From The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus, by Helmut Thielicke, translated by John W. Doberstein (Harper & Row, ©1957)


The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard


Then Peter said in reply, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.


"For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, `You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went out. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 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.' He said to them, `You go into the vineyard too.' And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, `Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' So the last will be first, and the first last." (Matthew 19:27-20:16)


The people and the things which appear in this parable are familiar and close to all of us. The scene which the parable presents to us is again very worldly, and the settings are taken from our everyday life. It tells us nothing that is religious or beyond this world. It says nothing about incense or miracles. On the contrary, it speaks about a labor market. Here are workers, the unemployed, and an employer, and the talk is of hourly wages, labor contracts, and rates of pay.


So far everything is clear. But highly unclear are the rules of the game in the whole method of compensation. I should like to see the rumpus the newspapers would kick up if an employer attempted to introduce such practices in our day, if he were to give to those who did a little work an hour before closing exactly the same as those who had slaved all day. And very definitely — and certainly quite justifiably — there would be some beating of the drums in the unions too.


And if this peculiar employer, who is even given a certain paternalistic character by the term "householder" that is applied to him, were to continue to be obstinate, he would certainly learn from experience in the following week. For most decidedly no man would be so stupid as to come to work at dawn if he could get a full pay envelope so much easier by coming late. The workers would undoubtedly prefer to work only for a little while at the close of the day. Nobody is going to be so brainless as to do ten times the work for the same money! In short, the man is a fool; he is turning the whole economy upside down.


Even when we see the context in which the parable is incorporated the matter does not become plausible. Peter had addressed this question to the Lord: "Lo, we have left everything and followed you," we have staked our existence upon you, given up our jobs, sacrificed our families and homes; "what then shall we have?" Are we, he goes on in thought, are we going to be on the same level as the people who take it easy and enjoy life until they grow too old and too worn out to amuse themselves as they did before and then suddenly have an attack of religion, a kind of last-minute religious panic, and quickly become converted? You too, Jesus of Nazareth, will be turning the whole economy upside down if that's the way you are going to treat your people! Jesus then replies to this objection by telling this parable, and this is his thesis: The very thing you do not want is precisely what I do. Anybody who comes at the last hour, I pay him in full.


And this too we cannot understand at first. The great Norwegian writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, in his novel Niels Lyhne,tells the story of a man who rejected God, even though secretly he yearned for the com fort of faith and for peace. But he wanted to be honest with himself, and he would rather endure the desolation of a nihilistic life to the end than become weak-kneed and turn "religious" because of weakness. Fate treated him harshly. Death came crashing into his beloved family, and often he felt the deep need of comfort, something like an agonized yearning for home and security., piercing through his heart. But he clung to his hardness and even in the last hour of his life he refused to see the pastor, though secretly he yearned for his consolations. Then the family physician, who had come to love this patient and was moved by the valor of his desolate heart, uttered these words: "If I were God, I would far sooner save the man who does not repent at the last minute." Such a statement appeals to us. All of us are by nature inclined to have much more regard and liking for this Niels Lyhne, who lived consistently and uncompromisingly and held out to the end against the black wall of nothingness, than for the person who at the last moment tries to snatch up the chance of eternal salvation and grabs the emergency brake of piety. And you mean to say that Jesus Christ our Lord thinks otherwise about this? Is he going to rank this Niels Lyhne lower than the thief on the cross, who also tried to squeeze through the gate of heaven at the last moment?


Truly, this parable is a coded telegram. We will not understand it unless we know the code. This is true of all Jesus' parables. We have observed again and again that there is always only one point from which they can be unlocked. And this is the point at which the Lord wants us. Where is this point in this parable? We shall try to find it and then listen carefully to what it says.


The whole parable gains meaning on only one condition. And that is that we let it tell us that this is work which takes place in the vineyard, and that therefore it should be service for the Lord, and for this very reason cannot be viewed as something earned or merited. On the contrary, it says that this work is itself a gift and carries its reward in itself; for it brings the workers near to their fatherly Lord and his care. We shall understand this parable only if we see that Jesus is here speaking against legalistic religion, against all religion of the kind that dwells in our hearts by nature. It is a good thing to realize very clearly how men have toiled, and still toil, in the sphere of religion to earn heaven; they pile high the altars with sacrifices, they tell their beads, they do good works, they even go to such lengths as those strangest of all saints who spent their whole life sitting on high pillars, enduring the wind and the weather, growing old and gray in the process, solely in order to gain merits for heaven. We must realize once and for all that these people are not doing all this as children who live and move about freely and happily in the Father's house, but that they are doing it as slaves, doing it out of fear, that all this comes not so much from the heart but is for them a means of making themselves worthy of heaven. If these people were right — if fellowship with Jesus were a business transaction with a definite quid pro quo, with accounts of earnings which we could present to God and receipts entitling us to entrance into heaven — then it would in fact be shamefully unjust if the person who entered the Lord's service at the evening of life were to receive the same as did all those who had toiled and sweated and come home at evening with all their bones aching.


It is highly important to see that our parable characterizes as absolutely false this whole "religious" view of things, which is by no means confined to the ancient Jews or our Catholic fellow Christians, but runs in the blood of us all. This must be understood first; otherwise the parable becomes a caricature.


When we do something for our Lord, when we really take seriously the matter of honoring him in the poorest of our brethren, when we pray to him, when we surrender to him our life with its joys and sorrows, its passions and despondencies, this is not a means to an end to the end, namely, of securing a claim on eternal salvation, or even to the earthly end of securing an ideology for the Western world, since, after all, men need some kind of religion — but rather this is an end in itself, it is itself "salvation."


Why is this so? The person who knows that he has been given the grace to love God-and anybody who knows anything at all about it will confirm this-for that person this is in itself a joy, an undreamed of fulfillment of life. For him, everything he does for God is in itself a happy service and therefore the very opposite of a hard drudgery that must then be rewarded with salvation. Does not all the torment of our life, the ambition that keeps gnawing at us, the worry that robs us of our sleep, the bad conscience that keeps accusing us, the anxiety of life that makes everything seem hopeless, empty, and dismal, does not all of this arise precisely from the fact that we have ceased to be coworkers with God and are now stumbling about on our own, that we have lost our Father and therefore life becomes ever more dismal, derelict, and thus more meaningless?


On the other hand, the person who is a fellow worker for God and has learned to love him suddenly finds that his whole attitude toward life is different. He sees his small life and all the little everyday things in it, all the duties he has to fulfill, and all the people he meets, fitting into a great planned, sovereign program in which there are no accidents, no hitches, and no blank numbers. He can dare quite simply to believe — even if he cannot see it — that he has been put in exactly the place in the vineyard where he is needed and that everything that God sends to him is more punctual and planned than a railroad timetable.


It is true that often while we are being thus taught and trained by God we do not understand why he does things in just this way and not some other way, why we have to go through what we do. (No raw apprentice, no pupil, nor even a student understands from the beginning the curriculum by which he is being trained and educated. On the contrary, apprentices, pupils, and students often rebel and say, "Why do we have to spend our time on all this senseless stuff? Why do they go on boring us with this or that?") Not until we know him who has taken us into his service, not until we know his heart, his wisdom, and his compassion does it become a happy service to be employed by him. Then our life begins to acquire something like direction and order. Then it has a meaning. And it has meaning simply because we are loved, because he will make it come out right, and because he always has something in mind in everything he sends to us.


Then even "the burden and heat of the day" suddenly look altogether different. Anybody who has ever gone through something hard with Jesus holding his hand, anybody who has had him as the companion of his anguish when he went through the bitterness of a prison camp, when he was driven from house and home, when he was dragged from the smoking ruins of a bombed cellar — that person would not for all the world have missed these experiences. He does not say — in any case I have never yet heard anyone say — "Because of all the hardships I have had to undergo, God must surely give me a higher place in heaven." What he does say is this: "Not until I went down into the depths of hunger, fear, and loneliness did I experience the nearness of the Lord. There is where I first learned who Jesus is and how he can save and comfort and sustain a man. For the rest of my life I shall live by the blessings of those hours of `burden and heat.' I had to be sent down those rough roads in order that I might see that he really does know the way. I had to go through the valley of the shadow to learn to know the shepherd. Otherwise I would never have experienced all this."


Perhaps now we understand why the workers in the parable are on the wrong track and why they are miserable dilettantes in faith when they insist upon additional and higher wages for their work in the vineyard. When Peter asked, "Now that we have left all for you, what do we get?" he missed the point altogether.


Is there any fuller life than that of a disciple, a coworker with God? The more decidedly a man is a disciple and the more he leaves behind the greater becomes the One upon whose heart he casts himself. For God is no piker. The fact that Peter and the laborers in the vineyard still did not understand this shows that they still had not found the secret and the glory of Jesus, that they still thought that he, whose will it is to bring riches and joy into their lives and to honor them by making them his coworkers, was a slave driver and a tyrant.


But now what about those who came to work last, when the evening sun was sinking, when the twilight began to fall upon their life? What about these latecomers, these last-minute Christians? We must also direct our attention to this second group of people who play a part in our parable.


Are these latecomers to faith really so contemptible compared with Niels Lyhne just because their life does not run in a straight line, just because it has a break in it or describes a curve?

Is it not true that this Niels Lyhne, who lived so consistently and refused to capitulate to the highest court of appeal, was after all a very poor and miserable man? Did not his stubborn, inflexible insistence upon consistency cheat him out of the point, the very meaning of his life? Can we really say, "Blessed are the consistent, the logical"? Or must we not rather say, "Blessed are those who remain open to the call of the Father, and open also to a revision of their course; blessed are those who do not refuse when God wants to meet us, engage us, and lead us"?


A much-discussed play by Dürrenmatt, The Visit, presents us with another very consistent life which may illustrate the problem of our parable.


Here is an old, filthy-rich woman who has come back to her home town to revenge herself upon the lover of her youth. Decades earlier he had thrown her over, betrayed her, and finally brought her into a brothel. And now her whole life is possessed by this hate-love of hers. She is, as it were, nailed fast, fixated upon this one point in her unresolved past, and she lives consistently with this one motive of hate. Her life is nothing more than this single, fanatical attempt to carry out this theme of hate consistently. And because of this her life degenerates into the fixed rigidity of an arithmetical problem. She no longer has a "history," so to speak, but takes on the timeless mask of one of the Furies. She has been divorced and married again and again. But it is always the same thing over again, and even the changing husbands are always played by the same actor. Nothing happens any more. Her hatred makes her too consistent. Time stands still. But her former lover, the shameless fellow with the huckster's soul, repents. The call to repentance and atonement reaches him, and his miserable, guilt-laden life is made new at the last moment. He still has a "history" or, rather, he regains it. For him there is a future, even though he must die.


Isn't this the greatness of the householder, the greatness of God, that he does not compel us simply to go on unwinding our life, like thread from a spool, as this old lady did, simply letting this life go on as it did before on the track that has been laid out for it once and for all, and paying consistently for all the wrong and the guilt in our lives? Isn't this the greatness of God, that he gives us another chance, that he keeps calling to us not to go on loafing in the market place of life, but to enter into his service and set our life on an altogether new level, to have a "history" with him?


If the people who come last in our parable, if the latecomers to faith really understand who he is that has called them into his service, the idea will never even occur to them to laugh at the others because they have worked from early morning through the heat of the day while they have got off so "easy." They most certainly will not flaunt their cheaply earned denarius before the others. No, on the contrary, they will regret every hour they spent in idleness, every hour before they found their way through to the meaning of their life, to the great homecoming.


At evening they will suddenly realize that all this time they squandered away in futile freedom outside the vineyard was not a good time after all, and they were not happy in it either, but that fear of the void was their constant companion. They will regret, perhaps even weep over, every hour in which they did not know this Lord, every hour they missed their happiness, every hour they considered as slavery the very service which would have made their lives rich. They will not say, "Thank God we got our denarius so cheaply; thank goodness that a last-minute repentance is enough." No, they will rather say with Johannes Scheffler:


Alas, that I so lately knew thee,

Thee, so worthy of thee best;

Nor had sooner turned to view thee,
Truest good and only rest!
The more I love, I mourn the more
That I did not love before!


Our parable contains many more implications and would lead us into many a labyrinthine way of thought. These ways cannot be traversed in a single sermon. We must not close, however, without at least addressing ourselves to one more thought which, if we have grasped it, can touch us deeply and also help us to cope with some things in our life with which we could not cope without this thought.


I am referring to that remarkable question addressed by the householder to the grumbling critics of the wage scale: "Is your eye evil because I am good?" or "Do you begrudge my generosity?" Translated into modern terms this means: Do you who have worked the whole day cherish complexes and feelings of envy because I allow myself to show your fellow men a measure of kindness and generosity which they have no claim upon? Look here, I am not giving you who have borne the heat and burden of the day any less than is coming to you. After all, I am not making you suffer in any way whatsoever by being generous to these part-time workers. The wage scale remains. Are you denying me the freedom to give another more than is coming to him?


Naturally, this is an ironical question. It is close to being a shrewd catch question. For obviously the only answer that can be given to it is: Of course, we wouldn't forbid you to do this. Far be it from us to say that your kindness is unethical because it is too generous. Oh, no, on the contrary, a man can never be too generous. It's a fine thing to know that there is at least one person who is capable of being so exceedingly good and generous as you are.


But now the curious thing is that when the householder actually puts into practice this unlimited kindness, which we are so ready to accept theoretically and religiously, there is something wrong about it, and we strike. Why? If we really find the right reason for this we shall understand an essential part of our life.


The long-term workers in the parable would certainly have had no quarrel with the householder's generosity if they themselves had enjoyed the benefit of it, say in the form of a voluntary contribution to the welfare fund or an increase in hourly wage or some other kind of bonus. Then, presumably, they would have been grateful and happy. And who wouldn't react in this way? Fundamentally, every man is likely to have a spontaneous feeling of gratitude. All of us every now and then send up our thanks to heaven when we feel that a hand of blessing has touched our lives, when we get a promotion in our job or when a child comes into our life. Everybody says "Thank God" when some success or other is granted to him. Oh, no, we are not ungrateful. We all have a real feeling for the goodness of God and sometimes, perhaps on a birthday or on Christmas Eve, we can be quite overcome by it.


But as soon as I look at my "dear" neighbor and realize that he too is included in God's generosity I feel some slight pangs in the region of the heart. I say to myself: Yes, all due deference to God's goodness; I can use all of it there is. If this goodness should make me a millionaire or a famous man or an idolized fullback — O.K., come across with it! I've got broad shoulders, a whole load of blessings is not too much for me.


But when I see God giving something out of the ordinary to my competitor, my colleague, perhaps even to my friend, I get sore and begin to check up on the way the various quotas of blessings are handed out and distributed.


When God in his goodness hands out bonuses to others and I grow jealous, I do not normally reproach myself and call myself a miserable grudger. (No, we don't say anything like that to ourselves. After all, one has to be a little bit nice to oneself; a man mustn't lose his self regard.) Nor do I say: 0 the generosity, the boundless goodness of God! (For this I say only when the Care Package is delivered at my door.) What I say is that this goodness of God is unjust. Did this other fellow deserve more goodness, more attention than I? Look at me, I saved all my life long and the inflation and revaluation took it all away from me. But this other fellow around the corner always lands on his feet and today he's driving a big car and smoking fat cigars. Or I say something like this: I've worked hard as a student and done everything I could to make myself a little less of a blockhead. And here is this other fellow, my roommate; God gave him a "brain" and he just walks through all his examinations, though he never misses a dance and goes off to Bermuda in his vacations, while I, with my lower IQ, go working my way through college. He's more "gifted" — he received more gifts than I did. Is this fair?


We all know this. We know it all too well. We embitter many hours of our life with thoughts like these; they can make a neurotic of you. And this dismal song always has the same refrain and it goes like this: God's goodness comes to the wrong person because it doesn't come to me.


The laborers were well satisfied with the householder as long as they were dealing with him alone and as long as they were agreed with him on the wage stipulations in the early morning. Not until the others arrived did the haggling over the wages break loose. Then the jealousy commenced and the complexes thickened.


It must be admitted, of course, that this question of justice and the right proportioning of wages is altogether justified in human relations. Naturally work and wages must be brought into proper relationship. It is clear that a part-time worker cannot be paid as much as the executive of a great company. But it is equally clear that two men who do the same job in the same factory and have the same training should receive at least approximately the same wage. It is obvious that one cannot give to the man who works only four hours the same remuneration that is given to one who works eight or ten hours on an assembly line or at his desk. These are clear and obvious proportions.


But now we must not forget that here we are dealing with a parable. And if we take this into account, immediately the question arises whether these things are just as obvious and nicely ascertainable in our relationship to God and whether we can calculate the proper proportions with equal ease in that relationship. If we think about this it very soon becomes clear to us that this is precisely what we cannot do For when we are dealing with God it is not merely a matter of measurable units of work but rather of all the areas of our life, including the area of our most intimate and personal life which we cannot observe and assess either in ourselves or in our neighbor.


This can be found out by means of a simple experiment. I recommend this experiment to anybody who is tormented by jealousy. You may think that the other fellow — your talented roommate, for example, or your former colleague who has had such a tremendously successful career, or the girl who shared the third-floor back with you and later married her rich boss, while you go on pounding the typewriter — you may think that all these people are the darlings of God's goodness, that they have simply been showered with good fortune. Do you really know that this is so? Would you — this is the little experimental question I suggest to you — would you exchange places with them, that is, would you exchange in every respect? Not only your bicycle for his Cadillac, but perhaps also his deeply hidden marital troubles for your independence? Not only your third-floor room for her mansion, but also her boredom, her anxiety, her emptiness, for your simple but untroubled life? That rich man whom you envy may have a gaping wound in his life because he has no heir or because his dearest is suffering from an incurable illness. Or perhaps you, a harassed, distracted, ulcerated executive, envy the simple, cheerful temperament of your young colleague when all the time he is wrestling with some difficulty at home of which you have no knowledge at all. Would you really exchange — in every respect? Are you really ready to fling down the net product of your life at God's feet and say, "You have divided up these things unfairly; you have done me wrong; you have given me nothing and poured out all your goodness on these other people." Can you see your fellow man's whole life, with all its cellars, its background, its hidden corners, as God does, as he must do every day? After all, you see only the facade. But he sees the nights and the lonelinesses. He sees the other person's heart too, with the same discontent in it as yours. Do you still want a total exchange? Therefore, let this be the final message of our parable (I sum it up in two thoughts):


First, you will never be able to see the goodness of God with a jealous eye. Many doubts of this goodness, many feelings of anxiety, of being deserted and forgotten, do not emerge from our reservoir of intellectual doubts at all, but come from the fact that we have a wrong attitude toward our neighbor. Anybody who looks at God's blessings with one eye and with the other tries to keep track of whether his neighbor receives one mite more than he does falls victim to the diseased kind of seeing that makes him incapable of either recognizing what a blessing is or understanding his fellow man. I then become a very poor and unhappy person. Then God becomes for me no more than blind fate and I acquire complexes with regard to my neighbor that rob me of my sleep. And finally I find myself at variance with everything; indeed, I no longer have any use for myself.


Second, this saving certainty — it really does have to do with salvation!— that God is good, that he is good to me, enters into my heart only if I trust that he cares for his children beyond all that we ask or think and that I too am safe and secure in this goodness. And therefore when envy seizes hold upon me I must stop this nerve-racking calculation as to whether God is giving more to somebody else than to me. Instead, I should thank him for what he has given to me and pray that he may also support and comfort that other person in those secret trials and troubles of which I have no knowledge at all.

Jesus Christ, when he hung upon the Cross, did not envy the executioners and drunken soldiers standing idle upon Calvary. And yet from any human point of view he had reason enough to do so. For he was writhing in pain and thirst, hanging from the cruel nails, while these rude fellows walked around beneath the Cross free as air. And they were uncomplicated enough not to let it bother them. They were free and full of life and slaked their thirst at will. They were the top dogs. But Jesus did not envy them; rather, he prayed for their souls, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." The Father knew the misery of these top dogs. And as his Son prayed thus for them the Father's countenance shone upon him and he could say, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." Here was one who did not envy, but looked upon his neighbor as his Father looked upon him, sorrowfully, seekingly, yearningly. And that is why he was one with the Father and bowed his head in utter peace.