In ancient times, this was the Sunday when adult converts were enrolled for Baptismal instruction. Easter itself was the occasion for Baptism; Lent was primarily a period of instruction. That bit of background sheds light on the Epistle and Gospel appointed for this “Third Sunday before Lent.”
In today's readings we have the Christian life compared to (1) running a race, (2) toiling in a vineyard, and (3) receiving a reward. C. S. Lewis has written in The Screwtape Letters of the “Law of Undulation” in the spiritual life. At times the life of faith is like running a race, but mostly it is just toiling in a hot vineyard. But to concentrate on the reward, the parable makes it quite clear that the reward which God bestows on the Christian is absolutely a matter of His sovereign grace. The householder is not in the least reluctant to appear inconsistent, arbitrary, even unfair. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?” The whining complaints of those who have labored the entire day miss the point that the householder is, above all, generous. He has graciously made a place in his vineyard for the laggards who have wasted the day in the market-place.
The whole idea of grace has all too often been trivialized into a tawdry secular notion of “unconditional love.” That understanding of grace (really a misunderstanding) would rewrite the parable to say that the householder forgets his vineyard, joins the laggards in the market-place, and at the end of the day divides his entire fortune with them. A false gospel which promises everything and requires nothing will quickly have a large audience; churches which proclaim such a message will always have full parking lots.
In today's Epistle we hear one of St. Paul's most solemn statements: “lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” Those are words which must make us stop and think! The great apostle himself seems to contemplate a possibility of losing his own soul. That was the real danger, not just for those left behind in the market-place (how many were there whom the householder did not invite?), but even for those who “have borne the burden and heat of the day.” Those whining ingrates are the Biblical paradigm for zealous Churchmen who never learn the Good News of Unmerited Grace.
As we approach Lent with its blessings and its demands, the Householder Himself comes to us, inviting us to leave the market-place of our spiritual sloth and come into His vineyard. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Are you one of the many or the few? LKW
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From ancient times a parable has been defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus commonly taught by means of such stories. The parables always seem simple because they use familiar and ordinary things, such as vineyards and wages, employers and employees, hard work and idleness. But the “heavenly meaning” is usually elusive. The parables make sense only to those having minds renewed by the Holy Spirit. To non-Christians, they make no sense at all.
To unpack the parable in today's Gospel, we have here a series of symbols. The men of the market-place are lost mankind. The householder who invites them to labor in his vineyard is God, merciful and generous. The vineyard itself is God's kingdom, clearly set apart and distinct from the market-place. The repeated invitation into the vineyard, given early in the morning, again at the third hour, the sixth hour, even at the ninth and eleventh hours, reflects the persistence of God in His incessant offer of the Gospel. The pay-out of wages at the end of the day points to the last judgment. And the wage itself?
At this point we seem to run into trouble. It all seems so very unfair. Anyone familiar with common business practices in ancient times or now will immediately understand the point of the objection, “These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.”
This parable, centering around this complaint, is all about God's sovereign grace, His unmerited love, His baffling generosity. Tragically we have attempted to domesticate and subdue that Gospel with the silly notion that “God helps those who help themselves,” that He simply makes us an offer and awaits our cooperation. The most dangerous substitute for the Gospel is the devil's lie that God wants us to do our best and when we fail He will somehow step in and help us out.
Grace, symbolized in the wages paid to the eleventh hour workers, will forever be illogical, senseless, unfair to the unregenerate mind. That is why the hymn-writers so frequently describe grace as “amazing.”
The griping ingrates who complain against the householder feel that somehow they have been cheated or ill-treated. What escapes them is that the householder is generous to all, at no loss to them, but only at great expense to himself. That is the price paid for us on the Cross. That infinite price entitles the householder to say, “Many be called but few chosen.” May He never say to us, “Take that thine is, and go thy way,” for that is the way which leads to perdition. LKW