Sermon for Septuagesima
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 31, 2010
This morning our Kalendar makes a shift as we depart from the beginning of our Church Year and the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and turn from the genesis which began in Bethlehem toward this journeys culmination and climax in Jerusalem. I will have to investigate this a bit further, but I’m not really sure I know why the Western Church after Vatican II made such massive changes to the ancient Lectionary of the church and departed from this Pre-Lenten season commonly known as the gesima Sundays. These three Sundays were structured to begin to move our thoughts from the celebration of the Incarnation toward the solemnity of the Passion. There is a great deal of wisdom in these three sequences of readings that we heard this morning and will hear over the next two weeks.
Now, I’m certain that you all have those passages of Scripture that either, make you scratch your head and wonder what is happening here, or think to yourself, “that doesn’t seem right.” In a moment of honesty, this morning’s Gospel is one of those very passages for me. The parable of the laborers at first glance looks like one of those instances where the reward doesn’t seem to be matched to the effort expended to achieve that reward.
Our capitalistic worldview says that we are rewarded based upon the work that we put into something. The only way that one can be successful is to work hard, put in an honest day’s work and receive an honest day’s wages. This country was founded on that principal and this morning’s Gospel seems to have something different in mind.
One important thing to note about parables is the point at which they begin. When Jesus begins his teaching through parables, he almost always makes a declarative statement such as, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like” or “the Kingdom of God can be compared to” and then expands his story in light of what he compares the kingdom to. If you take a quick glance at your bulletin insert, you’ll see what I’m talking about in this morning’s lesson. Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man who….” Look what Jesus is doing here. The kingdom of heaven is being spoken of as a person. The point of the parable is as much about the man himself, as it is about his actions. I think if we begin with this important observation in mind it will help us leave some of our pre-conceived notions behind and allow us to hear what God’s Spirit wishes for us to hear.
Note also where this story appears in Jesus’ ministry. It’s no wonder that the ancient lectionary would use a parable from the latter half of our Lord’s ministry as he is moving toward Jerusalem and the cross, as we are about to embark again upon that same journey ourselves and prepare to keep a Holy Lent.
The parable opens in a fairly simple fashion with a householder going out to see if he can find laborers go out and work in his vineyard. He lays out for them the task at hand and they agree upon a wage that is suitable for the work that they are being asked to accomplish. The householder realizes that there is more work to be done, so at various time increments, he goes out again in hopes of finding more laborers for the work that he needs to accomplish. A subtle note here is that according to the story, it is only the first laborers that the householder even mentions a dollar amount to. Did you happen to catch that? The other laborers who were hired at third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours were not given an amount, but rather the householder told them that he would, “give them whatsoever is right.” There appears to be no question on their part, but rather, they agree and go into the field to work. The first laborers reached an agreement on compensation; the subsequent laborers were content only to receive what was right.
When the day of labor was complete and the steward goes out to pay each man his wage, the householder tells him to pay them in reverse order of when they were hired. Obviously, we are being led quite clearly to make in our minds the same mistake that the first laborers did when they saw that they were going to reap the same reward as those who had only worked an hour. The scripture says that they, “murmured against the goodman of 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.’” The whole concept of equal pay for equal work gets thrown out the window here. I’m afraid to admit, but I’m just like those grumbling early hires and say, this just isn’t fair. I should at least earn a little bit extra for laboring in Christ’s vineyard longer than someone who comes to Christ late in life and doesn’t hasn’t borne the burdens that I have, or earned the battle scars that I have, or endured scorn and ridicule from the world like I have. That’s just not right, and I can’t believe that God would do me that way. By golly, I’ve earned it.
The goodman of the house says nothing in reply other than to remind them that they were receiving the compensation that they had originally agreed upon. What right do they have to grumble and complain about the generosity and kindness of the man who hired them first? They received what they rightfully deserved.
We have to step back a minute and look at this again, and hear what our Lord wishes for us to hear. If a parable could be offered to define grace this would be one of the one’s mentioned. If we remember the definitions of mercy and grace, it will help us begin to see things a bit more clearly. Mercy is that attribute of God where we do not receive that which most justly deserve. Didn’t we hear something about that in our collect this morning? “O Lord, we beseech the favourably to hear the prayers of thy people: that we: who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness….” As Austin Farrer points out, “the collect doesn’t say that we SHALL be punished for our offences, it says that we ARE punished for our offences.” He goes on to say that we are “not just punished but JUSTLY punished” for these offences. Save the mercy of God, the present and the future of that statement becomes a reality and we would experience that punishment for all eternity. God’s mercy is the only thing that allows us to at least lift our heads when we hear the Sanctus Bells in the Canon of Mass, and glimpse upon the grace of God that we feed upon in Christ’s Flesh and Blood.
Grace is that unexplainable gift that God lavishes upon us when He gives us that which we do not deserve. The laborers in this morning’s Gospel don’t really deserve a full’s days wage for only one hour’s worth of work. However, in the economy of God’s salvation that’s a textbook definition of grace. One of the things that we are to realize as we live our lives as Christians is the fact that Heaven doesn’t have degrees. It’s not like some saints have access to the Delta Crown Rooms in heaven, and the rest of us are relegated to the bagel stand out in the aisles. No, the ineffable joys that await us when we are reunited with our Creator is that we all are allowed to experience the awe, mystery, majesty and beauty of God, and we will do so with all of those saints who have gone before us and have preceded us in the land of light. Those saints who we commemorate, and attempt to emulate in our lives have earned no more of a reward than we hope to attain. We have no idea if the mother of the Sons of Zebedee, James and John, was there to hear this parable, but if she was there, she certainly didn’t understand, because immediately after this parable, and Jesus’ prediction of his passion, she comes up to Jesus and asks that her sons might be granted seats at Jesus’ right hand and his left. Matthew even softens this story a bit in having James’ and John’s mother makes the request. According to Mark’s gospel, the two of them have the audacity to make this request of themselves, and of course, Jesus makes the famous reply that it is not by his authority that he might grant admission to them to sit at his right hand or left hand, but rather, that they have earned themselves the opportunity to drink the very cup that Jesus is about to drink on their behalf. He bids them to come and die, not to atone for sins as Jesus will do, but to come and die to self, and live not for their own glory, but for the glory of God the Father. Jesus goes on to say at the end of Matthew 20 that he has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. The parallel verse to this one in John’s Gospel is what we will hear again on Maundy Thursday, where it says that Jesus got up from the table, girded himself about with a towel and began to wash the disciple’s feet. Amazingly, that wasn’t the lowest form of servant hood that Jesus would take on himself during his Passion. He would actually die so that we might taste death no more. As St. Paul declares in his second epistle to the Corinthians, “For He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
This is a suitable posture where we might prepare our hearts, and minds, and wills to keep a Holy Lent. Pray to the goodman of the household words of thanksgiving that he has called us to serve and work in his vineyard, and let us give thanks for the reward that is ours to receive!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. +