Sunday, September 21, 2014

the labourers in the vineyard

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

The parable we hear today in our Gospel reading, that of the labourers in the vineyard, can be read on two levels of meaning … probably many more, but today I will deal with only two. In the first, the workers who come at the different hours are to be seen as the people of Israel, the chosen people, at the various points in salvation history. Finally, at the 11th hour, comes the gentiles. The parable was, on this reading, we are told by Church Fathers such as Origen and St Gregory Jesus' way of helping the Jewish members of the early Church understand that they should not resent that the gentile Christians, who were coming late to the party as it were, were to receive the same reward as them.

Another reading, more common today I think, is to see it as being in line with the reaction of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son when he hears that his father has killed the fatted calf to celebrate the return of his wastrel brother. I have served you always, he says, and you have never given me so much as a kid goat to have a party with my friends.

The point being made is that sometimes those who have been 'good' all their lives resent the idea that those who have been 'bad' can turn things around late in life and still be entitled to the same reward as they. Our heavenly Father has but one payment for the soul that dies in a state of Grace and that is eternal life – and those who have spent a lifetime earning that reward – not that earning is the right word, but we will use it as it fits in with the parable – may resent it that someone may parachute in at the 11th hour and be given the same as they after only a few years, or perhaps months weeks or days … or even moments in the case of a literal death-bed conversion.

Now first, let us bear in mind that it is wrong to think that the person who is being 'good' all their life is somehow making a sacrifice by being good; that they are somehow giving up all the fun and pleasure that life offers, and grimly going through life in the hope of the reward to come. The temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil are not pleasures – they are snares intended to destroy us. The Christian must understand that the so-called pleasures of the world are not pleasures but destructive forces; and resisting them is not a denial of pleasure but self-defence of the most important kind – to fight them off is to preserve one's soul unto eternal life.

Also, it is important not to see this passage in isolation from the rest of scripture. I have met those who, seeing all these empty promises as pleasures, think 'well if God will give me the same reward for being 'good' just at the end of my life as for being 'good' all my life, why not live as I please and then repent at the end and gain eternal life?' Christ calls such a person a fool in the parable of the Rich Fool. Not all deaths come with a warning; we are as likely to be struck down in an instant as we are to spend years lingering on a bed of pain. No one knows the day or the hour of their death. But even if we are given time to repent, how likely is it that we will? No one who leads a life of sin spends all the day thinking 'I am a sinner.' Rather they rationalise to themselves that what God, Scripture, Christ, and his Church calls wickedness is good. And a person is not very likely to repent all of a sudden of all that they have spent years training themselves into believing is a perfectly fine way to live.

Equally, it is important not to think that all we have to do to save our souls is accept the invitation into his vineyard, whether it be at the first hour, the 11th, or somewhere in between. Christ himself tells us that not everyone who calls him 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into eternal life; it is not enough to hear his word, we must also obey; we are all sinners trying to be holy, trying to be saints … and it is a struggle that will last us all our lives … we must, as St Augustine tells us, expect the temptations of this world; but remember, as he also says, God will deliver you from them all if your heart has not abandoned him. He does not abandon you and he does not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength.

Why does he allow us to be tempted? Well, as I have said before, if there is no evil to reject, how can you be said to chose good? It is free will that allows us to chose God and his holy law over the devil and all his empty promises. And God will help us to chose him, as long as that is what we want. He wants us to spend all eternity with him in heaven. That is why he made us. And that is why he continues to invite us into his vineyard, from the first breath we take until the last; that is why all our lives he gives us his grace so that we may in the end have eternal life. Amen

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