The Ascesis that Prepares Us to Run To Win, No Matter our Starting Time, Septuagesima Sunday (EF), January 28, 2018

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Septuagesima Sunday
January 28, 2018
1 Cor 9:24-27.10:1-5, Mt 20:1-16


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided today’s homily: 

Preparing to Run So as to Win

Today the Church marks Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of the period of pre-Lenten preparation that tells us that Ash Wednesday is only 17 days away. It’s a time in which the Church seeks to prepare us for the ascesis or intense spiritual discipline of Lent. The priest, like in Lent, wears purple vestments. There is no Gloria or Alleluia. And the readings the Church gives us each year are meant to help us warm up for the spiritual battle that takes place during the quadragesima or 40 days when we join Jesus in the desert. Let’s look at the readings today in that key.

In today’s epistle, St. Paul speaks to us of the zeal we should have for living and sharing our faith. He had been explaining to the Corinthians that he had made himself “a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible,” that “to the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do,” he explained, “for the sake of the Gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.” That’s what led him to give the sports metaphors he presents to us today, indicating that if athletes can do so much to win individual or team championships — just think about how hard Olympians are preparing for next month’s games in South Korea, or the Eagles and the Patriots, even 40-year-old Tom Brady, are working to win Super Bowl 52, or how much 36-year-old Roger Federer trained and fought to win this morning’s 2018 Australian Open — how much harder ought we to be willing to pay the price to capture salvation or to help Christ’s team the Church win the salvation of the world. Basing himself on this sports analogy, St. Paul says, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” He went on to remind the Corinthians that so many Israelites had walked through the Red Sea with Moses, they ate the manna from heaven, they drank the water from the rock, and yet God was not pleased with most of them. Most of them were basically just along for the ride and they hadn’t changed, they weren’t transformed by faith and gratitude and hence they didn’t put worship of God and love of others first. St. Paul was someone who ran to win, who disciplined himself to be a disciple, who sought to train the first Christians not to be benchwarmers but Hall of Famers by seeking, likewise, to become all things to all people to save as many as possible. As we mark Septuagesima Sunday, it’s a call for us to be ambitious in the right way — to seek to be great, not mediocre — for God’s kingdom to come. It’s a summons for us, like a superstar athlete, to compete to win an imperishable wreath, not to shadow box but to fight for real, to do more spiritual exercises than a professional athlete does physical ones. Do we approach the faith with this type of purpose? With this type of interior resolve and courage? With this type of goal?

Are the last first? 

And yet in today’s Gospel Jesus seems to be suggesting the opposite. He seems to be saying that it doesn’t matter how hard we strive for his kingdom. Rather than seeking to be first, he tells us, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” He seems to be suggesting that no matter how hard we work for his kingdom under the brutal sun in his vineyards, we’ll get no advantage at all over those who, like the Good Thief, steal the prize at the end. Are Jesus’ words short-circuiting the apostle whose famous conversion the Church marked on Thursday? The answer is no, but in order to see why it’s no, we have to enter into the Parable and see what Jesus is affirming and what he’s not.

The blessing of work

Let’s first try to understand the parable. When we compare the men who worked twelve hours and those who worked for one, we think that the latter group had it better, especially since they all received the same pay. But this manifests the jaundiced view many of us have of human work, which certainly influences our reaction to Jesus’ story. Most of us have come to think about work as a curse rather than a great blessing, even though we know that God gave us the vocation to work — to “subdue the earth” and have “dominion” over all animals — before the Fall (Gen 1:28). Work is a part of our vocation, how God has us grow and develop. As we do honest work, we not only make something, but we make ourselves, we build our character, through the qualities we bring to our work. Moreover, if we understand the way work happened in the ancient world, we see that work really was a blessing. Men used to go to the market place in the morning hoping to be hired as day workers. They did all they could to be chosen, arriving with all their tools, running up to meet those who were hiring, selling themselves as hard-workers, much as men in our country did during the Great Depression and some people today still aggressively apply for jobs. In the ancient world, many men and their families were living on the semi-starvation line. To be unemployed for a day was to court disaster. If they were not picked at dawn, they would be filled with anxiety. If they were not picked later, at 9, they would have been concerned about letting their wife and children down. If they were not selected by noon, they would have begun to wonder what sandals and epithets their loved ones might hurl in their direction at their return! If they were not hired by three, they would have begun seriously to worry that their family, and especially their children, might go to bed ravenously hungry and malnourished. It’s not like those who were not hired would have been playing cards, smoking, drinking and people-watching passersby in the market place all day. Most of them would have been dying of apprehension. They easily would have traded in 11 hours of hard labor in the fields for the eleven hours of anxiety waiting in the square.

The blessing of the Covenant

These considerations bring us to the first application of the parable. Jesus was using this story to preach to the Jews about salvation. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had already been God’s chosen people since the age of Abraham, about 1800 years prior. For thirteen hundred years, they had been committed to keeping a covenant with God based on the faithful fulfillment of the Mosaic law. All of a sudden a carpenter from Nazareth, who was working all types of miraculous signs to back up the authority of his potent preaching, was saying that others were going to get the same “life’s wage” that they were. He said that the prostitutes, if they repented and accepted his Gospel, were going to receive the full pay of salvation. He said that tax collectors, hated by observant Jews for their complicity with the Romans, would receive the same if they accepted the Gospel like Zacchaeus or Matthew. Most shocking to their phylactery-covered ears was Jesus’ assertion that even the Gentiles would be saved. It just didn’t seem fair to them. Even though Jesus was stressing that his Jewish listeners, too, could be saved if they accepted the fulfillment of all God had been doing among them and embraced the Gospel he was proclaiming and enfleshing, many of his listeners were convinced the “system” was unjust. After all, weren’t those who had kept the Mosaic Law with such exactitude and rigor for thirteen hundred years entitled to something special? Did not they who had borne the greater “burdens” and “scorching heat” of the moral law from the dawn of their life have a right to something more than the Johnny-come-latelies — who up until that time had never kept the covenant or, in the case of the Gentiles, hadn’t even heard of it? The Lord’s generosity in freely offering salvation to others, like he would to the Good Thief on the Cross, was making them jealous.

Through this parable, Jesus was exposing a serious flaw in the way they looked at the Covenant with God and with the religious life in general. Just like sometimes we can view work as a burden rather than a blessing, so they looked at their keeping of the precepts of the Covenant more as a yoke than a grace. They failed to see that they had already received more than the others were being offered because of the great gift of having been able to walk in the Lord’s ways up until then. We Christians can often be guilty of the same flaw. We can be secretly jealous of those who have lived a wild and sinful life, but who, because of God’s mercy, converted before it was too late. We can behave like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who resents that the Father treats our profligate brothers and sisters with the same love with which he has treated us who have never disobeyed his commands in the same flagrant way. We can resent, as those who had worked all day did, that the Master is making others “equal to us” who have shouldered the weight of fidelity to the law all along. But this envy happens because our vision has become distorted. The expression the Master in the Parable says today, “Are you envious because I am generous?,” is a loose translation of the Greek St. Matthew employs, which says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The generosity of another, especially of God, makes us angry because we think that if we are to win, others must lose, that we can’t be happy and enjoy the fruits of our work unless others, especially the lazy bums who haven’t made the same choices we have, are unhappy. So the first lesson that the Lord wants us to take from this parable is that he in his mercy and generosity continues to call others into his vineyard to join those whom he called earlier. In this age Pope Francis has called a “Kairos of Mercy,” when Jesus’ heart is somoved with compassion for the crowds continues to ask us to pray to the Harvest Master for laborers for his fields, we are called to pray and rejoice when others respond, even if they respond at the last hour. We need to let people know, and ourselves takes seriously, how many job openings there still are in the vineyard of the world!

Are we truly laborers in the Lord’s vineyard? 

But there’s a second lesson from the parable that is at least as important. When many of us “cradle Catholics” hear this parable, we initially seem to relate to those hired at 6 am in the story, because we think we’ve been in the vineyard from the day of our baptism. But the Lord wants us — or at least many of us — to recognize that it’s more likely that we’re still in the market place! Many of us haven’t yet begun to work for his kingdom: we’re bodies in his vineyard, not laborers. We can sometimes think we’re carrying our weight by the simple fact we come to Mass, put something in the basket, say our prayers and avoid mortal sins. Or we think we’re doing heavy-lifting by the fact that we can easily point to many people who are barely lifting a finger; compared to them, we look industrious. But God wants us to each of us to become a real laborer, true hard worker, in and for his kingdom, and many of us haven’t yet worked up a sweat to bring others to salvation.

In the parable, we see how the Master, representing God, exhausts himself even in comparison to the workers who were hired first thing in the morning. Despite the fact that he had a foreman whom he could have sent to do the hiring, the Master himself goes out to hire at 6, 9, 12, 3 and 5. He was even willing to lose money to hire people at the end of the day, not only because he cared about taking in the harvest — which represents the ever urgent harvest of souls — but because he didn’t want anyone excluded from the work of and in his kingdom. Notice that he doesn’t give things out of charity to the people sitting idle in the marketplace. He gives them something to do. His question to those hired at 5 pm, “Why do you stand here idle all day?,” shows his passion that everyone come to his vineyard to work; after all, he had already come out four times that day to hire everyone who was present. Their response, “Because no one has hired us!,” shows in a sense how so much inactivity had led to a self-pity that had made unresponsive and irresponsible. Did they not realize that the Master of the Vineyard was hiring everyone? Even if they were in the ancient “out house” the first four times he was hiring, did they not grasp that everyone was being summoned to work in the fields? Many times we can say that the reason why we have never gotten involved is, “No one asked me.” With regard to the harvest, God never wants us to say that. He wants us to grasp that he is hiring all of us, that there’s room in the vineyard for everyone willing to work. He is counting on all our help. And he’s passionately and continuously coming out in search of all of us to summon us to labor with him for the salvation of the human race. The essential lesson of the parable is that to be in the Kingdom of God means to be working together with God and together with others, some who have entered the fields before us and some who have come after us. But there’s much work to do and God wants each of us doing much work and working as hard as Rudy to make the Notre Dame football team in the famous movie by that name. We see in the Parable that remaining idle on the sidelines when God’s hiring us all to do his work is not merely the worst of missed opportunities but a lack of the life God of the Kingdom God wants us to share. He wants us not only objectively to share in the work of the harvest, but he wants to form us as harvesters, because our life, like that of the day laborers in the marketplace, is purposeless unless we grasp that we’re hired and get down to work. Our failure to recognize and to respond to his call deprives us of this great good.

Getting to work

Today, as we mark Septuagesima Sunday and begin our preparations for the spiritual boot camp of Lent geared toward our thorough spiritual renewal, Jesus is look at each of us straight in the eye and saying, “You, too, go to work in my vineyard!” Today, he is saying to each of us, just like he shockingly said to Paul on the Road to Damascus, “You’re hired!” If we respond to the blessing of that calling, if we roll up our sleeves, and help him spread and strengthen the faith, then he will give us each not just a denarius, not just a full day’s wage, but the abundantly generous reward of eternal life. We don’t have to wait that long to see that generosity, however. This morning, before we engage in seeking to do his work through this upcoming week, he already gives us something far greater than a salary of a billion dollars. The reward he gives is the greatest expression of his generosity he could. He gives himself! As we prepare to receive him today, we thank him for never stopping to come to meet us in the marketplace to remind us of the work to which he’s calling us; we beg him to strengthen us on the inside to respond wholeheartedly to that summons; and we ask him for the grace that like St. Paul we may see that truly to live is to live in Christ, to fight the good fight and to finish the race as a champion by keeping the faith, living it, and spreading it, so that we may share his joy in bringing in a great harvest of souls to rejoice with him and with us forever. There’s much work to do and out of love for others and for us God is sending us to do it. No matter how long we’ve been in the race, let’s now resolve together to run so as to win and to help others pass the finish line triumphant as well!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

A reading from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.

The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew
At that time, Jesus said to his disciples this parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”