This homily was preached on Sunday morning, March 3, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Sdn. Ambrose.
Every year on the ninth Sunday prior to Pascha, we celebrate Septuagesima; some people pronounce it “Septuageesima,” and every year on this day, the same Epistle, the same Gospel reading is prescribed to us. And it has been this way for many, many, many years. And we carry on this tradition today as well.
For my homily today, I’m going to give you a modern paraphrase of a sermon that was first delivered by Saint John Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers here in the Orthodox Church, and in today’s gospel reading, we learned of a landowner who owned a vineyard, and who went out early in the morning to hire workers. And in differing intervals throughout the day, new workers come to toil in the vineyard, even including the eleventh hour of the day, the last hour that they could possibly come in to work. And when all the workers came to the landowner for their daily wages at the end, they were all paid exactly the same. One penny. Would you like to work for a penny, all day? One denarius, it said, in another version.
And although each worker had agreed to work for the amount that they were paid, the workers who began in the early hours actually grumbled that those who began in the late hours were paid the same wages, and the landowner said it’s his money, and he has a right to treat them all fairly, because it’s his money and he can do what he wants, right?
But the parable doesn’t harmonize very well with the very last verse that was just read to us. And it actually appears to be contradictory. At the beginning, Jesus shows that all are the same, that all inherit the same thing, they all are paid the same wages. Yet at the end, he says the opposite: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. And he also says many are called, but few are chosen. The actual parable doesn’t say anything about this, just the last verse attached to it. The parable says that they are all equal whether they labor for all day or labor for one hour, but the final verse seems to contradict the parable. So we’re first going to discuss the parable, and make it clear, and then we’ll discuss the perceived contradiction.
Now when Jesus is talking about the vineyard, what He’s talking about there is the life of God, His commandments, just basically the life that God has set out before us. When He says “laborers,” He is actually speaking of this present life, so we are actually laboring in His vineyard. The laborers are those of us who at different times in our lives are actually called to the life of God and His commandments, and by listing various hours of the workday, he basically talking about those who at different ages have drawn near to God: some people as an early child, some people on their deathbed, and all in between.
The question is, why, or, even better yet, how, did those who, having pleased God initially, having worked diligently through the whole day, how did they become possessed by jealousy and envy? When they’d seen the latter groups enjoying the same rewards that they were receiving, they said, “These have only worked one hour, and you made them equal to us who have worked the entirety of the day,” and in these words, when they are to receive no harm, neither to lose any agreed-upon wages, they were indignant. And displeased at the good of others. And that was proof that there was jealousy and envy in their hearts.
Notice that the man of the house, justifying himself to them, and in making his defense to them, had said these things, and basically convicts them of wickedness and jealousy, and he says, “Did you not agree with me for a penny? Take what is yours and go away. Get out of here. I will give to the last even as unto you. Are you envious because I am good?”
Now it’s interesting to know that Jesus shows similar behaviors in other parables as well. I’m thinking about the parable of the prodigal son. When the older son, who had been faithful and had never left the farm, never left his father, is asked to come in and celebrate, he felt these same things that we see in today’s parable: envy and jealousy. When he saw his prodigal brother enjoying honor, even more than himself, and he didn’t even realize that by receiving first, as the older brother, and receiving continually, having never had left, he was actually honored to a greater degree by the abundance of the things that were given to him. Yet he remained envious and jealous.
And it’s important for us to remember that in heaven, right now, there is no one who is standing up there trying to justify himself. No one blaming others, because that place is pure from all of envy and jealousy, and if when they are here, the saints give their very lives for the sinners, how much more, when they see them there, in the rejoining of the saints will they rejoice and consider these to be blessings of their own?
Now, it’s often said that analogies all break down, and so forth. There’s some piece of an analogy that just doesn’t fit. And it’s generally true. But the point of the analogy, the reason why they’re used so often, is because there’s a negative truth that the user’s attempting to convey, and we generally probably shouldn’t try to push past that negative truth anymore than an analogy needs, and require that everything be exactly true, and it’s the same thing with parables. Often, it’s the same thing with parables. Saint John Chrysostom says that it is not right to inquire curiously into all things in the parables, word by word. We’re not looking for verbatim or exact equality with life, but when we have learned the object for which it was composed, to take this, to read this, and not busy oneself about anything further.
So the purpose of this parable is actually twofold. One, it is to help those that are converted, and to become better men in extreme old age, and not to allow them to suppose that they have a lesser fortune. That’s part of it. The other part of it is to teach us that those who have labored for God for years and years, who may consider complaining, or feeling envy and jealousy, have enjoyed such honor as could even have brought about envy in other people, and hereby showing the greatness of the gifts that they have enjoyed.
So, many people have asked, “So, in this story, then why didn’t the landowner just hire everybody at the same time? Why didn’t he just go out there and get everybody?” Well, as far as he was concerned, he did. It’s just that all the workers didn’t listen and come in at the same time. The difference wasn’t in the call to work; the difference was in the disposition of those people who were called. This is why some are called early, some later, and some at the last. Because this is when they would finally obey. Paul says the same thing about how God called him. Paul said, “When it pleased Him who separated me from my mother’s womb,” well, when did it please God? When Paul was ready to obey. That’s when it pleased Him. God willed it even from the beginning, but because Paul would not have yielded, then it pleased God to call him when he was ready to obey. And it’s the same as when Christ on the cross called the thief. Although He was able to have called the thief prior to his deathbed, the thief would not have obeyed. For Paul, at the beginning would not have obeyed, how much more the thief?
In verse seven, we read that the idle men later in the day say, “Well, no man has hired us.” He says, “How come you’re out here not working?” He says, “Nobody hired us.” Well, in the first place, I mentioned we’re not supposed to push a parable or an analogy further than they’re supposed to be, but it’s also important to notice that it’s not the landowner who says nobody had hired them, it was the workers who said nobody had hired them, and the landowner doesn’t even argue with them. He’s trying to win him over, he’s not trying to argue with him, say, “Well, I came out this morning, at eight o’clock, or at six o’clock, and nobody was here…” No, he just says, “Okay, we just need more help.”
So when we see this, when it says he went out early in the morning to hire, the landowner went out early in the morning to hire, that’s what his purpose was, and he got some, but he didn’t have enough, so he kept going out, and he kept going out, but his purpose was to hire as many as needed, and he called them early in the morning to work, but they were still in bed, or they were indifferent to the call, or they didn’t want to work. So, from everything here, it’s made clear that the parable is spoken with reference to them who, from earliest youth, and those who in old age, lay hold of virtue. It’s talking to both sides. And to the former, to the cradle, it’s so that they may not be proud, or reproach those who come later. And to the ones who come later that they may learn that it’s possible even in a short time, to recover everything. He shows that it is possible even for men coming later to receive the hire and to hold it, and to both groups, he doesn’t say it to make them proud, but he shows them that all of it is because of his own love for man, and because of this, they shall not fail, but they shall themselves enjoy unspeakable blessings.
But the most important thing that Jesus wanted to establish by this parable, He actually says at the end, and it almost sounds like a contradiction when He says, “So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, for many are called, but few chosen.” He is not inferring this thing from this parable, he’s adding something to this parable at the very end. So we don’t want to be confused that these two are necessarily related. His meaning is this: that life, as this parable came to pass and seemed strange to you, so shall this next thing come to pass and be even more strange to you. For here in this parable, the first did not become last, but all seemed the same, contrary to hope and expectation. They thought that they would receive something different, so, contrary to their hope and expectation, everybody received the same thing. And, likewise, contrary to our hope and expectation, this other thing is going to happen, too. So shall this also come to pass, which is even more strange than this. That the last should come even before the first, and that the first should be after these, so that that is one thing, and this is another.
In the parable he says, those who come — they expected those who came early to be first, greater, and those who came late to be paid less, to come after, so they expected a disparity, and, contrary to what they expected, it was made equal, and then Jesus says, not only that, it’s going to go the other way. Not only is the last coming last, but the last is going to come first. He swaps it all.
Okay, now, as a Calvinist in my previous life, I was — this was completely foreign to me. First of all, I believed that one was saved completely by God’s work alone and that none of it was on my own work, and also, in fact, that works had nothing to do with keeping me going in my Christian walk, either, because once you were truly saved, you could not then lose your salvation. Bunch of baloney, right?
But the Fathers have taught that Jesus, in the last of today’s gospel, seems to be hinting a little bit darkly at the Jews and the believers who at first shone forth, but afterward they lacked in virtue and fell back. And then secondly at those others, again, that have risen from vice and have shot ahead of many others in virtue, and we see these kind of things happening even today, with respect to faith and practice. And if we think about those people who have been Orthodox Christians from childhood, called “Cradle Orthodox,” yes, they’re saved and in the Orthodox Church, but what does that really matter if they don’t practice virtues? It’s likely that the newer baby Orthodox, who practice virtues, actually shoot ahead of many of the Cradle Orthodox believers. And this tells us that even with us, we must be diligent to, number one, align ourselves with and stand in the right faith. That is very, very important, but also to show forth an excellent life, for lest we add also a life suitable to our faith, we will suffer the most extreme punishment.
In our Epistle reading today, Paul showed this truth even from old times, when he said—and he was mentioning the Israelites who were in the wilderness—he said they did all eat the same spiritual meat, and did all drink the same spiritual drink, but then he added at the end of it, “but they were overthrown in the wilderness.” They were in the right church. They were in the right place, but they didn’t practice a life of virtue, and they ended up dying in the wilderness. And Christ declared it even in the gospels when He mentions some that had cast out devils and prophesied, and that they’re still enduring punishment.
And almost all of His parables demand virtue and cooperation with our works. You think of the parable of the virgins. The parable of the nets. The parable of the thorns, and the parable of the tree that doesn’t bring forth fruit. Those that Christ seldom discusses or teaches on actual doctrines, but rather on living a virtuous life at all times. It seems that living a godly life and a virtuous life is a work in which God is pleased.
As I mentioned earlier, we’re entering today into the season of preparation for Great Lent. And today is Septuagesima, and is the ninth Sunday before Pascha. This pre-Lenten season ends on Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday.
In Orthodoxy, on Shrove Tuesday, the faithful are encouraged to shrive. “Shrove” is the past tense of “shrive,” okay? Shrive means confession, absolution, and receiving penance if it’s prescribed, followed by a celebration of eating sausage and pancakes. Fat, you know. The reason that they do that is they are eating up the oils and the fatty foods and things like that, they’re finishing it up. It’s the night before we enter into a season of fasting, of Lent, and they don’t want it to go bad, so they finish it up, use it up, use up that butter and use up that stuff that they had so that it doesn’t go bad and they lose it, and so the next day being Ash Wednesday, we begin Great Lent, and we attend a church service where ashes are actually applied to our foreheads, and we do a strict fast, eating no food that entire day.
Now, consider this contradiction: what has our culture done with Septuagesima and the pre-Lenten season? They’ve twisted it horribly, like they have with any other of our holy days, into the beginning of what they call “carnival” season: seventeen days of revelry, sex, drunkenness and gluttony, culminating in Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.”
In Orthodoxy, beginning this Lord’s Day, we’re not practicing seventeen days of abasement. We’re practicing seventeen days of pre-Lenten introspection. We begin to look inwardly at our passions, and begin to prepare our hearts, our bodies, and our homes for the rigors of Great Lent, and currently consider what virtues we want to develop in ourselves during Great Lent. If we are to be living a life through which God is pleased, this season is a period where we begin to develop those virtues. But we can find ourselves in what would appear to be a hopeless situation, because not only must one be brought into the Church, he must also practice virtue so that he not be punished, and even if a small part of virtue is overlooked, it brings upon one great evil, and I’m going to give you some examples of this.
One of the virtues is almsgiving. In the book of Tobit, chapter four, it says that if you overlook almsgiving, which is giving to other people who need it, it can cast you into hell. Neglecting almsgiving cast into hell them that have come short of it. And even though this is not the whole part of virtue, nevertheless, both the virgins were punished for not having this. The rich man was tormented because he neglected almsgiving. And they that have not fed the hungry and visited the sick and those in prison are for this condemned with the devil.
Not to revile someone else is another very small part of virtue. Nevertheless, this, too, cast out those who did not attain to it. Christ said, “For he that says to his brother, ‘Thou fool’ shall be in danger of hellfire.” Holiness is part of virtue. And the book of Hebrews says, “Without this, no one shall see the Lord.” Holiness is just a part of it, and yet without it, no one will see the Lord.
And humility, too, is part of virtue, “But even though anyone should fulfill other good works and not obtain humility, he’s unclean with God,” according to scripture. And this is made clear from the Pharisee, though he exhibited numberless good works, he lost everything due to his lack of humility.
What’s more, even though overlooking just one of these virtues shuts heaven against us, doing them all and doing them imperfectly, or not in abundance, produces the same effect. The verse says, “For except your righteousness exceed the righteousness ascribed to the Pharisee, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of heaven,” so that even though you give alms, but not more than they do, you shall not enter in. So how much did the Scribes and Pharisees give? This is not a sermon on tithing. How much did they give? Well, I’m bringing this up, so that those who do not give may be roused to give, and also that those who do give may not pride themselves, but may increase in their gifts, especially during this penitential season of Great Lent, in this time of preparation. So how much did the scribes and Pharisees give? A tenth of all their possessions, and then another tenth, and then another tenth. Almost a third of everything, they gave. And then, on top of that, they gave their first fruits, they gave their firstborn animals and other things, besides, for instance, the offerings for sin, those for purification, those for feasts, those for the Jubilee, those by canceling debts, the dismissals of servants, and the money from lending without usury, they were giving from those as well. So if he who gave a third of all his goods, and probably if you added it all up, it was closer to half, when you add those other things…if he who gives half of everything that he has, achieves no great thing, where does that leave us who don’t even give a tenth? Of what shall we be worth? It is with great sadness, but there’s a reason why Jesus said there are few to be saved.
So let us not then neglect the nurture and care of our spiritual being. For if just one piece of this virtue is neglected, or is done, but done improperly, it brings about so great a destruction on us, when on every hand we’re subject to the sentence of condemnation, how, then, can we escape punishment? What type of penalty shall we not suffer, and what hope of salvation shall we have if even one of the things that I’ve mentioned threatens us with hell? And I’m asking the same question of myself. Nevertheless, if we give heed, we may be saved.
We can use almsgiving as a medicine to attend to our wounds, for oil does not actually spring from the body. As benevolence and almsgiving it will spring from the soul, and make it invincible and impregnable to the devil that wherever he may attempt to seize us and grab a hold of us, his hold slips, because the oil of our almsgiving does not allow him to get a firm grasp on us. With this oil then let us anoint ourselves continually, because it is the cause of help and of a supply of light, and a source of cheerfulness.
You may say, “But there are so many people who have so much—so much money and so many possessions, and they give away nothing.” This may be true. But what is that to you? In fact, we who have little are actually more worthy of admiration when we give out of our poverty, and show ourselves more benevolent than the rich persons who give. It was on this ground that Paul marveled at the Macedonians. Not because they gave, but because they gave even though they were in poverty.
And furthermore, don’t compare yourselves with other men. Instead, look to Christ, who had nowhere to lay His head. And do not judge another, but deliver yourself from the charge that is against you, since the punishment is greater when you blame others and then do the same thing. When judging other men, you’re subject to the same judgment. For he doesn’t permit even those who do right to judge others, even moreso will he not permit an offender to judge others. So if you turn the phrase slightly, we usually say, “Keep your eyes on your own plate,” during fasting. We should keep our eyes on our own wallet, our own purse, during this time.
And why would you look to another as an example, anyway? Was that person your benefactor? Did the other person redeem you, that you looked at him? Why would you let go of your Master and look to your fellow servant as an example of how to live and how to give? Remember Jesus said, “Learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.” And again, He said, “He that would be first among you, let him be the servant of all.“ And again, “even as the Son of Man came, not to be ministered to, but to minister“. And as if these were not enough reasons to stop looking at your fellow servants, and to stop your contentions, He says, “I have made myself an example to you, that as I have done, you should do also.”
It is possible then, that you simply have no one. Maybe there’s nobody here to be a teacher for you, nobody who’s teaching you virtue, who can lead you in how you’re supposed to behave during this season. It’s possible. Well then, your praise and commendation will be even greater when you obey without even having had a teacher.
This is possible. In fact, it’s easy if we’re willing. And this is shown by those who first actually did these things. They acted this way in the first place, without teachers: Noah, Abraham, Melchizedech and Job, and all the men like them. It’s necessary for us to look to them, then, those godly men of the Bible, every day, and not to these other people who are around us, those whom the world never ceases to emulate. They pass around their names and we constantly hear things like, “This person bought this many acres of land” or “This guy’s rich,” or this man’s making a building or whatever. Why do we stare at what’s out there, and look at others? If we have to look at others, then look to them that do their duty. Look to them that approve of themselves, to them that carefully fulfill the law, and not to those that who have become offenders, and compare yourself to them. They are dishonored. If we look to these, we will gather many evil things, falling into neglect, probably even pride, and then into condemnation of other people. But, instead, if we look to those who are doing the right thing, we’ll lead ourselves on to humility, to diligence and to numberless blessings.
Do not be like the Pharisee and suffer because he compared himself to other offenders. Instead, be like David, as one who marveled, because he looked at his ancestors that were noted for virtue, and he said, “I am a stranger, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.” But this man, and all that are like him, did not focus his attention upon those who had sinned, but he thought instead upon those who had proved themselves.
We have many great examples, all around this wall, all around these walls, of who we can be looking to. We should do the same. But we’re not set to judge, and to be the judges of the negligences of others. Nor are we to look at the sins which others are committing. Instead, we’re required during this season to do judgments on ourselves, for if we judge ourselves it said, we should not be judged, but when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, but somehow we’ve reversed the order. And of ourselves we require no account, of any offenses, whether they’re big or small, but we’re always strict and curious about the offenses of other people.
We need to stop this backward way, and settle court within ourselves, and the sins we commit ourselves. We should become our own accusers, our own judges, and our own executioners for our offenses. And finally, if you still find it difficult and just have to be busy about the things of other men, then busy yourself about their good works, not their sins. Then, both by the memory of our own negligences and by the emulations of their good works which they’ve done, and by keeping in constant memory the judgment seat, from which no prayers can deliver us, we may lead ourselves unto greater humility and a greater diligence, and attain the good things to come, by the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So as we enter into this pre-Lenten season, first remember that we are to be focused on ourselves—our own sins, our own passions, and our own issues—and not on those of others. Secondly, remember that we are to strive to increase our almsgiving, our humility, our prayer life, and our holiness, and lastly, remember that we can do neither of these without the grace of God in our lives. Father Michael has told us in the past that when you fast, you should pray more. Fasting more, as we will be doing during Great Lent, is like painting a huge target on your back, and Satan will be shooting at you.
So surround yourself, your family, other people in this parish and around the world with more and more prayer. Pray the rosary often. Pray the Jesus prayer often. Keep the small prayer books that we have, and I saw Dion had in his pocket—keep these near you. Keep these with you. And pray. Pull them out of your pocket, pull them out of your purse often during the day. When you wake up in the night, pray. Pray before your meals, and after your meals, and thank God. Father Michael will be here again on Shrove Tuesday, I understand, and on Ash Wednesday, and Deacon Joseph and I would like to encourage you to begin your Lenten preparation today, and to make sure you ready yourselves for confession on Shrove Tuesday, and to follow the strict fast of Ash Wednesday as much as you’re physically able, and to attend the service that we have here on Ash Wednesday evening as well. This is going to be an excellent way for you to prayerfully and humbly begin the season of Great Lent.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, God is one.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, March 3, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Sdn. Ambrose.