O LORD, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Epistle 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Gospel S. Matthew 20:1-16

What a funny name for a Sunday, you say! So let me explain: this Sunday marks the beginning of a nine-week period leading up to the great event of Good Friday and Easter—three Sundays before Lent (when the days lengthen) and six within that period. The first Sunday of Lent was, and is, called Quadragesima, marking the fortieth day before Easter (some Latin here!). So, by analogy, the Sunday before that is called Quinquagesima (50th), the next Sexagesima (60th) and before that, Septuagesima (70th)—very convenient, even if somewhat inaccurate!

So it is that the very best preparation for Good Friday, when Christ Jesus died for the sins of those who would accept him as their Saviour, is to recognise our own sins and failings. The Collect reminds us that we are “justly punished for our offences”! This, of course, turns the worldling’s view of himself upside down. When the unbeliever (and even sometimes the believer) experiences an unexpected tragedy the response can be, “Why has this happened to me?” and we have to reply, as gently as possible, “Why not?”, for we are all far from perfect and deserve to experience the consequences of our condition. However, as a Pastor, it is very humbling to witness the Lord’s people in some dire situations and to see how they respond with such things as, “it is the Lord’s will for me”, “He will see me through”, “He has brought this upon me for my good and to be a blessing to others”, “He has prepared me for this and gives me daily strength”, “I now have fellowship with the Lord in a way I never did before”, and so on.

So, to be a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ and to display our gratitude to him in our lives, the Epistle and Gospel call us to be exercised in two distinct but complimentary ways:

  • I must seek to deny myself the lusts and pleasures of this world, in order to be a more effective disciple, just as the athlete does for the games, so that he might make a serious attempt to win his race. The Isthmian Games were held at Corinth every three years and so the people would be well aware of the extreme lengths of self-denial and regular training that the athlete would endure for the whole three-year period. If they do it for an earthly reward (a crown of bay-laurel leaves, which would begin to fade the next day) how much more should we Christians throw off worldly and carnal indulgences to be the best that we can be for our blessed Saviour.
  • Self-denial alone, however, is not enough unless it leads us on to work better and harder and longer in the cause of the kingdom of God—and be glad to do so. Thus the labourers in the Gospel parable worked all day for their agreed reward, but spoilt their testimony by three things which displayed the state of their heart:
  • Being more interested in their wages that in the Person for whom they were working;
  • Overlooking the right of the Owner to act according to his sovereign will;
  • Giving way to envy and jealousy of those who receive the same reward (i.e. eternal life) even though they were prominent workers in the kingdom.

Let us indeed acknowledge our unworthiness to receive any good thing from the Lord and say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do”, Luke 17:10.

NB: It is important to understand that the ‘castaway’ of 1 Corinthians 9:27 is not someone who loses his salvation (which from other passages we know is not possible) but someone who does not come up to standard. Paul is anxious to gain a crown; he is not doubting his salvation.