In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is Septuagesima, the beginning of the Pre-Lenten season that will conclude with Shrove Tuesday. Derived from the Latin word for “seventieth,” there are now seventy days until the Saturday after Easter. It is not settled as to when the Church added Septuagesima to the liturgical calendar, though we do find it in the West as early as the sixth century. That was a time of great upheaval. The Western Roman Empire had fallen already. Barbarian invaders again were threatening to sweep in and to destroy what little civilization remained. The system of laws, police security, civil courts for the upholding of contracts and property rights, much of the reliable governance once provided by the Roman world had fallen into as much disrepair as the ruins spread across the landscape. In this context, Septuagesima, which is to say “the seventieth,” may have called to mind then the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity, when an invading army forcibly resettled the ancient Judeans. For them, the world had become a place of sorrow, of loss, a reminder that their expectations could be turned upside down no matter even their everlasting covenant with God.
In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 20:1-16), we find another parable describing for us the Kingdom of Heaven. The Good Lord hires laborers for His vineyard. He promises a penny a day for each of the first set of laborers, and He delivers on His promise. The problem for the first set of laborers is that the Good Lord makes and delivers the same promise to the people He hires near the end of the day. The laborers who toiled for one hour are paid as much as the ones who toiled for twelve. Moreover, the Good Lord pays the last set of laborers, the ones who only worked for an hour, before He pays the first set of laborers. That means the people who worked the longest and the hardest have to wait around longer than everyone else to get what has been promised. This is not what they had expected. This does not seem altogether just or fair. Indeed, for the first set of laborers waiting around to be paid last, the Good Lord seems now to be adding insult to injury. The laborers grumble among themselves, for in their own minds they are quite certain that they deserve more than those latecomers. They are better, worthier; closer to God in virtue of their greater dedication to the work that has to be done in His Kingdom.
We see the sin of thinking that we may earn our way into Heaven. God’s gift of grace is exactly that – a gift. It is not payment to be meted out in accord with how much we do or how good we presume that we are. We all fall short of the glory of God. We say that as an expression of piety, but do we really believe that? Whenever we covet the gifts that those Johnny-Come-Latelies have acquired, whenever we look down upon those folks who only manage to drag themselves to Church on Christmas and Easter, whenever we belittle in our hearts the man who has not memorized our prayers and seems lost in our Prayer Book, what we are really saying is that we do not fall short of the glory of God. Or to be more precise, we may fall short, somewhere a bit below the angels, but not as short as those guys over there. The problem with this way of thinking is that we are exalting in ourselves, demanding that our own expectations of what is right and wrong be fulfilled, insisting that God act as we think He should act. In a way, it is like saying that God is made in our image, rather than the truth of the matter, which is that we are made in His. If we persist in this way of thinking we shall never get into God’s Kingdom, because we shall be too focused in trying to find our own Kingdom.
I am reminded of an incident when I was in the second grade. My family lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Northern California on five acres of towering redwoods. As a practical matter, because our neighbors were acres apart from one another, it was not possible on Halloween for the children to do trick-or-treating. The local primary school instead put on an annual Halloween event. We all showed up in our colorful, homemade costumes, walked through a makeshift haunted house set up beneath the basketball hoops, shot darts at plastic Indians for the chance to win a Davy Crockett toy rifle, and bobbed for apples. If we managed to get an apple out of the barrel, then we could win a bag of toys kept beneath a nearby counter. Since I had won a toy rifle already last year, I focused on bobbing for apples. I spent every one of my Halloween game tickets at the apple barrel, submerging my face, snapping my teeth at the spit coated apple skins, and then returning to the back of the line for another try when I had run out of time. I worked at it. I was dedicated. I certainly deserved to win more than those other kids who only bobbed once or twice before going on to something else. In the end, I managed to grip one of the apples just enough to nudge it out from the barrel. I walked triumphantly to the counter without any more tickets to spare, and the volunteer reached down and gathered up one of the bags beside his feet. In my mind, this was even better than when I had won that toy rifle, for I had given so much more to get to this moment. I did not open the bag until I was in the backseat of our family car on the way home. It was then that I realized that the volunteer had grabbed by accident a bag of toys meant for a girl instead of a boy. I remember that I was startled, saddened, and incensed, the three reactions following in succession in the span of a few seconds. This travesty of dolls, combs, hairpins, and lace was not at all what I had expected. Given all my work, it was not at all fair. I wanted my parents to drive back and to insist on the right bag. They did not oblige me, and as the tears of righteous indignation rolled down my face I came to see that my own little world had been turned upside down. In my mind, I may as well have been swept up by the Babylonians and held captive in a strange land.
I allowed my expectations to get in the way of gratitude. I substituted my own sense of what is just and fair for the joy of having captured one of those apples. In my own twisted imagination, I had transformed the bag of toys into a ball and chain, a great victory into a self-absorbed grievance. The grace is gifted to us. We choose how we respond. The first set of laborers in the parable, the ones waiting around to be paid last, chose to be aggrieved by how much longer they had to wait. If they had looked at this same situation from the perspective of gratitude and joy, instead of petty and self-righteous sorrow, they could have seen that in waiting around to be paid last in fact they were being given more time to be in close proximity to the Good Lord. The vineyard is the Kingdom of Heaven. How much more blessed for them that they are there for twelve hours instead of only one. How much more Christlike to be patient, to show gratitude, to suffer with a cheerful heart, even as their sense of what is right and wrong is being eviscerated before their eyes. When the first are last, the gift for them is so much more, if only they will receive it in faith. Let us pray that when life does not necessarily go as we would have hoped or expected, when the world that we have been building for ourselves seems about to be swept aside, we may find it in our hearts to have gratitude for grace. It is relatively easy to love God and to be thankful for His grace when all is as we would hope or expect. What matters is how we respond to God and to His grace when the world is turned upside down. There are times when we are among the first to be last, and among the last to be first. In either instance, let us have the same simple gratitude, the same wondrous joy, for whatever God in His eternal wisdom may decide to bestow or to withhold from us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.