Septuagesima Sunday: Pope St Gregory the Great’s Homily on Matt 20:1-16
Posted by Dim Bulb on February 19, 2011
I. This Gospel containing many things which need explaining, I will try as far as possible to shorten my explanation, that it may not become tedious to you. The kingdom of heaven, so we are told by our Lord, is like to a householder, who went out early in the morning to hive labourers into his vineyard. Who, indeed, is more justly to be likened to a householder than our Creator, Who is the Head of the household of faith, ruling over those He has made, and being Master of His chosen ones in the world, as a master of those in his house? He it is that has the Church as His vineyard, a vineyard that ceases not to bring forth branches of the true Vine, from just Abel to the last of the elect that shall be born in the world. This householder, then, for the cultivation of his vineyard, goes out early in the morning, and at the third hour, the sixth, the ninth, and the eleventh, to hire labourers into his vineyard. Thus the Lord, from the beginning to the end of the world, never ceases to gather together preachers for the instruction of His faithful people. The early morning of the world was from Adam until Noah; the third hour from Noah until Abraham; the sixth from Abraham until Moses; the ninth from Moses until the coming of the Lord; the eleventh from the coming of the Lord to the end of the world. At this eleventh hour were sent forth as preachers the Apostles, who received full wages, though they came in late. For the cultivation of His vineyard that is, the instruction of His people, the Lord has never ceased to send labourers into it. First by the patriarchs, then by the prophets and teachers of the law, and lastly by the Apostles, He dressed and tended the lives of His people, as the owner of a vineyard dresses and tends it by means of workmen. Whoever, in whatever degree, joined to a right faith the teaching of justice, was so far one of God’s labourers in God s vineyard. By the labourers at early morning, at the third, the sixth, and the ninth hour, may be understood God’s ancient people, the Hebrews, who, striving to worship Him with a right faith, in company with His chosen ones from the beginning of the world, continually laboured in His vineyard. And now, at the eleventh hour, it was said to the Gentiles: Why stand you here all the day idle? The Lord speaks of their carelessness and indifference concerning their salvation, for they had not yet done anything to be assured of it; yet, if you ponder upon their answer to the householder sending them to his vineyard, you will have cause of being ashamed. Their answer to the householder’s question, why they stood all the day idle, was: Because no man hath hired us. Indeed, they, unlike others, had neither patriarchs nor prophets to instruct them. No one had hired them, for no one had shown them the way leading to salvation. As to us, who neglect the practice of good works, and lead an idle life, what shall we answer for our justification? For we received the true faith, so to speak, in the womb of our mother; we heard the words of life when still in the cradle, and we drank the milk of Christian doctrine, given by our holy Church at the time when, for the life of our bodies, we were sucking the breasts of our natural mothers.
II. The different hours of the parable may also be compared to the different periods of man s life. Childhood, on account of the small sphere of knowledge, is the early hour of morning; youth may be compared to the third hour, when the sun rises and the heat of years increases; the sixth hour represents manhood, the virility, when the sun has reached the zenith of his course; by the ninth hour, showing the sun slowly retreating from his height, we recognise the elderly age of man, when he loses the strength and power of younger years; whereas old age is figured by the eleventh hour.
Now, consider how some are called, already in their childhood, to lead a perfect and holy life ; others in their youth; these in their manly age; some others in advanced years; and lastly others in their old age. Do you understand that all of us are labourers, who may at any time be sent into the vineyard of the Lord? Again, beloved brethren, consider your own lives, and ask yourselves whether you are worthy labourers of the Lord, whether you are mindful of the work you are doing, and lastly whether you labour indeed in the Lord’s vineyard. Be sure that those who work for their own interests only, have not entered the vineyard of the Lord; for those
only are accounted as His labourers, who prefer the glory of God to their own profit and interest. Such worthy Christians endeavour to serve God with ardent love and sincere devotion; they strive to win souls to God, and exert themselves to take others along with them to the habitation of the Saints; whereas those who live for themselves and try to satisfy their vices and concupiscences, are condemned as idle labourers, making no effort to work in, or care for, the Lord s vineyard.
III. What shall we say of those who put off their conversion to the end of their life? Are they not like those labourers standing in the market-place until the eleventh hour, to whom the householder said: Why stand you here all the day idle? Our Saviour wishes them to understand that, having spent their childhood and youth in the service of the world and far from God, they are called upon to begin to turn to God, at least, now at the extreme limits of life, and with greater courage to walk on the road of justice, that leads to perfection and eternal life; for the work they are bid to do cannot last very long, since they came so late. Thus this good Householder invites them to come back to Him, and often rewards them before those who had been called from their childhood, since very often the last comers are called away the first. Remember the good Thief (Luke 23). He came at the eleventh hour; but by the capital punishment he suffered, he obtained a reward certainly not deserved by his former sinful life. He recognised Jesus to be the Redeemer of the world, confessed Him publicly, and almost at the same moment gave up the ghost. We see thereby that the Householder, giving the promised penny, began with the last; for the good Thief was received into Paradise before St. Peter. The same happened to many good and pious souls living before the Law and under the Law. They had to wait for their reward, whilst those called after the coming of the Messiah, at once went to Paradise. We may also say, in all truth, that the same reward that is, a penny, was given to them that had worked one hour only, as to the others who had been working the whole day and had borne the burden of the day and the heats. For the eternal happiness, that reward given to them that worked well, will be common to all of them, both to those who came at the beginning and to those who arrived with the Redeemer. This very equality was the cause of complaints: These last have worked but one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us that have borne the burden of the day and the heats. Indeed, the first comers can say that they have borne the burden of the day and the heats, since their life was longer than ours. They came at the beginning, when the life of man was very long, and they had to fight against their own self for many years. We also feel in us the fire of concupiscence, against which we contend, and which we try to extinguish; and this continual fighting may be compared to the burden of the day and the heats.
IV. Besides all this, I ask, what is the meaning of the murmurs of those who received the reward in heaven very late? Also in what sense can we say that they murmured, since heaven will not be given to those who murmur, and since those who have entered heaven neither murmur nor complain? I answer: If I consider that the patriarchs, though leading a good and holy life, could not enter Paradise before the coming of the Son of God, Who by His death reopened the gates of heaven, we find therein, that is, in the delay preventing them to receive the reward for which they worked so hard, the
real motive of their murmuring. After fighting for justice sake, and thus deserving the crown of glory, their souls went to limbo, a place of rest and peace. To them, therefore, we may attribute the murmurs of the labourers after their day s work. However, after this presupposed murmuring, the souls of the just, leaving their prison, that is limbo, wherein they had been detained for a long time, receive the promised penny, namely, the happiness of the eternal kingdom, of which they take possession. As to us who, though arriving at the end of the day, receive a penny, we do not murmur like those who arrived the first. Since the coming of the Redeemer
into this world, we enter into the kingdom of heaven as soon as we leave this life, and we receive without any delay the crown of glory granted to the patriarchs after their very long waiting (see note below). On this occasion the master of the house said to one of the labourers: I will also give to this last even as to thee. And, as the place in heaven assigned to a soul is an effect of His generous will, He adds: Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? It would be man s greatest folly to criticise the manner in which God s goodness deigns to act. Indeed, we could murmur against God, were He to refuse that which He is bound to give, but not when He refuses to grant what He is not in justice obliged to give. He, therefore, that murmurs, deserves this rebuke: Is thy eye evil because I am good? Hence we conclude that nobody is to boast of his work or of the time spent in doing it, for the Eternal Truth tells us: The last shall be first, and the first last. Though we be aware of our good works, we know not how strictly they will be scrutinized by the great Judge; yea, each of us ought to feel exceedingly happy to receive even the last place in the kingdom of God.
NOTE: It would be a mistake to infer from these words that St. Gregory did not believe in Purgatory. Their meaning is that a soul, leaving the body and having nothing to atone for, will be at once received into Paradise, unlike the just souls of the patriarchs which, before the coming of Christ, descended into limbo.
V. The following words of this Gospel, many are called, but few are chosen, cannot but inspire us with terror; for many receive the light of faith, but to a few only is granted the happiness of heaven. On account of the festival there are now a great many gathered together here, and there is hardly room for all within the walls of this temple. Yet, who can tell how many of them will one day be found among the number of the elect? All voices are loud in confessing Jesus, but the lives of those who confess Him do not agree with their exterior acts of faith. The greater number of those here present think it sufficient to follow Jesus in words, whilst by their acts they
are separated from Him. St. Paul points them out to us, saying: They profess that they know God, but in their works they deny Him (Titus 1:16). This is confirmed by St. James: Faith without works is dead (James 2:26). And the Psalmist repeats the words of God: I have declared and I have spoken; they are multiplied above number (Ps 40:6). By these words we understand that, when the Lord calls men through His prophets, the number of believers greatly increases. However, not all those who by the gift of faith obtain the knowledge of the truth will be numbered among the elect. It is certain that when a great number of wicked Christians are gathered together with true servants of God, because of the same faith that they profess, they nevertheless do not deserve to be numbered with the faithful on account of their unchristian lives. For it cannot be denied that, though the holy Church includes in the same fold the sheep and the goats, the
Eternal Judge will one day separate the just from the wicked, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:32). Know ye, therefore, and recognise that none of those now given up to the pleasures of the world will be received among the elect; that the Judge will exclude them from the happy fate of the humble, since in this world they were lifted up on the wings of pride. They had received the gift of heavenly faith, but they clung to the earth, and heaven will not be opened to them.
VI. Meanwhile, though a great many people, whose lives are unchristian, may be found in the Church of God, I beseech you, beloved brethren, neither to imitate them nor to think them to be lost. We are aware of the
unhappy condition of these people to-day, but we know not what they will be to-morrow. It often happens that those whom we see behind us on the road to holiness, soon precede us on account of their progress in spirituality; then it is with great difficulty that we follow those whom at some time we seemed to precede. When St. Stephen shed his blood for Christ, his murderers laid their garments at the feet of a young man whose name was Saul (Acts 7:57), and who may be accused of having also stoned St. Stephen by assisting the murderers; yet, by his great labours undertaken for the Church, Saul has gone before the holy martyr, to whose death he contributed. Let us, therefore, consider these two things greatly deserving our attention. First, knowing that many are called but few are chosen, no one can help himself without the grace of God, and, though being called by faith, no one is sure of his eternal salvation. Secondly, when we see our neighbour in the clutches of sin and vice, let us not presumptuously think that he will be lost, for God s infinite mercy is unknown to us.