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

Excerpt from: The Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers

No sentimentality and no symbolical glorification should delude us as to the fact that the Cross is the very sign of God's defeat — a towering sign that cries out to us: Here is where God went down in defeat; for "he who loves the most [says Thomas Mann in Tonio Kroger] is always the defeated one and always suffers the most." And here God is the defeated one, because he loved the most. Here God was defeated, here man triumphed. Here man achieved sovereignty over his earth. His philosophers and poets will glorify the men who make history and they will extol the autonomy which is the sign of the dignity of this man who has emancipated himself from God.

If this story really comes close to the nerve of Christianity-and the truth is that it actually does expose this nerve-then how can anybody call Christianity a mere "religion"? Here is scent more the smell of blood than the aroma of incense. There are no liturgies being celebrated here. What is heard here is the yawp, the yackety-yack of derision. Here is no sound of worship, but only the sound of a shriek: God is dead!

It is a good thing, therefore, that we should be perfectly clear about this one thing; under the impression of this story it is not so easy to drift off into pious emotion. We shall never come to terms with this story unless we see ourselves involved in it and accept our role in it. Mere "religion" has to do with Sundays and high days. And that's why it generally means so little to us after the pious moods have evaporated. We are actually very serious, matter-of-fact people. In our business, our office, our place of work everything runs in high gear. There we've got to hold on and keep our wits about us. And when evening comes we have an engagement or collapse in a chair. There is little time for sentimentality and thoughtful contemplation.

To me it is always a comfort that nearly all the incidents in which people become involved with Christ happen on these sober, serious workdays when a man has to stick to the job. The disciples are caught while they are fishing, and therefore at pretty hard work, and. the tax collectors are accosted in their offices. And if it is not work, it is some need or distress. When a man has leprous sores, when a man's little daughter has died, as with Jairus, when a man is blind and crippled and is obliged to cadge a few pennies in any crowd that comes along he is not likely to be in a solemn, religious mood. He is more liable to be depressed or indifferent. And this is always the time when Jesus comes. If this Jesus means nothing to us in the area where we spend the largest quota of our time, which means precisely the routine business of everyday life, if he is not the Redeemer here, then our Sundays are no good to us either. And even the voices of St. Michael's choir are already drowned out on Monday by noises that come from altogether different quarters.

It does us good, therefore, to be presented with this story of the vinedressers, for it addresses us precisely in the situation where we work and live our everyday lives. God always wants entrance into the elementary domains of our life. The New Testament says nothing about the religious comfort of a pious, spiritually enjoyable life.

Now, what is really wrong with these vinedressers that they should respond in such surly fashion when the owner of the vineyard appropriates the product of their labor? To understand this we must first understand quite simply that in the language of the Bible the vineyard is the accepted figure, a kind of shorthand sign for everything that belongs to the owner. The vinedressers therefore are not independent contractors but rather employees or tenants. They are not working (or in any case not only) for their own pocket. But they act as if this were the case. For they claim for themselves that which has only been lent to them. And that which has been assigned to them purely as a function they view as work the product of which they can dispose of as they see fit. Normally, no honest employee would venture to assert such an idea; for naturally he works for his company. And here we are told that these people treated God worse than an employee would treat his firm. What nobody would presume to do with an earthly employer these people took for granted with regard to God.

Now, of course, this is a very drastic assertion. And yet this is what Jesus Christ says. We must therefore try to find out what he meant by this statement. Is it really true that normally we are embezzling from God, that we are taking from God what belongs to him and diverting it to our own pockets? That this is actually so I should like to illustrate with a very ordinary, almost trivial example.

I find myself, say, in the company of a number of automobile owners. Almost inevitably they all begin to brag about their cars. One says, "Mine goes ninety miles an hour easy on the highway." Another is already interrupting him and saying, "Mine goes up Main Street hill in first." And a third butts in, "You ought to see the pickup mine has." The passion with which these people praise their cars undoubtedly comes from the fact that they are identifying themselves with their cars. I'm the one who has the pickup! I'm the one who climbs steep hills! We are always inclined to identify ourselves with everything positive which we happen to possess. Not long ago I said to one of my students, "You are a gifted boy." Whereupon he blushed and hardly knew which way to look. He was embarrassed and self-conscious because he had the feeling that I had praised him and ascribed some great quality to him. But of course I was doing no such thing; on the contrary, I was merely saying that he was "gifted," which means that his gifts were entrusted to him by someone else. But he too identified himself with them.

But examples in the opposite direction can also be found. I walk, let us say, through the cell block of a prison and talk with prisoners condemned to long terms. It is a curious thing that one of them should say to me, "The reason why I am here is the fault of the environment in which I grew up." Another says, "It was my parents' fault." A third says, "It was bad friends that did it." A fourth says, "It was my neurotic constitution." Here we see how people refuse to identify themselves with their faults but rather dissociate themselves from them, doing the opposite of what the car owners and the gifted student did.

If we try to formulate the meaning of this very simple observation which any of us can make we may make this assertion: Everything in our life which is positive, worthy, and honorable we regard as our own. We identify ourselves with anything like this, no matter whether it be our automobile or our talents-even though all this has merely been entrusted and given to us, even though all these things and these gifts in no case constitute "ourselves." But everything that incriminates and compromises us we disclaim and push aside. We dissociate ourselves from all these things and chalk them up to our upbringing, our environment, our fate-and ultimately we blame it on the final court of appeal which is responsible for all this, namely, God himself.

But now, having made this observation, we have discovered the key to our parable. For this is precisely what the vinedressers are doing. They claimed everything as their own: their capacity to work, their output, and finally the whole scene of their work and their life, namely, the vineyard itself. In the end they even take the credit for sunshine, rain, and good climate: "Ah, we are the ones who produced this good wine!" And if one or another of them is quite aware that he is not the immediate author of all this and that God provided good fortune and favorable weather, he still says: It was my good fortune exhibiting itself in my success. I am Sunday's child and the stars are smiling at me. Even luck is a virtue which not everybody possesses!

Don't we all do this? Don't we all have this "master-in-the-house" attitude, we people who have had a little success? Isn't this just what the people who built the tower of Babel did? They quickly forgot that God had entrusted the earth to them. Swiftly they built their great this-worldly stronghold; they tried to evacuate God from heaven in order to be able, like Prometheus, to say of all that they created and accomplished: "Hast thou not accomplished all things thyself, 0 holy glowing heart?" Where is the executive celebrating an anniversary and deluged with eulogies, where is the doctor whose cured patient expresses his gratitude to him, the worker who by dint of faithfulness and thriftiness has succeeded in buying his own little home and is now celebrating the housewarming, the preacher whom people thank at the door for the words he has spoken-where is the man who does not think in his heart, or at least is not tempted to think: What a fine fellow I am; really God must be delighted with me. These people are not so far off after all when they say: By George, what a guy he is! Which of them thinks in terms of Matthias Claudius' words, "It went through our hands"-of course, what was accomplished was done through our hands-"but it came from God"? Who thinks in such terms today?

In the Western world we have great faith in humanity. We have our ideals and we sing our hymns to freedom. Thrills run up and down our backs when we think of the noble traditions we have, the tremendous fund of spiritual energies we possess to be able to produce such great ideals. Have we forgotten where these (already somewhat tarnished, God knows) ideals really came from? Have we forgotten him who was the pure image of man in its divine design and who dwelt among us in our flesh and blood? Have we forgotten him who did not love us because we were worth loving or because he expected love in return, but loved you and me precisely in our need and guilt, because he saw in me the lost child of his Father? Are we really going to be like these vinedressers and claim as our own what we call our Western humanitarianism, as if this ideal were the product of our own mind and spirit? If so, then this ideal will decay and degenerate in our hands. Then man will become material, community will become no more than an apparatus, and love for one's neighbor will become merely "human relations." And hasn't all this already happened? Where do we vinedressers stand, really? How many deputies of our Lord, whom he has sent across our path at some time or other in our life, have we not ignored and sent to the devil?

With Jesus all this is totally different. Here we learn to give thanks for everything we have received. When we have healthy children, when we are granted success in our calling, when we have a happy marriage, we do not say, "This is my doing," but rather, "Here we see thy gracious hand in its exceeding abundance." And conversely, when we have sinned, when our conscience accuses us, we say, "Lord, this is my doing. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned. Cast me not away from thy presence. It is because of thy merit and thy faithfulness that I may still stand before thee."

We men have forgotten that we can stand before God despite our sin, forgotten that there is such a thing as forgiveness, forgotten that something happened for us on Calvary, and only because we have for gotten this do we assume the warped defensive attitude of these vine dressers; this is why we give ourselves over to all the crazy twistings and turnings by which we try to maneuver everything that is positive and meritorious to our side of the ledger and ascribe everything that is negative to God. What a cramping, laborious, lying business all this is! And what a liberation, what a blessed breakthrough would take place in our life if we were really to give thanks for the great and good things in our life and not look upon them as our own but rather as merely entrusted to us. And if, on the other hand, we accepted responsibility for the bad things because another has accepted responsibility for us. The point is that we can afford to be honest and realistic with ourselves; we can afford to shake off our hostile, defensive attitude. For we are free, relaxed children of God. Someone has come into our life and accomplished this. It is impossible to describe what it means to be able to live in his name; but here is where we begin to realize what the word "life" can mean.