The workers in the vineyard: sermon on Septuagesima Sunday 

“These last have worked one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us.”

The parables of our Lord are always too rich to admit of only one interpretation. The parable which we hear today, on the Sunday of Septuagesima, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, is first of all, according to many of the Fathers of the Church, a history of the world, narrated from the point of view of God Himself. According to this interpretation, the parable tells us of the different stages in what we call “the history of salvation”. The first hour marks the first age of the world. The first people whom God sent into His vineyard were our first parents, Adam and Eve. Their labour was easy, at first, but it soon became hard, since after their first sin, they no longer found it came naturally to them to do the will of God. But the labourers of this first hour, according to the Fathers, are all those who did faithfully accomplish God’s will during this first age of the world, from Adam until the time of Noah. St Augustine calls this period, “the childhood of the human race”, and he says that mankind has retained few memories of that time, just as we ourselves retain strangely few memories of our own childhood.

The third hour, according to this same interpretation, is the time from Noah onwards. Why is this a new stage in the history of salvation? God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants. We read about it in chapter nine of the book of Genesis. God told them how they were to please Him, and in turn He gave them the sign of the rainbow. This was a symbol of the Redeemer whom they had to wait for, since — like the rainbow — Christ unites heaven and earth. And the just men of that time also laboured in God’s vineyard, since He gave them grace sufficient to live in friendship with Himself, and to do good works, and thus to merit eternal life, in the fullness of time.

What shall we say of the sixth and the ninth hour? Following the same line of interpretation, we shall say that these represent the next two covenants which God made with certain chosen men, to prepare for the coming of His Son. First, there was the covenant with Abraham. If any man could say that he “bore the burden of the day and the heats”, it was surely our father Abraham: he was called to leave his relations when he was already a good age, and to wander homeless in Canaan and in Egypt, and then, when by a miracle he had received a son in his old age, to sacrifice him with heroic faith. God gave to Abraham the sign of circumcision, for himself and all his posterity, to show that a Saviour would one day arise from his descendants. And centuries after Abraham, at the ninth hour of the day, so to speak, came the covenant with Moses, made at Mount Sinai. “Go you also into my vineyard,” said God to the Jews,and I shall give you what is just.” For although some of the Jews were satisfied with earthly hopes — a long life in the land, and abundant harvests — others imitated the example of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they looked, as St Paul says, for “a better, that is to say, a heavenly country” (Heb 11:16). These too worked in the vineyard of the Lord, and merited the denarius, that is, eternal life. Yet, they were to receive it only in the fullness of time, not straightaway after their lives on earth. Thus, having listed many of the heroes of the Old Testament, and their exploits, St Paul concludes, “All these, being approved by the testimony of faith, received not the promise: God providing some better thing for us, that they should not be perfected without us.” (Heb 11:39–40)

“But about the eleventh hour, he went out and found others standing, and he saith to them: Why stand you here all the day idle?” Can we really say that the pagans had been standing idle all the day? Surely, the pagans had worked hard during many centuries — they had founded great empires, and written works of poetry and philosophy, and built roads and aqueducts and temples. Yet, in the sight of God, the gentiles were standing idle: their deeds, however impressive, sprang from nature and not from grace. They did not merit eternal life. It was only at the eleventh hour, when our Saviour came in person, and instituted the new and everlasting covenant, that the nations were sent into the vineyard. And such a plenitude of grace was poured upon the world, in honour of the passion of the Son of God, that many of the converted pagans surpassed in merit the faithful of earlier times. 

But what, finally, are the words that some of the saints of the Old Testament address to the steward (or the householder) of the vineyard? 

“When the first came, they thought that they should receive more: and they also received every man a penny. And receiving it, they murmured against the master of the house, saying: These last have worked one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, that have borne the burden of the day and the heats.”

In heaven, or on the day of judgement, will the saints of the first age complain to God? Will they hold a grudge against those who were saved after the coming of Christ? Surely not. I think that by these words, Christ represents the amazement of these early saints at the generosity of God; an amazement which would cause complaints and murmuring, if that were still possible to them. For they know how long they themselves had to work and wait for their reward: let us not forget how long human beings lived, according to Sacred Scripture, in the first age of the world, and then even after that, there were so many centuries to spend in the Limbo of the Fathers, that shadowy region which the Old Testament calls Sheol. They see, on the other hand, the saints of the New Testament live for only seventy or eighty years, or maybe much less, and then immediately after death, enter into paradise. How could they not be amazed at the difference between us and them? And how can it be explained, except by the generosity of the master of the vineyard, who has certainly the right to do what He wills, with what is His?

If we had time, I could tell you other interpretations of this parable. But I will simply say that none of us knows, in his own case, what hour of the day it is; none of us knows if perhaps we might be already at the eleventh hour of our own life. So, let us not delay our conversion, if we need to change our lives, but rather from now onward let us be generous toward Him whose generosity causes even the saints to marvel.