The Sunday Called Septuagesima


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or the Third Sunday before Lent 

O Lord, we beseech thee favourable to hear the prayers of thy people…
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Matthew 20:1-16

I am just old enough to remember the days before the Dock Labour Scheme when Liverpool men queued up at the gates in the hope of a day’s work, a mode of employment made more visible to us today by similar queues in Iraq which have become the targets of terrorist attacks. Those queues in which men will risk their lives for small reward underline the uncertainty of their livelihood. Matthew’s account shows the corrosive competitiveness which can arise from such hardship so that men find it hard to understand that the good of others does no damage to themselves. After all, if the day’s work in the vineyard was properly covered by the foreman, favouring people who started working late would not damage the prospect of work for the morrow but it was a hard lesson. Even today in a thriving economy we are apt to see economic and social relations in terms of what we call the “zero sum game”, where my gain is your loss and vice versa.

The Lord’s ‘game’ does not work that way, of course. Grace is infinite and, as St. Paul points out, we are not in a race where only one person can win. If we discipline ourselves in the virtuous life we can all, in the words of the collect, be mercifully delivered in spite of just punishment for our offences.

Regardless of the avowal of Jesus that he came most particularly to minister to the weak, the poor and to sinners—three groups of people not to be taken co-terminally—succeeding generations have found it hard to accept this. To its shame the Christian church has often sided with the rich and strong against the poor and weak. Even today, many Christians, particularly in the United States, follow the Jewish tradition that earthly wealth is a sign of God’s favour and, in a less extreme way, many find it hard to reconcile the ‘feckless’ life with the attainment of eternal happiness. Paul was proud that he did not beat the air but lived his life for a purpose but he did not, as the Collect does not, make the mistake of counting his chances of eternity better than those of anyone else. Indeed he is careful to say that his quest for restraint is to ensure that he is in a worthy condition to preach, a pre-requisite which cannot be over-emphasised.

All depends, the three readings concur, on God’s mercy whose nature is so graphically portrayed in the way the labourers in the vineyard were rewarded. The order in which the labourers were paid is significant. Had those who worked all day been paid first they would no doubt have gone home by the time the latecomers were paid but the master is very specific with his steward, insisting that the latecomers be paid first in full view of the others. This is a necessary lesson to virtue that it consists in what it does and not in a comparison with what others do. We are all too apt to compare ourselves favourably with others and I suspect, if we were asked we would count ourselves among those who laboured all day.

That self assessment, of course, ignores the warning of the Collect that we continually rely upon mercy when we fall short. However often we fail to do what we should we are given another chance until that time when our life ends when we will be judged according to God’s infinite mercy. Those who labour in the heat of the day and those who are only taken on at the 11th hour have different burdens. Who is to say that the ardour of the labour is any more or less difficult to bear than the frustration of idleness as the chance of something to take home to the family dwindles. In spite of overwhelming research which shows that most of the unemployed would prefer to work, our society still likes to divide itself between “hard working families” (to use a favourite phrase of Governments of both parties) and the “scroungers” characterised in callous journalism.

The further observation of the master which is relevant relates back to mercy; it is not for us to decide who is worthy of what. The master has given what he thinks fit to the latecomers without violating his agreement with those who came first. It is useless to use ideas of human ‘fairness’ to measure divine grace but, further, it is not helpful to use conventional ideas of ‘fairness’ to assess the human condition. The great political theorist John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) proposed that in making social rules we should put ourselves behind a “Veil of ignorance”, not knowing whether we are weak or strong, talented or untalented, strong or weak. Even the unwillingness to work might be regarded as some kind of weakness.

Perhaps the most difficult sentence to digest is the last, that the last should be first and the first last, with the forbidding rider that many are called but few chosen. To take this seriously is not only to grant the special mission of Jesus to the poor and weak, it is also to accept that we might be among the last who, in the fullness of time, are made first. We only have a problem with the idea if we think that we are first and might be demoted to last.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Imagine running a modern business on the lines of the vineyard
  2. How similar are bodily and spiritual discipline?
  3. Where would you place yourself in the line between first and last and why?
  4. How would our law and politics be different if we applied the “Veil of Ignorance” device?
  5. Are there special obligations in respect of their personal lives on those who preach?

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