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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Never Too Late

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

In Lent Catholics fast and pray in order to discipline the body and the mind. Because to focus too much on ourselves, we indulge overmuch in pleasureful things. Lent invites us to shift our focus to think more about how Jesus suffered for our sins. But to prepare for Lent, the Church wisely gives us three weeks to prepare.

This Sunday, known as “Septuagesmia,” begins that three-week preparation for Lent and marks the countdown to Easter. [1]. The seventy days before Easter, which begin today with Septuagesmia Sunday, remind us of the seventy years that the Jews were captives in Babylon. The forty days of Lent remind us of Christ’s forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert, and give us a model for fasting and abstinence. [2]

The Epistle of St. Paul [3] we hear in today’s Mass highlights for us the importance of spiritual preparation. Father Ronald Knox (d. 1957) said of today’s Scripture lessons that the Gospel tells us it is never too late to be saved, while the Epistle tells us it is never too late to be lost. We would do well to recall that God can save us just as soon as we turn to Him, but at the same time, God respects our human freedom to reject him through sin.

To describe the preparation and discipline Christians need to maintain to stay spiritually fit, Saint Paul’s Epistle uses an analogy from the sports world. He compares the Christian to a runner in a race and to a boxer; we may recall a similar passage in his letter to Saint Timothy where he compares the Christian to an athlete competing for a championship. In essence, Saint Paul says that just as an athlete must always stay in training, lest he lose the next race or the next bout, we Christians must always be in training to run with patience the race that is set before us. But there is a difference. What the athlete is striving for is a corruptible prize.

In Paul’s day, the winner of an athletic contest was awarded a crown of laurel leaves, just as today a top athlete will strive to attain an Olympic medal. These are corruptible prizes. They do not endure eternally. They are for the here and now. By contrast, what the Christian is striving for is an incorruptible prize, to attain the prize of eternal life with God.

Saint Paul’s advice to the Christian is to remain focused on the goal: keep your eyes on the prize. Run to win, fight to win. Do not let yourself get out of spiritual shape, any more than an athlete allows himself to get out of physical shape. Be disciplined, do not be like a boxer who tires himself out throwing wild punches and hitting only the air; make every punch count. Saint Paul reminds Saint Timothy that an athlete cannot win the championship unless he competes “lawfully.” In short, “play by the rules!” Above all, when you are running the race, do not give up, do not drop out, persevere to the end.

In an athletic contest, all of the contestants run, but only one wins the prize. Only one team will win the Super Bowl; only one entrant will take the gold medal in each Olympic event. But in that race that has eternal consequences, we can all be winners of a glorious crown that will not fade away. Indeed, that prize was already won for us by Jesus Christ on that first Resurrection morning. On Septuagesmia, we begin today our preparation for the austerities and penances of Lent. Just as a football team spends time in practice and preparation before the big game the Church has these three weeks before Lent as a pre-Lenten period to prepare our souls to do spiritual battle against sin.

Today’s Gospel [4] points out that some Christians have been spiritually disciplined their whole lives, ever striving to follow Christ and be strong in the fight against sin. Like workers in a vineyard, who have spent the full day working for their Lord. Others figure out the importance of the spiritual life at the mid-point of life. But there are those who enter into the spiritual arena just at the last moment. Lest anyone think he is too late to start laboring to serve Christ in His vineyard, or be discouraged to think he is too late to begin the race to attain that eternal prize, a humble priest preached gave these encouraging words:

If anyone is pious and loves God, let him rejoice [in this beautiful festival of Easter]. If anyone is a good and faithful servant, let him enter into the joy of his Lord. If anyone is weary from toil and fasting, let him come and receive his pay. If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him receive his just reward. If anyone has come after the third hour, let him join the feast with thankfulness. If anyone has waited until after the sixth hour, let him not worry, he will lose nothing. If anyone has tarried until the ninth hour, let him come, also, and not hesitate. If anyone has arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid because of his delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to one who comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to those who have toiled from the first. To the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts.

This sermon of St. John Chrysostom (307-407) shows that the pay (the “penny”) we earn as Christ’s harvest workers is the gift of eternal life – that was his message for Easter many centuries ago. It was a reminder that salvation is God’s free gift. What does the laborer hear when he comes for his pay?

 “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord; Come to me, all you who work hard and carry a heavy load, and I will give you rest.”

In the parable today Jesus tells us that some of these day laborers have been working for Jesus since dawn; others since high noon; some only since mid-afternoon. And some showed up just an hour before quitting time. And each of us receives his penny. Back then, in Biblical times, the usual working day was twelve hours long, pretty much from sun up to sundown. In the parable the vineyard owner of the vineyard goes back to the marketplace at 5:00 pm in the evening, as the sun is just beginning to set, with only one more hour of daylight.

It is literally the eleventh hour, since Jewish people measured the day from 6:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening. There he finds workers idle at the end of the day and he asks them,

“Why are you standing here idle.”

We might think that they were lazy and did not want to work. But their answer reveals differently,

“Oh no, we want to work but no one has hired us.”

The fact that they had been waiting there for eleven hours meant that they wanted to work, in fact that they were desperate to work. They needed money to feed families who might go hungry.

“Oh yes,” they said, “We will go to the field for one hour, we are so glad to have the work. Pay us whatever you will.” So, they go with the vineyard owner and work for one hour. At 6:00 pm, just one hour later, the vineyard owners would line up all the day-workers to pay them. According to Jewish law, (Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24):

“You shall not keep someone’s pay for a day’s work overnight. You shall give it to them at the end of the day, at sundown.”

This law was prescribed out of deference to the poor who were desperately counting on that money to feed their families. They were to be paid at 6:00 pm sharp.

Those eleventh-hour employees were working on faith that the employer would be fair and kind to them. To these men who did just one hour of work they were very pleased because the owner was “more than fair” – in fact, he was downright generous! But the early risers, those who put in twelve straight hours of work, were angry and jealous.

In worldly economic terms, this would be a very foolish thing for an employer to do. If you pay people who work for only an hour the same wage that you pay to people who work all day, you will have a hard time finding any all-day workers. Besides which, you will be in big trouble with the Fair Labor Standards Commission and with the Farm Workers’ Union. But the parable is not about worldly economics; it is about the economics of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Worldly economics is the economics of scarcity; but heavenly economics is the economics of generosity and abundance. Businessmen on this world only know about strict justice. Do your work – get paid only for what you do. Sometimes, in worldly business, people even find ways to cheat. But this is not the way with God’s business. His business is a business of charity and generosity. In the work of the world the question boils down to this:

“How much can I get out of you and how little can I pay you for it?”

In the work of heaven, God is working to see how much he can give you because He loves you so much, as if He said,

“How much will you let Me give you and how much are you willing to receive from Me?”

This is confirmed by the very words of Christ:

 “I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it abundantly.” [5]

In the parable, some of the laborers are ungrateful. In common parlance, they might say:

“We have been working all day in the heat, and yet these ‘Johnny-come-latelies’ are getting paid as much as we are!”

The grumbling is rather reminiscent of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son: “I’ve been working hard all this time, and he’s been off wasting your money—so why is he the one who gets the party?”

Jesus is cautioning us against the kind of smugness and self-righteousness that we might fall into if we were to forget that our salvation, our citizenship in the Kingdom, is not something we have earned or acquired by our own effort—it is always the gift of God. In his Homily for Septuagesima, Aelfric (c.955-1020) address this point when he writes:

“Verily from the eleventh hour the chief of the house (began) to pay the penny, when he led the thief into the kingdom of heaven, before he led Peter or his other apostles, and rightly so, for the thief believed in Christ at a time when his apostles were in great doubt.”

We should be humble before Our Lord, because we are all “Johnny-come-latelies” in light of the cross. Because of the work Christ did before us, we all receive equal pay (the reward of heaven) for our meager service. St. Luke says,

“When you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” [6]

Christ does it all, He bears the burden of the law; He bears the weight and shame of the cross; He lives a perfectly obedient life in word and deed, not for his own sake, but for ours. He does the work, and we all get the same grade. He pleases His Father and in so doing wins His Father’s pleasure and favor toward us.

We must not be envious of those who come to Jesus later than we do; rather we, like the angels in heaven, should rejoice over every lost sheep that is found, every prodigal son who comes home, every sinner that repents. There is joy and contentment to be found working in the vineyard, even if, as we work, we see in the distance that others are drinking, and partying, and running wild. Theirs is but an ephemeral kind of pleasure, like the fleeting pleasure enjoyed by the prodigal when he was off wasting his inheritance. True joy is to be found in the vineyard of the Lord, and in hearing the Master say:

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” [7]

Before we were called into this vineyard (the Church), we were idle. We were sinful and unclean. Before Baptism we were children of wrath. We were at enmity with God. But through holy Baptism we entered His vineyard. It was by the toil and sacrifice of Jesus that the inheritance of heaven now belongs to us. For it was Christ who “bore the burden of the day,” that is, Christ bore the weight and burden of the Law for us, so that we might bear his burden, which is easy and light. Christ bore the “scorching heat” of the day that we might enjoy the perfect bliss of heaven.

How wise are the words of the Psalmist who said:

“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.” [8]

Let us make no demands of God. They are happy and content to have the wages that God doles out in His Son. The Father is exceedingly generous. They are pleased that the wages of sin no longer apply to them, since Christ died for the ungodly. The grace of God is free. No payment is necessary. Our Master is generous, giving an equal share of His inheritance to all, regardless of their sacrifice. For in the kingdom of heaven, the only sacrifice that counts is that of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.



[1] Septuagesima comes from the Latin word for “seventieth,” with Sexagesima and Quinquagesima equaling “sixtieth” and “fiftieth” respectively. The most logical explanation for the use of these terms is that they denote the approximate number of days between each and Easter (the actual respective numbers being 63, 56 and 49), and are patterned after the Latin word for the season of Lent, Quadragesima. Some have theorized, however, that Septuagesima may have been added to the liturgical calendar to commemorate the Babylonian Captivity, which lasted 70 years (there is evidence that some early Christians began fasting 70 days before Easter, but whether that custom originated from this is not entirely clear).

[2] Traditionally Catholic laymen and women abstained from meat all of Lent starting on Ash Wednesday, but the religious started early and these pre-Lenten Sundays would be nicknamed “Meatfare Sunday,” and “Cheesefare Sunday,” because on these Sundays, progressively the religious and priests gave up meat the first week and then all dairy products. [3] “Brethren: Do you not know that those who run in a race, all indeed run, but one receives the prize? So run as to obtain it. And everyone in a contest abstains from all things - and they indeed to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable. I, therefore, so run as not without a purpose; I so fight as not beating the air; but I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected. For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, all were baptized in Moses, in the cloud and in the sea. And all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink for they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and the rock was Christ. Yet with most of them God was not well pleased.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5).

[4] “At that time, Jesus spoke to His disciples this parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And having agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And about the third hour, he went out and saw others standing in the market place idle; and he said to them, ‘Go you also into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just.’ So they went. And again he went out about the sixth, and about the ninth hour, and did as before. But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing about and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here all day idle?’ They said to him, ‘Because no man has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘Go you also into the vineyard.’ But when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers, and pay them their wages, beginning from the last even to the first.’ Now when they of the eleventh hour came, they received each a denarius. And when the first in their term came, they thought that they would receive more; but they also received each his denarius. And on receiving it, they began to murmur against the householder, saying, ‘These last have worked a single hour, and you have put them on a level with us, who have borne the burden of the day’s heat.’ But answering one of them, he said, ‘Friend, I do you no injustice; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go; I choose to give to this last even as to you. Have I not a right to do what I choose? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ Even so the last shall be first, and the first last; for many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 20:1-16).

[5] John 10:10.

[6] Luke 17:10.

[7] Matthew 25:21.

[8] Psalm 84:10.


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