Christ is teaching about God’s Kingdom – life lived under the reign of God, a God whose generosity baffles and even offends us. Marguerite Shuster observes:
Grace is not grace if it is qualified by superior virtue in the recipient. Sinners are not sinners if some are less dependent on grace than others. Besides, if one has enough oneself … why would one even want more than someone else, unless out of some sense of pride and self-righteousness? That it seems odd to put the question that way – so normal, so natural, is our desire to want more – shows the depth of our sin. The more we insist on our tit-for-tat way of thinking, the more baffled and angry we will be at God’s whole way of dealing with us. (The Lectionary Commentary)
Grace is not a wage. It is not something we earn or deserve. If we received what we deserve, it would be death and hell, as St Paul teaches: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23). That is the denarius we have earned. That is what we 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 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 Lord of the vineyard? In truth, He is not unfair at all. He shows extravagant and unearned kindness to all—to you and me, as well, as St Paul says: “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Who are we to begrudge His generosity? For that is what this perceived unfairness really is. 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. Our debt is wiped out, and we receive salvation because Christ has “borne the burden and heat of the day.” 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, not selfishly for our own gain, but for the prize of being more like Jesus.
Yet over against God’s goodness burns the envious glare of the evil eye. We cannot suppose that the grumblers in the parable were either convinced or silenced by the landowner’s words that evening. They undoubtedly went home jealous and bitter. So this parable confronts us with God’s goodness over against our human sense of fairness, with God’s way of dealing with us compared to the way we deal with one another. The patterns of human culture and civilization upon which we rely are under the ultimate judgement of a just and gracious God who does not necessarily see things the way we do. Like the workers in the parable, we can argue with God all we want, but we will not change His mind, even if all the world agrees with us. We are not the giver, we are not the judge, we are not in charge—God is. Life in His Kingdom is a race for an eternal crown, a fight against the sin in our lives, requiring 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 should 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.
“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” Christ announces a great reversal in His Kingdom. In the first century, Christians were called “those who are turning the world upside down” (cf. Acts 17.6). When everyone has enough, no one has too much. If you hoard it up, it will spoil, rust, and be stolen. God loves and God gives. If we are created in God’s image, we must also have been created to love and to give, and to be as generous with others as God is with us. Christ turns our worldly views upside down, but in so doing, He actually places those values right-side up. This parable teaches that jealousy, position, and scorekeeping are irrelevant to the Kingdom of God; that life is, from God’s point of view, not a matter of fairness or unfairness, of deserving or undeserving, but of grace. This parable affirms that there is a Goodness beyond all human good, that the will of God is not compliant or wavering but firm and true, gracious and generous. Whatever we have is a gift from God, and more than our “fair share.” God says no to us so that we may say yes to Him, and He overrules us so that He may rule over us in love.
The Lord is King. Who then shall dare The Lord is King. Child of the dust,
Resist his will, distrust his care, The Judge of all the earth is just;
Or murmur at his wise decrees, Holy and true are all his ways:
Or doubt his royal promises? Let every creature sing his praise.
This parable is a call to humility and appreciation of God’s 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 diligence in our own work. Yet our Master is overwhelmingly generous, and in His mercy, He chooses to save us, to lavish His grace upon us, to absolve us of our sins. We have the profound privilege of labouring and serving in His vineyard. 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 deserve. That is what the Kingdom of heaven is like.
“O house of Israel, 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.