Septuagesima – Obtaining the Prize

Obtaining the prize!

In his letter to the Corinthians St. Paul gives us an analogy between Christians and athletes both wanting to obtain a prize. To St. Paul living at that time in the east of the Mediterranean, his world although part of the Roman empire would have been culturally Greek. To St. Paul writing this in his letter to the Corinthians  the Greek athletes and their competition in the Gymnasiums might be the analogy he was thinking of. He talks about running and boxing and competing for the prize. In a way, in our daily lives as Christians this is also required of us. We struggle daily with temptation and sin, to, in the end, obtain the prize that is everlasting life.

Those athletes in order to win have to have the right motivation, a need for self-control and they need to exercise in order to appear in their best shape at the start of their matches. Those traits are necessary to obtain the prize. In order to win for athletes as well as Christians there are three things necessary to obtain the prize. For athletes it is:

  1. The proper motivation that is necessary to win.
  2. But there are several motives that make a difference in a race.

A: Some run to win

B: Some at least nowadays run for their health and some run as a hobby, for them it doesn’t matter if they win or not.

But the successful athlete is motivated by the gold medal or the laurel wreath as we’ve just heard in today’s reading. But this wreath of the athlete is a perishable crown. But it represents fame and glory, those things motivate an athlete to excel.

Now for the life of the Christian:

  1. For us the proper motivation is necessary to win as well.
  2. Different motivations can mean a big difference.

A: Some Christians are Christians to please their conscience, or even to please others.

B: Some are Christians because of its present blessings for instance peace of mind or fellowship.

C: But the successful Christian is motivated by what lies at the end of the race. As we’ve just heard, Christians run the race to receive the imperishable crown. That is eternal life and to be glorified, to receive Gods gifts and to grow more and more to be like Him. It is also a crown of glory but it lies beyond what we can here see or hear. As Hebrews chapter 12 puts it: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross”. He died for our sins but was glorified and placed on the right hand side of God the Father.

Athletes who are successful have to be temperate to obtain their goal. As we again can read (in verse 25): “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things”. Athletes have to mind their diet, their amount of sleep, they have to follow training schedules, they might have to miss social events, even when they don’t always feel like doing all this. For the Christian self-control is just as important. We have to overcome the temptations of the flesh. Are there ways in our living that we know of that are unhealthy, not just for the body but as well as the spirit? What are we feeding our souls with? Are we in our daily lives drawing closer to God? Of course we struggle with this and we don’t always feel like it but self control of the things that do us no good are key. The church has always stressed that through spiritual exercises we could draw closer to God. So self-control is necessary and will complement proper motivation. Without it motivation alone will not succeed. So in the same way as athletes train in order to gain victory we Christians must do the same. Through Godly exercise we focus ourselves on God. As Christians we have to:

  1. Act with diligence in rightly handling the word of truth. Reading and studying Gods word.
  2. Communing with the Lord in prayer
  3. Offering our service to the Lord and our neighbour.

We are a few weeks before Lent, it is a good time to have a think about what spiritual exercises could be helpful for us.

When we engage in such God exercises we become true spiritual athletes running the race of faith with certainty and fighting the good fight with purpose. Our efforts will not be in vain when, by grace, they are accompanied by the right motivation and joined with self-control.

Now we have established how we might obtain the imperishable crown God wants to give us. Let us now explore a bit further through the parable of “The labourers in the vineyard”.

Parable of the Workers in Vineyard, Rembrandt, 1637

In the chapter before today’s Gospel [St Matthew 20:1-16]. Jesus is approached by a rich man who asks Him how to obtain eternal life. Jesus challenges the man to give up all and follow Him. The man goes away sorrowful because he has many possessions.

What follows is a discussion with the disciples about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven. The disciples wonder who then could be saved. Jesus replies that with God all things are possible.

Unlike the rich man earlier Peter asks the question “What then shall we have?” Since the disciples did leave everything behind. Jesus’ answer boils down to those who give up all shall receive more than enough in return. Although it is followed by a warning in verse 30: “But many that are first will be last, and the last first”. This warning precedes the parable of the labourers in the vineyard and also ends with it. So the parable might have been told to explain the warning.

In the parable, the first workers may represent the Apostles and others like them. Those who are called by Christ through the Gospel early in life. They therefore labour long and hard in the vineyard, that is the Kingdom of God. The other labourers might be those who are called by Christ through the Gospel at various times. So those who are called late in life or those who do not have the opportunity to do as much for the Lord. The parable has different insights such as:

  1. What everyone receives will be more than fair (verse 13: did you not agree with me?)
  2. No one has the right to question the generosity of God (verse 15: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?)
  3. Those who may serve long and hard should not be envious if others receive the same reward (verse 15: Or do you begrudge my generosity?)

Probably a note should be made here that this parable is not saying that those who purposely put off obeying Christ until the last moment can be saved. Note in verse 6 and 7 that “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him “because no one has hired us”. Those labourers accepted then the offer as soon as they heard it although it was late in the day. They weren’t people who had turned down many opportunities before. The question of whether one can be saved at the last moment after lifelong rejection of the Gospel only the Lord can rightfully answer.

So in conclusion the message of the parable is that:

  1. when we are called by the Gospel to obey Christ, we should respond at once. What He offers us is more than you can possibly imagine.
  2. Some will hear the invitation early in life, others later, but we should all work diligently in Gods vineyard in the time we have left. We are blessed to offer ourselves to a life of service to the Lord. This is without any commercial or mercenary spirit as in “Do I get more because I gave more”.

Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, consider this great gift that is laid out before us. God is inviting all of us into the vineyard and have a life of meaning and purpose. And God promises to all of us the gift of eternal life. Why not let the gracious spirit of the landowner revealed in this parable encourage you to accept the grace of God? Why not live out the rest of your life in grateful service to Him?