February 16, 2014 Septuagesima
Living and Working in the Kingdom
St. Matthew 20: 1-16
by The Rev. Dr. Randolph Constantine
Today is the first day of a short, but important season on the church calendar, a season that has the prosaic name of Pre-Lent. I prefer to call it the “Gesimas” because it is a short season of three Sundays with the name of each of them ending in “gesima”. This little season is only 17 days long. It always begins on a Sunday, has three Sundays, and ends on Shrove Tuesday. The color for the Gesima season is purple, which indicates penitence; but on the Ordo calendar, none of the days of it are designated as days of fasting. That changes in Lent. In a way then, we can think of this pre-Lenten season of the Gesimas as a slightly less rigorous preparation for the more rigorous discipline of Lent, a warm-up, like walking before you start to run. However, the Gospel lessons for the three Gesima Sundays contain messages that we need to hear, messages that we often overlook.
A few years ago, I received a pastoral letter from Bishop Grote that included some material about the Church calendar and our time between now and Easter. In that letter he said this about Septuagesima, “On this Sunday, we are invited to work in the Lord’s Kingdom.” Now I can guess that some of you are mentally shaking your heads and asking, much in the way that Satan asked Eve, “Did God really say that?” Did the Gospel lesson really say that? Did he mean that when we get to heaven we might have to work; that we don’t get to lie back on a cloud and just eat heavenly bon-bons all day without ever getting fat? Actually, I don’t think anybody currently living on this earth really knows what life will be like in heaven, whether we will work or not, or what we shall do, or even whether there will really be such things as heavenly bon-bons.
But what is this about working in the Kingdom? Remember what John the Baptizer and Jesus both said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). Kingdom, what kingdom? And who is the King? You all already know. We all said it just a few minutes ago, “King of King of Kings and Lord of Lords”. The King is Jesus Christ. The Kingdom is “at hand” because it is here, right here on earth. It is here, and it came here when Jesus came here at His birth. It is still here because the Holy Spirit is here -- where we live. However, the Kingdom is not fully here, and will not be until Jesus comes again.
Where we do Kingdom work is here on earth, in God’s Kingdom; and the work we have to do in it is really hard. After all, the church is an outpost of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
As Christians what is our work here on earth? Actually, many things. We could begin a long list with: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lifting up the poor, visiting prisoners, visiting the sick, worshiping God, praying for all who are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity, and praying to become better Christians, which is part of what the penitential seasons are all about. Uh oh, I left out one of the most important, Jesus’ last commandment to His disciples: to be evangelists, to preach the Gospel to all nations and make them disciples of Jesus Christ. And there are others as well. Will we ever get it all done? On this earth, not likely.
There are three things I want us to look at and bring together: The meaning of today’s Gospel lesson; the meaning of penitence and why we have penitential seasons; and the work we have before us in the Kingdom as a church. When we put these together, we find out what today’s Gospel lesson means for us, and how we should live.
Our Gospel lesson is a parable about a householder, a person who owns a house. The householder also has a vineyard. The text begins in Matthew 20:1, saying: "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.” The householder is the master of a house and it is his vineyard. He is a rich and powerful man. He goes out at dawn to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He hires them at the standard wage for a day’s work for a day laborer in that day and time – one denarius, a Roman silver coin at the time that was about equal to the Greek Drachma. Denarius is the word that the King James version translated as a penny.
The Master keeps going out every three hours and keeps hiring more laborers; but after the first batch, He just says He will pay them what is right. The Jewish day started at 6:00 in the morning, so the third hour was 9:00, the sixth hour was noon, the ninth hour was 3:00 in the afternoon. The workday would end at 6:00 PM at the twelfth hour. But what does the Master do? He has some work in that vineyard that He wants done that day and no later, so He goes out at the 11th hour, 5:00 in the afternoon, and hires even more laborers, just for one hour’s work.
We are not told what season of the year this was, but William Barclay says that harvest time for vineyards in Israel is near the end of September when the grapes ripened, and it was a race to get the full harvest completed before the autumn rains came and ruined the crop, so this was a reasonable scenario of the grape harvest as it was there in those days.
When the work day was over, the ones he hired at 5:00 p.m. got paid first and they got a full denarius. When the men who had been hired at six in the morning and who had worked all day, saw this, they thought, “He paid those guys who only worked one hour a full denarius, he had better pay us more.” They argue with the Master’s steward: “We worked a full 12 hours; we worked through the heat of the day; and we carried the biggest loads. We should get more than just one denarius.” The Master is not convinced. He says: “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 worker 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?” (Matthew 20:13-15)
How should we interpret this parable? As a first principle, when reading Jesus’ parables in the Bible, whenever He tells a story about a Master in relation to His servants, or employees, dinner guests, or even friends, see if the story makes sense if we think of the Master as God. How is this like the Kingdom of Heaven? John Lange in his commentary explains that those hired at different hours are those who came to faith in Jesus at different times in their life, or at different times in history. The payment, the wages of faith, is eternal life, the opposite of the wages of sin; and the reward is the same for all who keep the faith.
That final statement, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 20:16) relates to the men who were still in the market place at the later hours. They had not been hired by anyone else, but as Barclay says, the Master in His mercy hired them out of compassion, and they worked for what the Master said in Matthew 20:7 “and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.” What they received was from the generosity of God. Barclay continues with this: “All God gives us is of grace. We cannot earn what he gives us; we cannot deserve it; what God gives us is given out of the goodness of His heart; what God gives is not pay; but a gift; not a reward, but a grace.” We’ll come back to this in a few minutes.
Let’s look at the Penitential seasons, Advent, the Gesimas, and Lent. We might ask, what is the purpose of penitential seasons, but let’s ask a harder question: What is the meaning of Penitence? After looking through a bunch of dictionaries, I can find only hints of what I think it means. Most dictionaries just say, or imply that it is a synonym for repentance. One theological dictionary says that in so many words, but warns against confusing penitence with the Roman Catholic sacrament of Penance, of doing a prescribed set of punishments for some sin.
I think that Penitence is an attitude, almost a way of life. It is an attitude that combines contrition and repentance with humility. St. Augustine of Hippo used the Latin word humilitas when he was writing about penitence. Contrition is feeling sorry for what you did in sinning, but if that is all you have done, you have not repented. To repent is to turn away from that sin, to actively try to never commit that sin again. The Greek word for the verb to repent is μετανοέω, which means to change your mind. You sinned because you thought it was a good idea at the time, but you haven’t really repented until you have decided that what you did, which you may have enjoyed, is never a good idea at any time.
Penitence, to me, is the attitude that comes from the mixing of contrition and repentance with humility. In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is walking down a tunnel, reading from a book, saying over and over again, wonderingly, “The penitent man, ,,, the penitent man, … . He decides to bend over; and when he takes a few more steps in that posture, a sort of gigantic mechanized meat slicer whizzes over his head. If he had been standing upright, it would have decapitated him. Even Hollywood understands that the penitent man does not stand tall and upright like the impenitent proud.
The main Penitential seasons are those two seasons of Advent and Lent in which we contemplate in penitence the two great events in the life of Jesus Christ: His birth and His crucifixion and resurrection. They are seasons in which we purify ourselves in an attempt to be worthy to celebrate the commemoration of those events.
Penitence changes us. It is supposed to. It is like that famous statement that everybody quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer is not saying that to answer Christ’s call is to lie down and cease living; he is saying one must die to his old life of sin and begin living the new life of Christ. As St. Paul put it in Colossians 3: 9-10, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
This is what everybody finds hard to do. It is very hard to live in this world with all its lures and distractions and at the same time live a Christian life. I read a lot this past week, some of it about the many churches which have embraced as acceptable, behaviors the Church has known to be sin for almost 2000 years. They make much about being the inclusive churches. I can’t remember who said this, but one person in responding to some talk of inclusivity said this: “We are inclusive in my church too. You can come as you are; but after a while, we expect you to change.” Of course, he was talking about repentance. This is an important part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that we have to change, to die to sin, and we can’t do that unless we change radically from the inborn sinful nature of all mankind.
There is a wonderful book by Jerry Bridges titled “Respectable Sins.” In it he talks about all sorts of sins that are now considered to be acceptable behavior by large sections of society. That book is a shocker and shows us how hard it is to “put off the old.” Unfortunately, putting off the old is what we have to do if we want to follow Jesus and live the way He would have us live, that is, to do what I think of as Living the Gospel, not living into the Gospel or living out the Gospel. Living the Gospel is what we have to do to live in the Kingdom. This is like the difference between Abraham believing God and Abraham believing in God. The Bible says in Genesis 15:6 about Abraham: “And he believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” Abraham didn’t just believe in God; he believed what God said.
We must learn to live the Gospel. We have to realize that we are living and working in Christ’s Kingdom – now. We know we can never be perfect at it, not on this earth, not in these corruptible bodies; but we must try, for that is what Christ calls us to do. Our work here is work in the Lord’s vineyard, and it is about the growth of His Kingdom. Our payment is not in earthly wages. To count on that sort of payment from God is to look at the wrong side of the ledger. William Barclay says, “We are not Christians if our first concern is pay.” Those who came first to the vineyard left with the amount they had contracted to receive. To those who came later than the first crew, remember that the Master said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you” (Matthew 20:4). They went willingly, and received more than they expected.
We are invited by God to work in His kingdom, in His vineyard. We all have different gifts and talents. Bring them to Him. Ask not what the wages will be. Live His Gospel and receive His Grace. As the sermon hymns says, “Come labor on, who dares stand idle on the harvest plain.” For the kingdom of God, come labor on, the harvest waits. AMEN.