Many things need to be said in the explanation of this Gospel
reading, which I wish, if I can, to set out briefly, lest you be wearied
both by the long-drawn out procession, and by a too prolonged explanation.
The kingdom of heaven is like to a man, a householder, who hires labourers
to cultivate his vineyard. Who more truly resembles the householder than
Our Creator, Who rules the world He has made, and governs His elect in
this world, as a master cares for the subjects of his household? He too
possesses a vineyard, namely, the Universal Church, which, from the time
of just Abel until the last of the elect that shall be born at the end
of the world, has brought forth as many saints, as it has sent forth shoots.
This Householder therefore, in the morning early, at the third hour,
the sixth, the ninth, and the eleventh, hires labourers to till His Vineyard;
because from the beginning of this world until the end He ceases not to
gather together preachers to instruct the multitude of the faithful. For
the morning of the world was from Adam to Noah: the third hour from Noah
to Abraham: the sixth from Abraham to Moses: the ninth from Moses till
the Coming of the Lord: the eleventh from the Lord’s Coming till the end
of the world. In which last hour the holy Apostles were sent as preachers,
who, though they came late, yet received the full wage.
At no time therefore has the Lord failed to send workers to cultivate
His Vineyard, which is to say, they instruct His people; as from the beginning
by means of the Patriarchs, then the Doctors of the Law and the Prophets,
and lastly by means of the Apostles, He has attended to the care of His
Vineyard, when as it were by His labourers He has formed worthy dispositions
in His people. The workers of the early morning, and of the third hour,
the sixth, and the ninth, signify the ancient Jewish people, who, in their
elect have from the beginning of the world endeavoured to serve God in
true belief, and have not as it were ceased to labour in the cultivation
of the Vineyard. But at the eleventh hour the Gentiles were called, and
it is to them it was said: Why stand you here all the day idle?
They who during so long a period of time had neglected to labour for
their true life, have been standing all the day idle. But consider
what they answered when questioned: They say to him: because no man
hath hired us; since no Patriarch had come to them, and no Prophet.
What does this mean: No man hath hired us, if not, that no man hath preached
to us the way of true life? What excuse therefore shall we make for neglecting
to do good, who have come almost from our mother’s womb into the light
of faith, who have heard the words of life from our cradle, who together
with our mother’s milk have drunk in heavenly teaching from the breasts
of holy Church?
2. We may also see in these same varying hours the changing of the years
in the life of every man. For the morning is the childhood of our reason.
The third hour can be interpreted as adolescence, because while the heat
of youth increases, it is as though the sun mounts higher in the sky. The
sixth hour is young manhood, because as the sun is now as it were in its
zenith, so now is the full strength of manhood attained. Mature age is
signified by the ninth hour, in which the sun descends from its highest
point, because in that age man already declines from the heat of youth.
The eleventh hour is that time of life which is called senility or old
age; concerning which the Greeks are wont to describe those that are advanced
in years, not simply as old men, but as elders (presbyters), that
in this way they may show that they are more than old men who arc regarded
as advanced in years.
Because therefore one man is called to the good life in boyhood, another
in youth, another in manhood, another in later life, another in old age,
the labourers are as it were called at different hours to the Vineyard.
Therefore, dearly Beloved Brethren, look to your manner of living, and
see whether even now you are labourers of God. Let each one look to what
he is doing, and let him consider whether or not he labours in the Vineyard
of the Lord. For they who in this life seek the things that are their own,
have not yet entered the Lord’s Vineyard. For they work for the Lord who
think upon the Master’s gain and not upon their own; who serve Him with
eagerness of love and the fervour of devotion; who are watchful to gain
souls, and hasten to bring others with them to the true life. But he who
lives for himself, who feeds on the pleasures of his own flesh, is rightly
rebuked as idle, because he seeks not for the fruit of divine labour.
3. He that has failed till his latest years to live for God, has truly
been standing idle till the eleventh hour. Whence was it rightly said to
those who were inert till the eleventh hour: Why stand you all the day
idle? As if he said openly to them: And if you have been unwilling
to serve God in youth and in manhood, at least in your old age come to
your senses, and though it is late come yet to the ways of true life, since
little time is left you wherein to labour. And such as these, therefore,
the Householder calls to Him; and for the most part gives them their wage
earlier, since they go forth from the body to His Kingdom earlier than
those that appear to be called from their childhood. Did not the Good Thief
conic at the eleventh hour, though he came late, not through age but through
punishment, and he confessed God from the cross, and almost with the words
of his confession yielded up the breath of life. The Householder began
indeed from the last to pay the denarius that was due, for even
before Peter He leads the Thief into the repose of paradise.
How many Fathers were there before the Law, how many lived under the
Law, and yet without any delay they entered the Kingdom who were called
at the Coming of the Lord. They received who came at the eleventh hour
that same wage which they desired with all their heart who had laboured
from the first; because they who came to the Lord at the end of the world
received the wage of eternal life equally with those who were called from
the beginning of the world.
Because of this they who had preceded them in labour murmuring said:
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. They have
borne the burthen of the day and the heats, because they to whom it befell
to have lived from the beginning of the world, must also suffer more prolonged
trials of the flesh. For to each one to bear the burthen of the day amid
the heats means, to be wearied by the heats of his own flesh throughout
the days of a long life.
4. But you may ask how can it be said that they murmured who were called,
though at evening time, to enter the Kingdom? For no one who murmurs enters
the Kingdom, and no one murmurs who enters there. But because the Fathers,
however justly they lived until the Coming of Our Lord, were not brought
into the Kingdom until He had descended Who would open the gates of Paradise
by the intervention of His death, they it was who murmured, because they
had lived justly in order that they might enter the Kingdom, and yet they
suffered long delay before they entered the Kingdom. It was they who had
laboured in the Vineyard, and it was they who murmured, whom the abodes
of hell, however peaceful, had received after their just lives. It was
therefore, as it were after their murmuring, that they receive the denarius;
they who after the long ages of hell reached at length the joys of the
Kingdom. We however who have come at the eleventh hour, we murmur not after
our labour, and we also receive the denarius, because coming into
this world after the Coming of the Mediator, we are brought into the Kingdom
almost as soon as we depart from our body; and we receive without any delay
that which the ancient Fathers merited to receive after prolonged delay.
For which reason the Householder says: I will give to this last as
to thee. And since to enter heaven is due to the goodness of
His will, He rightly adds: Is it not lawful for me to do what I will?
Foolish is the questioning of man against the goodness of God. He should
not complain if He does not give what He owes not, but if He does not give
what is due. Whence He aptly questions: Is thy eye evil because I am
good? Let no one exalt himself because of his work, or because of his
time: for having completed the last sentence Truth then proclaims: So
shall the last be first, and the first last. For though we know what
or how much good we have done, we know not with what exactness the heavenly
judge will weigh it. And it is certain that every man must greatly rejoice
to be in the Kingdom of God at last.
5. But after these words, truly terrible is that which follows: For
many are called but few are chosen: because they are many that arrive
at faith, but few that are led into the heavenly kingdom. Behold how many
are here gathered for this day’s festival: we fill the church from wall
to wall, yet who knows how few they are who shall be numbered in that chosen
company of the elect? Behold the voices of all proclaim Christ, but the
lives of all do not proclaim Him. Amid many keep company with God in word,
but shun Him in deed. And it was with this in mind that Paul said: They
profess that they know God: but in their works they deny him (Tit.
i. 16). For this reason also James says: That faith without good works
is dead (Jas. ii. 20, 26). And says the Lord Himself by the mouth of
the psalmist: I have declared and I have spoken: they are multiplied
above numbers (Ps. xxxix. 6). At the call of the Lord the faithful
are multiplied without number, because not a few come also to faith who
do not belong to the elect. Here below they are mingled with the faithful,
through confession, but because of their reprobate way of life they shall
not merit to be partakers of the lot of the faithful. This sheepfold of
the Church receives young goats with the lambs; but, as the Gospel bears
witness, when the judge shall come, He shall separate the good from the
bad, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Mt. xxv. 32).
Nor can they who are here slaves to the pleasures of their bodies, be
there numbered in the flock of His sheep. There the judge shall separate
from the lot of the humble those that now exalt themselves upon the horns
of pride. Neither shall they receive a kingdom, who though formed in heavenly
faith, with all their hearts seek the things of earth.
6. And within the Church, dearest Brethren, you will see many such persons,
but you must neither imitate them, nor despair of them. What a man is today
you can see, but what each one will be tomorrow no man knows. Often he
that was seen to be behind us, has in his zeal in doing good conic to outstrip
us: amid he whom today we excel, tomorrow we may scarce follow. We know
indeed that while Stephen was dying for the faith, Saul held the garments
of those that stoned him. Therefore did he by the hands of those who stoned
also cast stones, since he encouraged them all to stone him. And yet this
same person, within the holy Church, surpassed in labours the one whom,
by persecuting him, he made a martyr.
Two things there are therefore upon which we should carefully reflect.
Because many are called and but few chosen, the first is: let no one presume
on his own salvation; for though he be called to faith, whether he is worthy
of the eternal kingdom he knows not. The second is: let no one presume
to despair of his neighbour, whom perhaps he sees lying in sin; for he
knows not the riches of the divine mercy.
7. I shall now, Brethren, relate to you something which has happened
recently, and if from your heart you look upon yourselves as sinners, you
will then love yet more the omnipotent mercy of God. In this very year,
in my monastery, which is situated close to the church of the blessed martyrs
John and Paul, a certain brother, turned to repentance, entered the monastery,
was devoutly accepted, and became himself yet more devoutly changed in
life. His brother followed him into the monastery: in the flesh, not in
the spirit. For though detesting the monastic dress, and the monastic life,
he remained in the monastery as a guest; and he was unable to discontinue
living there, though he shunned the life of the monks, because he had neither
occupation nor the means to live.
His evil conduct was a burthen to all; yet all endured him with patience
out of love for his brother. And though he knew not what followed after
this present life, yet, arrogant and uncertain, he scoffed if anyone wished
to instruct him in this. And so, flippant in speech, restless in movement,
empty in mind, disorderly in dress, dissipated in behaviour, he lived on
in the monastery, but in the dispositions of the world.
During the month of July last, he was stricken down in that epidemic
of the pestilence that you remember; and as he was approaching his end
he was urged to put his soul in order. The power of life now remained only
in his heart and in his tongue, his extremities were already dead. The
brethren stood by him, helping him in his end by their prayers, as far
as God permitted. Suddenly, beholding the demon coming to take possession
of him, he began to cry out in a loud voice, “Look, I am delivered over
to the dragon to be devoured; but he cannot devour me because of your presence.
Why do you delay me? Go away that he may finish me!”
And when the brethren exhorted him to sign himself with the sign of
the Cross, he answered as well as he was able: “I want to bless myself
but I cannot, because I am held fast by the dragon: my throat is held in
his jaws, and the foam of his mouth has smeared my face. Look! My arms
are imprisoned by him who has my head in his jaws!”
While he was saying this, trembling, pale, and dying, the brethren began
ever more earnestly to pray for him, to help by their intercession this
man here tormented by the presence of an evil spirit. Then of a sudden
he was delivered, and began to cry out aloud, “thanks be to God. See, he
has gone, he has fled: the dragon who already had me in his grip, has fled
before your prayers.” There and then he vowed to serve God, and to become
a monk; but from that moment until now he lies oppressed by fever and weakened
by pain. He was truly snatched from death, yet not fully restored to life.
For he is afflicted by tedious infirmities, and tormented with grievous
weakness: the severe fire of purification burning away the hardness of
his heart; for it has pleased divine Providence that prolonged illness
shall cleanse him of even more prolonged habits of evil-doing.
Who would have believed that this man would have been preserved and
converted? Who can fathom the so great depths of the mercy of God? An evil-living
young man sees in death the evil spirit he has served in life; nor did
he see him that being brought down he might lose his life, but that he
might learn who it was that held him in bondage, and knowing might resist
him, and resisting would overcome him; and he saw him by whom, unseen,
he was held a slave, that he might afterwards be free.
What tongue can speak of the bowels of the divine mercy? What soul is
not awed at the richness of the divine kindness? It was this treasure of
the divine mercy the psalmist had in mind when he said: Unto thee, O
my Helper, will I sing, for thou art God my defence; My God My mercy (Ps.
lviii. 18). Here reflecting on the labours of which man’s life is made
up, he calls God his helper. And because He lifts us out of present tribulation
into eternal peace, he calls Him also his defence. But remembering
that He sees our evil-doing, and suffers it in patience, that He is unmindful
of our offences, and with all this brings us through repentance to final
reward, he wished not to say that God was merciful, but called Him mercy
itself, saying: My God my mercy.
Let us keep before our minds the evil we have done: and let us think
of the great kindness with which we are suffered in patience; and let us
consider what are the deep sources of the mercy of God, that not alone
forgives our offences, but having forgiven our sins, promises an eternal
kingdom to those that repent of evil-doing. And from the depths of every
heart let us cry out, let us all together cry: My God my mercy,
Who livest and reignest, Three in One, and One in Three, for ever and ever.