We can be glad that the Lord Jesus is willing to make many and every effort to reach each one of us. He goes out many times into the marketplace of the world and seeks us, enquires after us, invites us to come and work with him and for him in the vineyard of the Kingdom of Heaven. The great Fathers of the Church have reflected on the teaching of this Parable of the Workers in a variety of ways, and we can certainly apply this to ourselves.
Whether we follow Christ and respond to his call in the first years of our life, or the middle, or even towards the end, there is the same grace offered to all. It is the same union with God, in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. We should never imagine it is too late. If we have heard the call and have responded as best we are able then we can be sure that gathered together with all the other servants and labourers we will receive a reward. Indeed, in the Christian life, the reward is not something distant and far removed from us in the future, but it is already our experience.
The reward and grace of God which he pours out on those who unite themselves to him in love and service is overwhelmingly an act of the generosity of God in mercy and compassion. It is never what we deserve. But if it is not what we deserve then we can be confident in the one who gives so much, even his own Holy Spirit, to those who respond so little, since it all depends on him. Whether we turn to God at the beginning or the end of our life, whether we have many regrets or few, it is God himself who calls us and rewards us, beyond anything we deserve.
Scriptures – Matthew 20
1 “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who was the master of a household, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 When he had agreed with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 He went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went their way. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle. He said to them, ‘Why do you stand here all day idle?’ 7 “They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ “He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and you will receive whatever is right.’ 8 “When evening had come, the lord of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning from the last to the first.’ 9 “When those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came, they each received a denarius. 10 When the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise each received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they murmured against the master of the household, 12 saying, ‘These last have spent one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take that which is yours, and go your way. It is my desire to give to this last just as much as to you. 15 Isn’t it lawful for me to do what I want to with what I own? Or is your eye evil, because I am good?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.” 17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18 “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to mock, to scourge, and to crucify; and the third day he will be raised up.” 20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, kneeling and asking a certain thing of him. 21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these, my two sons, may sit, one on your right hand and one on your left hand, in your Kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with; but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give, but it is for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard it, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus summoned them, and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so amongst you; but whoever desires to become great amongst you shall be your servant. 27 Whoever desires to be first amongst you shall be your bondservant, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 29 As they went out from Jericho, a great multitude followed him. 30 Behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David!” 31 The multitude rebuked them, telling them that they should be quiet, but they cried out even more, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They told him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” 34 Jesus, being moved with compassion, touched their eyes; and immediately their eyes received their sight, and they followed him.
From the Fathers
Cyril of Alexandria (376-444 A.D.)
The last ones, receiving the generosity of the Master instead of troubles, are first to receive their reward, since all those after the Lord’s coming have become—through baptism and the union with the Spirit—“sharers in God’s nature” and are called sons of God.… For the prophets too have become sharers in the Spirit, but not in the same way as the faithful, since the Holy Spirit is in some way like a leaven for the souls of the faithful and changes the entire man to another condition of life. And so we have become “participants in God’s nature,” and openly we cry “Abba, Father.” The more ancient peoples did not receive the same grace. So Paul too says, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.” The ancients then received a spirit of slavery without the honor of adoption. Since therefore we really are first to receive a denarius, we must of necessity be said to be honored above the rest.
[St Cyril makes it clear that though we are fellow workers in the Vineyard of God with all those faithful people in every age, nevertheless, we have receved so much more. We have become “participants in God’s nature”, and he allows us to call him Father, as his own children. Those in the past also received the Holy Spirit, but not in the same way that we do, because in us he becomes the foundation of a new way of life altogether. Having received this union with God, how much more should we seek to honour God in every moment.]
In a final passage from St Isaiah the Solitary, we read,
If some shameful thought is sown in your heart as you are sitting in your cell, watch out. Resist the evil, so that it does not gain control over you. Make every effort to call God to mind, for He is looking at you, and whatever you are thinking in your heart is plainly visible to Him. Say to your soul: ‘If you are afraid of sinners like yourself seeing your sins, how much more should you be afraid of God who notes everything?’ As a result of this warning the fear of God will be revealed in your soul, and if you cleave to Him you will not be shaken by the passions; for it is written: ‘They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion; he that dwells in Jerusalem shall never be shaken’ (Ps. 125:1. LXX). Whatever you are doing, remember that God sees all your thoughts, and then you will never sin.
How important it is for us to be aware of our thoughts. The spiritual life is not a matter of a few minutes of prayer in the morning and evening. It is a constant and continuing effort to be always in the presence of God. If we do not always have the thought and experience of God’s presence with us, then we will not find the strength to resist the temptation to sin. When we have the remembrance of God then we find his grace to sustain us. When we forget God then we find ourselves easily overcome, almost without noticing.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. Prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
6. Pray Psalm 134 again in the evening.
7. In the Coptic Orthodox daily prayers we pray Psalm 51. Add this to your daily devotions in either the morning or the evening.
8. Reflect on whether you were able to remember the presence of God? How did this help you resist temptation? Did you fall into weakness when you forgot the presence of God?
The Orthodox Church is the Church of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given in the sacrament of baptism, and in the anointing with holy oil, or chrism, and the laying on of hands. This is never an optional extra, as if we might be able to get on well enough in our own strength. Orthodoxy understands the Christian life as being one which is lived entirely in the power of the Holy Spirit. St Seraphim of Sarov, the Russian saint, was asked about the goal of the Christian life, and he responded in these words…
Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.
He goes on to explain what he means, and how he thinks the Holy Spirit can be acquired…
Of course, every good deed done for Christ’s sake gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, but prayer gives us it most of all, for it is always at hand, so to speak, as an instrument for acquiring the grace of the Spirit. For instance, you would like to go to Church, but there is no Church or the Service is over; you would like to give alms to a beggar, but there isn’t one, or you have nothing to give; you would like to do some other good deed for Christ’s sake, but either you have not the strength or the opportunity is lacking. This certainly does not apply to prayer. Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and humble, strong and weak, healthy and sick, righteous and sinful.
In Orthodoxy the grace of the Holy Spirit is inseparable from spirituality. The Holy Spirit cannot be demanded by all. He comes to those who have prepared their hearts. This conversation with St Seraphim is well known among Orthodox and many of those of us who are exploring Orthodoxy. Let me read a little more towards the end of the conversation…
I replied, “I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself His true manifestation in me?”
Seraphim replied: “I have already told you, that it is very simple and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize His presence in us. So what do you want, my son?”
“I want to understand it well,” I said.
Then he took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”
I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”
Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.” Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid! The Lord is with us!”
After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder.
We should not imagine that such an occurrence is usual, nor does Orthodoxy teach that we should expect or seek any such manifestations in prayer. But Orthodox Christians do expect God to act by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Not in the way that we demand that he acts. But out of his manifest love and mercy for us.