(as I am feverish this morning, I may stray from this more than normal - I hope not, but I may)
Septuagesima Sunday – Feb 20th, 2011 – Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
We are now entering on the old season of Pre-lent, the 3 Gesima Sundays, if you dig the Latin. And these three Sundays have a specific role and job in the Church Year. Now, Epiphany itself is the season where Jesus is revealed to be true God and true Man. That’s why we’ve had readings like the Wise men and the star, or healings, or even the highest one, the Transfiguration. On March 9th, Lent begins – Ash Wednesday. And what we see in Lent is Christ Jesus taking the battle to Satan, we will see Him tempted, we’ll see Him cast out demons and even raise the dead, all culminating in Good Friday, where our Lord battles Satan upon the Cross. But what this Sunday and the next two Sundays do is they take a little pause from focusing on the action of Christ, things that He does – and instead, we hear a bit of teaching from our Lord. Why? What we are going to see and learn in these next three weeks are things that we need to bear in mind when we enter Lent, things that we need to understand so that can begin our observance of Lent in humility and wonder.
Our first lesson leading us toward Lent this week is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. So, let us consider it. “For the Kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” In the ancient world, if you didn’t have a fixed, set job, and you wanted to work, you’d go hang out in the town square and if someone needed something done, you’d go work for them. These are day laborers, the folks who are sort of on the bottom rung of the economy. But, a denarius a day is a good, solid wage, so a bunch go. Good deal. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace and then he said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’” So at the third hour, we’d call it 9 o’clock, the master sees more people who need work, so he says, head on out, and I’ll pay you what is right. More of you, go on, get to work. “Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.” At Noon, at three in the afternoon, still he gathers more people and sends them out into the field. “And about the 11th hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired them.’” Now let’s pause here – I want you to a moment consider the hopelessness that these workers would have had. If you don’t work, you don’t make any money, and if you make no money, you don’t eat. This isn’t people just being lazy and defiant, these workers would be burdened, depressed, broken – just sort of consigned to going to be hungry tonight. Why? Because they have not been hired, no one has called them to work. Until now. “He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” Finally, they get a bit of work, maybe they might get enough to get a crust of bread.
So, we have a bunch of workers, some who have worked 12 hours, some who have worked only 9 or 6 or 3, or some only even 1 hour. “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the 11th hour came, each of them received a denarius.” Now, bear in mind, this would have been shocking. A denarius was a full day’s wages for the middle class – it would be like paying someone who worked for an hour in your fields $120, $150. It’s not just generous, it’s a stupidly high wage for a mere hour of work. “Now, when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These have worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” Now there are some unhappy campers. When they get paid their denarius, their solid day’s wage, suddenly the workers hired first aren’t content, aren’t happy. They see what others got, and they think they deserve more. And they tell the master this, to his face, which is kind of brazen.
“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’” And the master speaks the simple truth – this is what you knew you were going to get – this is what I told you would happen, and it is. Why shouldn’t I be generous – I was generous to you in agreeing to pull you off the street and pay you a solid day’s wages for your work – why if I want to be generous to another as well do you complain? And our Lord concludes the parable saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
So then, what do we learn from this parable? Let’s consider a few things. In this parable, we are the laborers. We are those in the field. This corresponds to us as Christians living out our lives in God’s Kingdom, waiting for the close of days when we obtain life everlasting. A few things to note. First, while all these laborers start working at different times, they have one thing in common. If it weren’t for the master calling them, saying, “Come, I will give you work” – they would have had nothing and would have been left cold and hungry and alone. Right off the bat, we need to learn to ignore our own works, how wonderful or good they are. That is never, never the point. Nothing is said in this parable about whether or not any of these folks are good workers, or hard workers. The center of this parable isn’t the laborers’ work, but the fact that hey have been called to work by the master. Likewise, we as Christians are not defined by the work that we do – rather what defines us, what shapes us is that we have been called by Christ Jesus into His kingdom. He has called us, He has worked forgiveness in us, He has given us righteous and strength to show forth His love in the world. This is an important reminder for us as we approach Lent – because Lent is the season where we see Jesus doing the real work, where we see Jesus winning us our salvation. In Lent, we see Christ Jesus go about winning the forgiveness and righteousness that He gives to us in the Church – and when we consider that forgiveness, that righteousness, we can’t look at it thinking we earn, that we deserve. If we think we earn God’s mercy, we will just be arrogant and thankless. No, we receive this mercy and forgiveness simply because God has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.
And another point to remember is that while God has called all of us, He didn’t call us all at the same time. Some of us have been Christians all our lives. Some of us converted later in life. Some of us were raised in the Church and then wandered away, being called back again at the end. The danger that we have is as human beings we like to rank, to value, to say, “I’m better than her, but she’s better than him”. We like to establish pecking orders. Again, that’s not the point in the Church. When we do such things, when we try to rank ourselves, we end up looking at ourselves – I’m better than him, I’ve done more that her, so on and so forth. The point isn’t us and what we’ve done, the point is Christ Jesus and His salvation for us. Whoever we are, whatever our story of how we were brought into the Church, what stands out isn’t us, but rather how God in His great love and compassion brought us to faith by the power of His Word. What stands out is how even though we are undeserving, how we are poor, miserable sinners, God still makes us to know His forgiveness. This is what needs to shape us and our approach – not who is better, whose done this longer, who knows more, who is more holy. It’s not about us, it’s about Christ Jesus, who by His death and resurrection restores us to eternal life.
Because when it all boils down to it, it is all about God’s love and generosity and mercy to us. We are all sinners, and I don’t mean we are okay people who just sin a bit, I don’t mean we’re pretty good people with just a few smudges or scuffs to clean up. Thinking like that only leads to pride and arrogance and great sin. No, we are all truly sinners, all lowly, all the last, and yet, we are made to be the first by God, we are called up out of sin and death, brought into His kingdom. We are called away from the despair and loneliness and hopelessness of the world, called away from the vain and bitter struggles for power and respect that shape everything in the world, and we are instead brought to God’s House where we are given everything by God, life, salvation, forgiveness, victory over death, encouragement, hope. And here’s the neat twist – why do we, we who are last and lowly receive such things? Because Christ Jesus, the highest, the most holy One, because He comes down, lowers Himself, takes our place, He suffers for us, He is crucified for us. He becomes the last and lowest so that we might be raised up. And this is what we will see this Lent – our Lord going forth and winning those blessings that He gives to us all here in His Church. We will hear Him cry “It is finished” so that we might receive the wages of life everlasting. We will see blood and water flow from his pierced side, so we might be cleansed by the waters of Holy Baptism and receive forgiveness from that same blood in His Supper. Our life, our hope rests not out our works, how long, how hard we have done stuff. Rather, Christ Jesus alone is our life and our reward – to Him be all praise and glory and honor. In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +