For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went.
Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.
And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
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?”
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
Ambrose, On Repentance, II.1.2,5
For repentance must be taken in hand not only anxiously, but also quickly, lest perchance that father of the house in the Gospel who planted a fig-tree in his vineyard should come and seek fruit on it, and finding none, say to the vine-dresser: “Cut it down, why doth it cumber the ground?”
Let us then not be ashamed to confess our sins unto the Lord. Shame indeed there is when each makes known his sins, but that shame, as it were, ploughs his land, removes the ever-recurring brambles, prunes the thorns, and gives life to the fruits which he believed were dead. Follow him who, by diligently ploughing his field, sought for eternal fruit: “Being reviled we bless, being persecuted we endure, being defamed we entreat, we are made as the offscouring of the world.” If you plough after this fashion you will sow spiritual seed. Plough that you may get rid of sin and gain fruit. He ploughed so as to destroy in himself the last tendency to persecution. What more could Christ give to lead us on to the pursuit of perfection, than to convert and then give us for a teacher one who was a persecutor?
The life of St. Mary of Egypt is the embodiment of the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 20. The story goes that Mary ran away from her parents when she hit puberty in order to pursue a life of decadent sensual pleasure. For seventeen years, she lived as a “prostitute.” I put that in quotes, because she supposedly refused to ask for compensation for her services. She begged to make a living and offered up her body purely for the joy of it. When she encountered a group of pilgrims going to Jerusalem, she joined them on their journey and planned to seduce them for sport. When the group arrived in Jerusalem, an invisible force prevented Mary from following the men into the church. She tried three times, but could not enter the church to venerate the True Cross. This event inspired a profound conversion in her, and she spent the last forty seven years of her life as an ascetic trying to conquer the passions.
Characters like Mary, or like Paul, ought to give us hope. After all, there are few among us so depraved that we can number among our past sins joining a pilgrimage for the purpose of seducing holy men. Fewer still will find any analogy to Paul and his vigorous attempts to exterminate the Christian religion by force. Like workers who have spoiled away most of the day, we can look to these great pillars of faith and know that God is more concerned that we make it to Him than with how long it took to get there.
At the same time, such figures ought to both convict and inspire us. After all, while few of us have been so evil as Mary or Paul, fewer still have been so righteous. We are not great evangelists or great ascetics, and I am not suggesting that we need to be. There are, however, expectations on us as we come to God. If we are called to labor in a vineyard, simply coming will not merit us our wages. We must work in the time that we have. We cannot be, as Ambrose notes, trees which do not bear fruit.
As Lent draws to a close, let us confess and repent of all the times when we have fallen short of the ideals we hoped to exemplify when we set upon this fast so many weeks ago. Then we can find peace in the hope that the loving arms of God are not closed to us, even now.
Our Father, who art in heaven, remit and forgive our debts, for Thou alone art compassionate.