Sunday, February 20, 2011

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5 / Matthew 20:1-16

How much does the life of grace resemble the choices we make on our own initiative? How much will the Kingdom cleave to the kind of life we have lived in this vale of tears? If we follow what St Paul says to the Corinthians, we might assume that the life to come will have been echoed in important and significant ways in the life of the world to come. After all, he reminds us that the quality of our efforts here, that our striving for mastery here and now will bear fruit in the winning of an imperishable crown. Paul warns the Corinthians that the signs of grace, even there efficacious signs, were no less present in faith to the Jews who were led out of Egypt through the cloud and the see into the promised land, but nonetheless with most of them God was not well pleased. It is not enough to be happy to have run the race. Run, the Apostle tells us, that you may obtain.

On the other hand, the Gospel would suggest to us that the logic of the Kingdom is altogether unlike the logic of this world. Those workers in Jesus' parable who had borne the burden of the day and the heats seem, in the logic of the world, to be right in their complaining. That those who have worked but one hour should receive the same reward as those who have been faithful in times good and bad, who have been faithful even in spite of the malice and resistance of those who, at the last hour, chose to labor in the householder's vineyard, is clearly against every expectation the world has of justice and right.

In the Collect of the day, the Church places before our eyes this very tension: Graciously hear, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the prayers of Thy people, that we, who are justly afflicted for our sins, may for the glory of Thy name be mercifully delivered. Our labors, our suffering, our trials, come to us at least in large part for our deserts, and yet the logic of what we deserve is subsumed under the more compelling logic of the glory of God's name. Our struggles in winning the race are well deserved, and we have no one else to blame for our handicaps in making it first to the finish line. At the same time, we ought not to be surprised, when we get there, to find among our company the lazy grasshoppers and the overconfident hares mercifully delivered to share the selfsame joys that we, the plodding and careful ants and tortoises, have painstakingly come to by unfailing effort.

Our Lord responds to this tension for us not by the articulation of a grand principle, but by speaking directly and personally to each of us who finds himself offended. After all, it was not to all of them that murmured that the householder had something to say. Some of them, receiving their reward, we must assume went away bitter and unanswered. However, in his mercy, the householder spoke to one of them. Where he was in his rights to leave unexplained his behavior, the householder still chose to show mercy to one of the murmurers, to reveal to him alone what he allowed to remain unexplained to the others. Friend, he says, drawing to him in love who did not yet rejoice in the householder's bounty. Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine and go thy way: O will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

In our lives we have already seen, and will continue to see what strikes us as an unfair distributions of God's favor. We will be tempted to murmur, to wonder what the point of our abstaining, our striving for mastery has been when even those who labored least share our same reward. In the face of this, let us not lose heart. What is at stake for us is not anyone else's reward, nor is it some leap in the dark for a reward unknown. We run, we struggle, we pursue the Christian life, not as a shot in the dark, not as a leap into the abyss, not as at an uncertainty. Rather, we run with all our strength to him who love would burst our very hearts were it not that he enlarged and strengthened them to bear his beauty. When we have come to him, for whom we pine and long and yearn in our every one of life's cravings, what room will there be in our hearts for bitterness at the others who share our company? When we rest in Christ's loving embrace, what thought will we have for how we have lived our lives during the race. Christ is all, and in possessing him, in being possessed by him, we will have more than we could ever ask.

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