Sermon for Septuagesima

“Go ye also into the vineyard”

In the western imagination, perhaps nothing speaks more profoundly to the idea of civilisation and culture than vineyards. In a way, they epitomise our humanity’s proper relationship to nature and to the theme of cultivation and learning. Scripturally speaking vineyards, too, are an important image about our relationship with God.

The older classical and catholic patterns of reading the Scriptures in the course of the year are intentionally instructive. With the older “Gesima” Sundays, there is a turn towards the human soul. They mark the beginnings of a kind of inwardness that has very much to do with the classical traditions of moral philosophy. The “Gesima” Sundays provide a catechism, an instruction, about the virtues. The virtues are the qualities of excellence belonging to the ancient Greek and Roman understanding of the good of human personality but which undergo a kind of sea-change, transformed by the three Christian ‘graces’ of faith, hope and love.

In the imagery of the “Gesima” Sundays, the Gospel readings from Matthew and Luke locate our humanity first, in a vineyard, secondly, on the ground, and thirdly, on the road to Jerusalem. Viewed in conjunction with the Epistle readings from 1st and 2nd Corinthians, they comprise a short treatise on the virtues of temperance and justice today in the Epistle and Gospel respectively, the virtues of courage and prudence on Sexagesima Sunday, and through the Epistle and Gospel of Quinquagesima Sunday, the realisation of their transformation into forms of love through the theological virtues of “faith, hope, and charity” or love which is the basis of the Christian pilgrimage of life concentrated for us in the season of Lent.

The Latin terms Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima are, I suppose, a bit intimidating and a bit of a mouthful, but they are easily explained. These three Sundays orient us towards Easter, marking the week of the seventieth day, the sixtieth day, and fiftieth day before Easter, for which the Quadragesima, meaning the forty days of Lent, prepare us. The terms reflect in part some of the history of the development of the forty days of Lent in terms of the number of days allowed in each week as a break from the rigour of the Lenten fast. They are simply the three pre-Lenten Sundays which prepare us inwardly for the Lenten pilgrimage by recalling us to the virtues as the active principles that belong to the Christian journey of faith. Critical to this instruction is the recognition that by themselves, as Augustine memorably put it, the virtues are but splendid vices, meaning that the journey of the soul to God cannot be undertaken simply by us alone but only by way of Christ in us; in short, by grace perfecting nature, by the virtues transformed into the forms of love. The point is that something is required of us; we are not simply passive beings, mere automatons, if you will.

As we have seen throughout the Epiphany, God engages our humanity from within the conditions of our fallen and broken world, making himself and his will for us known to us in Jesus Christ. Now with the “Gesimas,” we turn to the operations of divine grace at work in us in terms of the virtues transformed by love.

The four classical or cardinal virtues, as they are sometimes called, emerge out of the poetic and philosophical traditions of ancient Greece. They have their counterpart in other religious and philosophical traditions as well. They provide an important way of thinking about human personality and character that provide at once a counter and a corrective to the contemporary therapeutic culture. Temperance is about self-mastery, nicely and clearly captured in today’s Epistle reading about “keep[ing] under my body, and bring[ing] it into subjection.” Temperance concerns the mastery of ourselves bodily which is a spiritual concern. It is about the control of our appetites and desires for food, for drink, for sex. Think how powerfully such a concept speaks to our world of addictions, how powerfully it recalls us to a kind of dignity, respect and responsibility for ourselves, to a form of responsible self-care.

Courage speaks to our hearts, to the spirited aspect of our being. Courage or fortitude is about how we face the trials and tribulations in our world and day; wonderfully, if not rather frighteningly, seen in Paul’s account of his experiences as an Apostle of Christ in the Epistle for Sexagesima Sunday. Prudence speaks to our minds, to the exercise of a kind of practical wisdom signaled in the Gospel for Sexagesima Sunday about the nature of our labours in the world. What kind of ground is our soul? This is part of the parable of the sower and the seed which in Luke’s handling turns on the application of ground to us, asking us what kind of ground we are in relation to the sowing of the divine word.

Temperance speaks to the body, courage to the heart, and prudence to the mind; in short, to a philosophical or theological anthropology, a way of understanding human personality. But the fourth virtue is the greatest of them all and the one which connects most profoundly to the greatest of the three theological virtues of “faith, hope and charity” of which love or charity is said to be “the greatest of these” in the Quinquagesima epistle reading. The greatest of the classical or cardinal virtues is justice. In the Christian tradition of reworking the virtues in the light of God’s engagement with our humanity in Christ, justice becomes love. The divine love which seeks the good or the perfection of our humanity does not destroy the natural virtues but perfects them.

“Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it,” to use a famous phrase derived from Aquinas. This is the underlying theology of the “Gesima” Sundays. The virtue of justice is what is presented to us in today’s Gospel about our labours in the vineyard. The vineyard is itself an image of God’s creation and as such reminds us that we labour and can only labour according to the divine will in creation. In the midst of creation we are recalled to the Creator and to his will. Divine justice cannot be reduced to human justice; it is always more and greater.

In the Gospel, those who have “borne the burden and the heat of the day,” are paid the same as those who “have worked but one hour”. For us that seems manifestly unfair but the point of the Gospel is about the mercy and the justice of God towards all. It is really about our life in God which cannot be reduced to our labours whether long or short even as our labour depends entirely upon the divine will. In challenging the presumptions of human justice, we are opened out to the perfections of divine love and justice, a justice which seeks the good of all. Without that we are condemned to our own righteousness and judgmentalism towards one another and to a world of radical inequalities.

Isaiah uses the vineyard image to speak about God’s relation to Israel and by extension to our humanity. “Let me sing for my beloved a love song,” Isaiah begins, identifying God as the beloved, the one who is to be loved by our humanity. It is “a love song concerning his vineyard,” the vineyard of the beloved, creation as God’s vineyard.

“My beloved had a vineyard,” a vineyard in which he labours, “digg[ing] it and clear[ing] it of stones, plant[ing] it with choice vines,” guarding it with “a watchtower in its midst,” and “look[ing] for it to yield grapes,” looking for the good fruit of the vineyard. “But it yielded wild grapes,” the exact opposite! Such is a profound commentary on the story of the Fall and a profound image of our relationship to God’s will. Isaiah’s poem imagines God interrogating “the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the men of Judah” about their actions, calling them to account, confronting them with their deeds. “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” Isaiah imagines God saying to us. “When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” The question convicts us of our misuse and folly. The poem makes explicit that the vineyard is us. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” We are the vineyard of the Lord and as such are called to account, called to truth and justice about our labour. “The men of Judah are his pleasant planting,” Isaiah sings and states explicitly what God seeks from us. “He looked for justice”. God seeks justice. Our highest good is found in the justice of God and not in ourselves. His justice is his love for us.

In a poignant phrase, Isaiah captures the human condition which the “Gesima” Sundays address. “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” The poem goes on to decry the various forms of man’s injustice towards his fellow man. The imagery is about how we turn the vineyard of creation into a desolate wilderness. Such is sin and folly; themselves a betrayal of the good of our own creation.

Thus the “Gesima” Sundays are set within the grand pageants of creation and redemption. They recall us and teach us about the good of our humanity as found in Christ through the redemption of the classical virtues by divine love. “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder”; God as the beloved who seeks for his vineyard to bring forth good grapes. It is the vocation of our lives as lived to and for God, at his will and in his love and mercy. His love and mercy are what is good for us; “whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive” by definition. That it cannot be reduced to a finite calculus is all to the point. God seeks something more and greater for us. It is found through our faithful labours in the vineyard of creation according to his will and pleasure. Only so can we be “his pleasant planting”. Our good is found in his will for us. Our freedom is found in our going into the vineyard.

“Go ye also into the vineyard”

Fr. David Curry
Septuagesima Sunday
January 28th, 2018

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