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Perseverance Found in Humility.
by Isaac Williams

from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days

throughout the Year, Vol. I. Advent to Whitsuntide 

Rivingtons, London, 1875 [New Edition.]
Second part of Sermon XVIII. for the Sunday called Septuagesima.
 I Cor. ix 24.    St. Matt. xx. 1-16.

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.--

ST.  MATT.  xix. 30.


THIS memorable saying of our Lord’s occurs both before and after the parable which forms the Gospel for to-day; and seems, therefore, to furnish us with a key to the purport of that parable.  It meets, also, with a singular illustration in the Epistle, which affords, us a short account of one who was last and least; yet, as it were, first and greatest of all...  

(for the first part, on the Epistle.

...And now let us proceed to the parable which, under a figure altogether different, would impress on us the same, lesson of earnest diligence and perseverance.  In order to understand its full scope and meaning, we must first consider the occasion on which it was delivered.  St. Peter had said, “Lo, we have left all, and have followed Thee;” and our Lord in His answer, had added, “But many that are first shall be last; and the last first;” and then He delivered this parable, in further explanation.  As if He had said; There will be no advantage conferred on you because you are first called, for even from this time unto the end of the world will be “the day of salvation,” in which the Householder will be calling into His vineyard. Yet, although it was first spoken with a peculiar reference to the disciples, warning them not to presume; yet, no doubt, our blessed Lord, in delivering this parable, had an eye to all of us who read and hear it this day; and did intend that it should speak to us as we should naturally understand it.


The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourer into his vineyard.  And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  What is life but a day after which the night cometh, when no man can work? a day in which each has his work appointed of God, as even our Lord Himself spake of His own, “I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day.” [St. John ix. 4]  It is a day which has its morning, noon, and evening fast succeeding each other, in each of which the Householder is calling us into His vineyard.


First, “early in the morning.”  So was it with us all; early in the morning, before it was yet day, did He, by Baptism, hire us into His vineyard with the promised reward of eternal life.  There is no other call like this call. Then, once for all; we were taken into this vineyard.


But yet, in some sense, we may consider that there is a call of God repeated to us through our whole life, by natural reason and conscience, His providence and grace.  And he went out about the third hour; and saw others standing idle in the market-place, and said unto them.  Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.  “ At the third hour,” in the time of youth, does He come to us, and not by Confirmation only, but in numberless ways, call us aloud to labour in His vineyard, to do the work of God in our own soul.  However laborious our life may be, yet in the sight of God, it is all a mere “idling in the marketplace” of this world, unless our labour is in His service; yea, even religious service may be as nothing, unless it be that work of repentance which He requires.  It is in our own heart that this great work is to be; and how much this work is of all others the most neglected, everyone’s own conscience will tell him.  But, above all the other constraining meanings of this parable, by which God is at all times calling us to this one great business of repentance, the Church of all ages, by appointing this lesson for this Sunday of Septuagesima, does evidently intend us to understand it most especially as applied to this coming season of Lent.  By thus introducing it, the Church says to us, consider this approaching Lent as the call of God to work in His vineyard; in whatever age of life you may be, in childhood, or youth, or manhood, or old age, now, once for all, hear this voice, as if you had never heard it before, and as if you should never hear it again.  For you that are “at the third hour” may never live to hear the summons “at the sixth;” and you that are “at the sixth hour” may never reach “the ninth.”  But at all hours of the day, whatever your period of life may be, answer this His call to repentance, with that answer of the heart which is by earnest obedience and prayer.  “In the evening, and morning, and at noonday will I pray,” says the Psalmist, “and that instantly, and He shall hear my voice.” [Ps. lv. 18]  So, in the evening, or morn, or noon of life, may we instantly hear the voice of God and obey.  At all times hearing His call, “Seek ye My face;” at all times answering, by our prayers and service, “Thy face, Lord, will I seek.”


Again He went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.  The third call is at “the sixth hour,” or the time of youthful manhood, and the fourth call is at “the ninth hour,” or coming on of old age, as St. Augustin explains it.  Such will this approaching Lent be to many of us, as the sun of life is beginning to go down; the call of God into His vineyard, as if we had never laboured there before.


And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?  This may be the case with some even in this Christian land, “all the day idle!” their whole life lost, as to the things of eternity; all their work to begin with feeble and cold hands.  Sometimes, even at such a time, some great reverse of condition, some affliction, or the prospect of death, will be the means in which God comes and thus speaks, when He seems, as it were, to uplift a veil which had been upon their souls, and His awful whisper is heard, of Judgment, of Heaven, and Hell, and of the door for ever closed.


Perhaps to one who has been under the cloud of ignorance, or evil company, or bad habits, all his life, the light will thus break in from the everlasting morning, as the night of old age and death is overtaking him.  And this Lent may be his first entering the vineyard.  Nay, it has been the case with some very holy men, that, when at last disengaged from the world, and contemplating the holiness of God, and the near approach of His Presence, they have seemed to themselves as if they had been trifling all their life long, “all the day standing idle,” so little do they seem to have done, compared with what they had always wished and intended to do, and now wish they had done.  Now do they seem, as if for the first time, to hear the voice of God, even “at the eleventh hour,” so little do they seem to have heard and attended to it before.  Such, indeed, a sense of their condition, in good men, is no other than the Holy Spirit pleading within them, and making them to know the holiness, and, the love, and the majesty of God; His light breaks in upon them through the rents and failing of their earthly tabernacle, and His awful rays penetrate the veil of the flesh, when it is about to be removed, and make them to feel that all the efforts of their past life were but idleness; their best deeds as done for some one else but their one true Master.  It is, indeed, for such especially that our Lord seems to make this mention of a call “at the eleventh hour,” because to such this His expression has been an especial source of comfort.  Thou callest me now, at length, they seem to say, at the eleventh hour; and now, as if for the first time, I rise and hear Thy call.  This has been the case with those who laboured long, and, in so doing, have persevered unto the end.


They say unto Him, Because no man hath hired us.  This, indeed, can properly be said by none of us, because the Son of Man hath, from the early morning of our life, hired us into His vineyard.  But, alas, how many a self-stricken, sorrowful penitent must, at this approach of Lent, find an echo to this answer in his own heart?  I seem to have been wandering all my life, as a sheep that is lost; oh, seek Thy servant; if Thou seekest not, the night will have overtaken us, and we have none else to go to.  There is no hire, no recompense, no wages, but with Thee.  Lord to whom shall we go?  Thou hast the words of eternal life.


He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.  Thus was it with the penitent thief on the cross; at the last hour was he called by the gracious Spirit pleading within him, and he obeyed the call; and, as if a pledge of the truth of these our Lord’s words, he was the last called by Him when the night of death approached, and he was the first to enter the Kingdom: “This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.”  And it may be observed that this parable must have been full of consolation at the first preaching of the Gospel, when many who had been heathens or Jews all their lives were called by God’s mercy, and deeply repented, and were baptized late in life, having never before heard and disobeyed the call, as, alas, too many of us have done.


We now come to another part of the parable, So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them, their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.  And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.  That is the gift of eternal life, that which is even now, in some sense, the joy of their Lord, the fruition of God, the countenance of the King.  But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; they thought that a difference would have been made in their favour: and they likewise received every man a penny.  And when they had received it, they murmured against the good man of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.  Now this does not mean at the Day of Judgement or in Heaven hereafter, for there can be no murmuring there; but this part of the parable had an especial reference to the Jews, who were so full of envy at the Gentiles being called into all the privileges of the Gospel, as well as themselves.  Such was the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who was so offended at the welcome given to his returning brother; and the circumstance is often alluded to in the Gospels.  But, no doubt, it is spoken as a warning to us, as much as unto them: there is a great and peculiar danger which besets those who have long had the blessing of religious privileges, and who, on that account, are liable to be esteemed by others, and to esteem themselves religious; a danger of secretly despising others who have not had the same advantages; of thinking light of their conversion; and of becoming themselves, therefore, careless, and hard-hearted, and proud.  This danger is so important, so overtakes persons unawares, that many who think not of it are constantly being left behind in the race of eternity by others who seemed once far worse than themselves.  And it is the more serious and alarming, as, from the very nature of the case, it is not likely to be found out in this world; for the difference will consist more in the secret state of the heart than anything else, which will only come to their knowledge when they are commanded hereafter to take the lowest place, or find that they are shut out altogether from the Kingdom.  It has been said, that, if we ourselves should be admitted into Heaven at last, there ‘are two things at which we shall be surprised; one, that we shall find many there whom we should not have expected; the other, that we shall find that many are not there whom we should have expected to see there.  If this be the case, it will be greatly owing to this circumstance.  Oh, how fearful and wonderful is our probation; how full of encouragement at all times; at all times how full of terror!


For, if there is awful warning, there is also great consolation in what our Lord here says, that even at the last hour, by a full and effectual repentance, a very earnest penitent may obtain such love and such humility, as to be equal to the first; when feeling that he is much forgiven, he loves much; when he is as the lost sheep, whom the good Shepherd has found, and carries back on His shoulders rejoicing, when the good angels and the Father Who is in Heaven rejoice with Him.  It is the seal of our Lord’s own gracious promise on the words of His prophet, “If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” [Ezek. xviii. 21.]


Thus, as the manna in the wilderness was agreeable to every taste and suited to every need, so is this most gracious doctrine of the Gospel to those who will heartily and truly repent, without putting off, from day to day, at whatever hour it be.  It would remove all despair and distrust of God’s mercy by which many perish, and, at the same time, cut off presumptuous hope, by which still more are lost.  It tends to keep us, in ourselves, full of humility and of fear, and, at the same time, more and more sensible of the undeserved mercies of God.


But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong; didst thou not agree with me for a penny?  Take that thine is, and go thy way.  I will give unto this last even as unto thee.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?  Is thine eye evil because I am good?  God is good to all; and here it is to be observed, that even he who complains does not deny but that God has been perfectly good and just to him; it is on the extent and the greatness of God’s goodness, embracing others as well as himself, that this envious man looks with an evil eye.  His eye is evil because God is good.  Yet it seems implied in this, that although everything is the free gift of God according to His promise, yet that in these ways of God’s grace there is something mysterious and inscrutable to man; something hidden in the wisdom and goodness of God which is quite beyond all our power to comprehend in this life.  It is enough for each one of us to know that God is to him good and just.  That which is here represented as so unsearchable, is not the ways of God in general, but His undeserved mercies.  It was under a sense of this that St. Paul cried out, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out.” [Rom. xi. 33.]


Our Lord often concludes His discourses with some short and striking saying, which He would have us always remember.  So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called but few chosen.  This is the sum and purport of the whole parable, that those who were first called become the last in God’s Kingdom from want of charity and humility—they are apt to fall from some secret pride; while others, by very earnest repentance becoming humbled, pass before them, and persevere unto the end lowly and contrite.  But the last words are still more awful and impressive;  that, in consequence of this, it arises that “many are called, but few chosen;” it is this circumstance which renders the way of life narrow and difficult, because so few attain unto this grace of perseverance.  I suppose that all persons have, at some time or other, serious thoughts, and are impressed more or less with a sense of God and eternity.  This is probably some more especial call to them from the Great Householder.  But, for the most part, these intentions pass away, and they who are thus called do not grow in grace and humility unto the end.


Let us now again return to the Epistle for to-day, and pause to consider the remarkable example of St. Paul, as there set forth, for our imitation and warranty.  Not his supernatural call, not his miraculous conversion, not his labours in preaching the Gospel to the whole world, not all his imprisonments, and trials, and suffering, even unto death, not his being taken up into Paradise and hearing unspeakable words, not the abundance of the revelations which were given him, could save St. Paul from working out his own salvation, with fear and trembling, unto the last; and, especially, could not relieve him from the necessity of mortifying the flesh.  Nor did he do this with the view of obtaining any great meritorious sanctity or perfection above others, but in order that he might not be a “castaway.”  It was this, his persevering humiliation unto the last, which kept him above others in grace and goodness; if he had presumed he would have fallen below them.


One of the greatest saints of old times,—one, perhaps, most like to St. Paul himself in his labours,—in speaking of this passage [St. Chrys. in 1 Cor., Hom. xxiii.], exclaims, “If even Paul thus feared, what shall we say?” and I think such a reflection must force itself on every thoughtful mind, in these days, in a manner so painful as almost to occasion a feeling of despair; for the best of men now alive, when he compares himself with St. Paul, must indeed feel as if he were one of those who had been “standing idle in the market-place all the day.”  What healing medicine, what antidote can be found against such a sense of despondency?  It will be found in this parable.  For what if it be the case that all our life has been hitherto wasted and lost, yet even now, although it be at the ninth or eleventh hour, there is a call into the vineyard from Him Who “will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax;” and Who has Himself assured us, that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.