Texts: Matthew 20:1-16, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Today is Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of the traditional “pre-Lent” season. If your background is in the Anglican/Episcopal or Roman Catholic circles whose liturgies came after Vatican II, you may be scratching your head at these “gesima” Sundays. After all, folks are pretty familiar with the penitential season of Lent, but what on earth is “pre-Lent”? From before the early middle ages until the latter half of the 20th Century, all liturgical churches in the West had this pre-Lent season. Its removal from most modern calendars was indeed part of the liturgical reforms that resulted from the 19th and 20th century Liturgical Movement that culminated in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.
According to the 19th Century Oxford Father John Henry Blunt, we see the ancient “gesima” titles as early as the lectionary attributed the 5th century St. Jerome. The Latin names of these Sundays correspond to the approximate number of days (rounded up) before Easter: Septuagesima is a bit under 70 days before Easter, Sexagesima is a bit under 60 days before Easter, and Quinquagesima is just under 50 days before Easter. The name “Lent” comes from an Old English word for “Spring,” but in Latin the season is known as “Quadragesima,” a reference to the 40 days of Lent.
While liturgical scholars aren’t completely sure why the custom of pre-Lent came about, we do know that in the early Church there was a wide variety of local or regional custom with regard to counting the 40 days of Lent. Some folks prohibited fasting on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and thus needed to begin Lent earlier if they wanted to keep the 40-day fast. Other folks would fast on Saturdays, but not Sundays and Thursdays, and would thus begin Lent earlier than some folks, but later than the first group. Yet other folks would fast on Saturdays and Thursdays, but not Sundays, and thus would begin Lent later than both of these groups. And yet a fourth group would not fast on Sundays, but technically fasted less than 40 days, and thus began Lent latest of all! It’s likely that these pre-Lent Sundays are a holdover from that variety of starting days for the Lenten fast, even though the Western calendar was standardized in the late 6th century under the papacy of St. Gregory the Great.
The pre-Lenten season then ends up being something of a transition time between Epiphanytide and Lent. While we’re not yet into the Lenten fast, there is certainly a penitential tone to these three Sundays. We see this in the change from green to violet as the liturgical color [even though we would typically vest in white for the baptism, the Prayer-Book tells us that the “gesima” Sundays take precedence over other feast days, so we still vested today in violet]. We see this in the widespread omission of the “Alleluia” responses and the Gloria in Excelsis in the liturgy. At Matins most folks will not sing the joyful Te Deum canticle but will rather use one of the two alternates. And many folks will begin to add the Great Litany to the Daily Offices more frequently at this time. Perhaps the most obvious witness to the penitential character is the Collects for these Sundays. Consider, for example, today’s Collect, found on page 118 in your Prayer Book:
O Lord, we beseech thee favorably to hear the prayers of thy people, that we, who are justly punished for our offenses, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lliveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Here we see the two key elements of repentance: 1) acknowledgement of our sin and the fact that we deserve to be punished for them; and 2) trust in God’s goodness and mercy in delivering us from our sin. Sometimes the older forms of our liturgy are criticized for being overly focused on our sin. Isn’t that focus too negative? What about God’s mercy? Well, the classical Prayer Book recognizes that we won’t truly understand God’s mercy and goodness if we don’t understand our sin. To see how truly amazingly good God is, we have to understand that we don’t deserve his mercy. We have nothing to bring to the table, but what God has given us. As we often say at the offering, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Any goodness or righteousness we have is a gift from God, and only comes about through Christ’s perfect goodness and righteousness. We deserve death and hell, but God has chosen to give us mercy instead.
Our Gospel passage from Matthew 20 illustrates this theme well. Our Gospel passage is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. We see the householder hiring workers in his vineyard at the beginning of the day, at midmorning, at midday, in the afternoon, and finally at the end of the day. And in his generosity, he gave those who came later the same full-day’s wage. The work in his vineyard was so important to the the householder, that he dished out the payment with extravagant grace. It isn’t what we’d generally consider good business sense, or even fair! And the Gospel is like that. God’s grace is extravagant, it doesn’t make sense from a human perspective, and it really isn’t fair. If you want fairness, look to the Buddhist and Hindu idea of Karma. That’s where everyone gets exactly what they deserve. But the Gospel isn’t like that at all. In the Gospel, God’s grace lavishes upon us goodness that we would never deserve.
This wonderful unfairness is, of course, the problem in the eyes of the early workers in our parable. Even though they agreed to work for the standard day’s wage, they figured they deserved even more since the householder was being so generous. Do you see the problem in the thinking? The words “generosity” and “deserve” don’t go together. And what is the master’s response to their grumbling? Look at verse 13:
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
This last big about begrudging the master’s generosity is more literally translated from the Greek idiom in the King James Version, as found in the Prayer Book: “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” The “evil eye” in the New Testament is a metaphor for covetousness and greed. When we covet, our perspective is perverted, our eye becomes evil. We are unable to see God’s goodness because we’re too focused on what we think we deserve. We are unable to see the blessings around us because we’re so focused on what our flesh wants.
One of the most dangerous things about greed and covetousness is that they’re so very sneaky. When your eye becomes evil, part of that evil is that you can’t see its wickedness! Most folks can’t tell when they’ve become greedy or covetous! Friend-of-the-Parish, Fr. Jerry, once told us that in over 30 years of ministry, he’d never have someone come to confession admitting they’ve been greedy! And how easy it is to get caught spending hours surfing the internet, reading reviews and looking at pictures for that one last thing you’ve convinced yourself you need to be truly happy? I catch myself doing that sort of thing all the time. I’m reminded of the old Veggie Tales episode where Madam Blueberry is introduced to the megastore, Stuff-Mart. Bob the tomato asks Larry the Cucumber how much stuff he needs to be happy. Larry replies, “I don’t know. How much stuff is there?”
Part of the reason we’re to fast in Lent is to submit the flesh to godly self-discipline. The fleshly desires that are behind most of our vices, including greed, like to be in the driver’s seat in our lives. But Christians are called to walk in the spirit, not in the flesh. And one of the fruits of the spirit is self-control.
Christian discipline is the major unifying theme of the Scripture readings in the “gesima” Sundays. We see this in our epistle reading quite clearly. 1 Corinthians 9:24 (page 119 in the Prayer Book):
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a parishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Like many preachers, St. Paul is giving us a sports-themed sermon illustration, or rather two illustrations: a runner and a fighter. Oxford father Melville Scott gives us two ways the Christian life is like a race and two ways it’s like a wrestling or boxing match.
The Christian life is like a race in that it looks forward to a prize. The prize drives us forward in our running. St. Paul said we are not to be aimless, but always heading toward the prize of eternal life. This puts our priorities straight, it keeps our eyes on the Lord and his promises.
The Christian life is also like a race in that it demands continuous effort. Our race is a long one, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Indeed, our race lasts our whole life. We must persevere in the faith, we must be wise and steady, taking the long view and not settling for immediate gratification.
And the Christian life is like a prize fight. We fight against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. We pursue holiness and combat evil, chiefly the evil we see in ourselves. The focus in this metaphor is less the length of the struggle, and more the severity of it. Scott writes:
The Christian must not only run patiently, but fight desperately, with strong and stern determination, with straining effort, with concentrated exertion, with wakeful and vigilant watching for opportunity. Let the spiritual wrestler learn his lesson from the bodily wrestler, and not shrink from the stress of conflict, for no bodily wrestling with flesh and blood is like this wrestling for severity.
Like a prize fighter, the Christian also needs to be effective in landing his blows. It’s not WWE where we’re putting on a show! It’s not shadow-boxing. It’s a true fight. Satan is to be beaten off. Sin is to be bruised. Our enemy knows our weakness, and we must therefore fight wisely.
The “gesima” Sundays are a good opportunity for self-examination so that we can see where the fight must take place in our lives. We should use these weeks to prayerfully go before the Lord and his Word, that its light might shine in the dark places of our souls and we can fight strategically come Lent. By all means partake in the traditional fast from certain foods this Lent. But more importantly, prayerfully examine yourself and your life to see what are the things that start the ball rolling toward sin. Fight strategically. Race for the prize. Be willing to run and train for that marathon.
It may seem that our Gospel’s focus on God’s grace is a bit at odds with the idea of running for the prize. But remember that it is by God’s grace that we get to run and fight. If you ever watch children, they run everywhere. They set up races for everything. Why? Because as much as running is hard work, it’s also very pleasurable. We adults often forget that, especially if we’ve become sedentary. But as our bodies get used to movement again, the better we feel, both physically and psychologically. The Spiritual race is the same way. Christian discipline my sound overly difficult or terrible to our flesh. But the benefits really do show the goodness of God in our lives. As our Collect said, his mercy is for our deliverance and his glory. May our upcoming Lent and “Pre-Lent” see that goodness first hand.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.