“Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”

In the center-right foreground, a laborer who had been hired later in the day stares past one of his fellows in pleased disbelief, the latter’s countenance stamped with astonishment, both of them looking up from the full day’s wage in his hand. To the left, one of the laborers who had worked since the morning shows his single denarius to the householder with disconcerted visage, as if to say, “Surely there has been a mistake. You do know that I worked the entire day, don’t you?” (“The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard,” Bernhard Keil, oil on canvas, date unknown)

Plato writes in Epinomis that among all the liberal arts and contemplative sciences, the science of number is supreme and most divine. And in another place, asking why man is the wisest of animals, he replies, because he knows how to count. Similarly, Aristotle, in his Problems repeats this opinion. Abumasar writes that it was a favorite saying of Avenzoar of Babylon that the man who knows how to count, knows everything else as well. These opinions are certainly devoid of any truth if by the art of number they intend that art in which today merchants excel all other men; Plato adds his testimony to this view, admonishing us emphatically not to confuse this divine arithmetic with the arithmetic of the merchants.
(Giovanni Pico de Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.
(St. Paul the Apostle, Epistle to the Romans, I.18ff)

For close to a decade, the Gospel lesson for Septuagesima, Matthew 20:1-16, has held a special fascination for me. Though I did not always think of this passage of St. Matthew’s gospel in such terms, its significance as such is impossible to overlook: in the historic Western lectionary, Septuagesima begins the decrescendo to Lent. Its propers have a marked firmness to them, contrasting noticeably with the fulsomeness of Christmas and Epiphanytide. So it is with this Gospel, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Although every pericope in some way attests man’s pride, faithlessness, and general sinfulness— in short, his need for the Christ of whom the Scriptures testify— some obviously do so in a more pointed way. While it is perhaps not as directly convicting as some, this text is still no soft serve. I would surmise that it affects all who hear it in a similar way, which is to say that even if we know how we are supposed to understand the parable, the householder’s words and actions never fail to strike us as somehow unfair. That being so, it is well that our pastors have the opportunity to help us to re-understand it every year.

I cannot present the two things that I find fascinating about this text in anything approaching a systematic way, so I will simply share them in aphorism form.

The first:

Suppose that the coin which the laborers receive from the householder represents the favor of God, the fullness of His goodness.1 Nothing greater can be given them, because nothing greater exists. It is impossible to receive two of the heavenly denarii. To receive the promised good at all is to receive one thing only, a thing greater than which none can be conceived, greater than which could never be promised.2 The magnitude of the gift cannot be divided by the hours of the workday. It is simply good, in the fullest sense which the words “simple” and “good” will allow.3

This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, but it can be easily missed (as with other parables) that it is about the kingdom of heaven on earth right now, which means that it is about the Church (even though the two are not coextensive). Insofar as it is about the Church, it describes the life of, and life in, the ecclesia militans, the Church as she struggles under the Cross, as she is refined in the fire and threshed on the pavement. God sees her as the spotless Bride of Christ, and verily she is, but men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed. And, as v. 4 of the same hymn goes (though not in LSB), there are also “false sons within her pale”— that is, within the pale of the Church militant. This is affirmed by the Augsburg Confession in its eighth article: “Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers, nevertheless…in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith.”

This is why I have to tremble at the the words of the householder to the disgruntled laborers at the end of the parable:


Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a denarius? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Matthew 20:13-16)


From the first word to the last, this is exactly parallel to the end of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet:


Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:12-14)


If my reading is correct, in both instances these words are addressed to those who do not, at the last, enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They are roughly coterminous with the awful words spoken to the goats by the Son of Man in Matthew 25: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41).

The laborers who murmur, who accuse the householder of unjust dealing, are not simply chided: they are damned. They are damned because they are discontent with receiving the finite unitary sum in which infinite blessing is contained. It is as though they imagined that they could possibly have received, say, three incomprehensibles, three eternals, etc. Thinking thus about the Trinity, they find it impossible to be saved.

They are damned not simply because they wished to lord it over the “late converts.” Rather, they are damned for the reason why they wished to lord it over the late converts: their belief that their term of service in the vineyard constituted a do ut des/quid pro quo arrangement, one in which longer and harder labor merited more. Lacking faith, they did not understand what they stood to receive at the end of the day, namely, something incomprehensibly good, eternal, and impossible to earn. They were promised all that they needed to support their bodies and lives. But upon receiving this, they were dissatisfied. They came to think of the householder’s goods as something which they had become entitled to through labor4, all the while forgetting, or perhaps never really knowing to begin with that (aphorism #2)…

Belonging to the householder’s estate, being allowed to work in his vineyard, and receiving denarii from him are all gifts. To put it somewhat simplistically: being in the vineyard is the entire point.

Forgetting this, the murmurers did not recognize that they had in fact received more: they had been in the vineyard for the entire day. Thus their time in the vineyard was spent in toil, faithless striving, when it should have been spent in rest— work, yes, but work with the yoke of the gentle lord upon their shoulders, work in which there was rest and contentment.

The men who are hired are termed “laborers” (lit. “workers,” ἐργάτας) prior to being called upon by the householder. They were redeemed from working dead works, from futile striving. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says in Matthew 11. Yet in what does such rest consist? “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.” The rest which Jesus promises is clearly not the rest of idleness or inactivity.5 To put it bluntly, if it were, why would it involve wearing a yoke? “Rest” seems rather to subsist in contentment, in a peaceful conscience, not in slothfulness or slumber. Those who enter such rest are active, but they are active in working the works of God rather than the dead works of the flesh.6 They know that they are not laboring to earn a place in the household, on the estate, in the vineyard. They are in the vineyard already, and that by grace alone. They have been bought and redeemed from a life of idle striving. They have been adopted, as it were, into the estate of the householder. In such belonging to a gentle lord, there is rest.

Just who are these grumbling laborers, though? As with all of the parables there is an ineluctable word of Law, universal in scope: (1) don’t be like the grumbling laborers, thinking that God is in your debt and that it is even possible for you to merit His grace; (2) you are a grumbling laborer; repent, lest at the end of the day the householder tell you “Go thy way.” Each of us should see himself here. Yet we might also perceive an ecclesiastical allegory in this text: if we expand the trope to include the Old Testament— and we should, for the Church has been since the world began— we can see in the murmuring of those who had “borne the burden and heat of the day” the unbelief of the Jews. First in the vineyard by the grace of God, the Jews nonetheless labor faithlessly, believing that their status as Abraham’s children according to the flesh has put the Almighty in their debt. There is an analogy, then, between the span of a single human life and the span of history: damnation is the lot of all who imagine that it is their labor in the vineyard rather than their adoption by the householder which is the basis for their receiving his benediction on the Day of Reckoning.7

I have two more points. One has to do with the Lord’s Supper, and the other with the three estates.

Medieval theologians saw a strong Eucharistic allegory in this parable…

— now, before your Lutheran turnpike goes up, hear me out:

No, this probably will not immediately make you think of the Small Catechism, but it is not for that reason bad or false. “Medieval” does not necessarily imply un-evangelical and papistic. This isn’t something with which we disagree.

Near the end of their earthly discipleship, and at the end of the day, what did the disciples receive from their Master?

What do all Christians receive now in life and hope to receive in the last extremity?



Behold the laborers, gratefully receiving their denarii.

The denarius is the host, the Body of Christ, in which each Christian receives forgiveness of his sins, life, salvation, and rest from his labor.8 It is the Infinite One contained in the finite, favor Dei, the whole Christ given entirely, yet undiminished and unconsumed. At the end of the day, or at the end of life’s little day, the workers take their Abendmahl from the hand of their Master and therein receive all that He has promised.

At this point it gets a bit theoretical, abstruse, potentially boring, hopefully not heretical. Feel free to stop reading.

I said that I also had a comment about the three estates, and I do. My point of entry is not the Church, however, but the Family, which I would like to think of specifically in its aspect as a household governed by a house-father, another name for which is a “householder” (the term used in the Authorized Version where the ESV has “master”).

In thinking about this parable, I find myself wondering how many dubious sermons entitled something like “Kingdom Economics” have been preached on it, as though it were about how Christians should run their businesses. Obviously this is not what the parable is about. But if we are to freely give as we have freely received, imitate the apostles as they imitated Christ, lend even to our enemies with no thought of return, be generous and ready to share, and do good to all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith, it’s simply impossible that a text which tells of the liberality of the love of God in Christ Jesus— as this parable most surely does— would tell us nothing of how we must and shall love our neighbor.

I would submit that this parable does, in fact, have something to say about how all house-fathers— householders, men of means, what have you— are to love those neighbors who rely on them for daily bread. This seems to make intuitive sense vis-à-vis the other two estates: pastors, be like Jesus the Good Shepherd; kings, be like Jesus the King of Kings. I am simply contending that it is the same for the familial estate: fathers, masters, be like Jesus the Good Householder.

To be clear, I am quite sure that what the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard has to say to householders ancient and modern is not “do your payroll like this”; however, I am equally sure that it commends— presupposes, even— two fundamental goods:

The first good is a human-scaled economy. In the most literal and basic sense, οἰκονομία provides the frame of reference for this parable’s similitudes. This is not incidental, but a reflection of natural law. It is significant that the parable begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder,” and not “the kingdom of heaven is not like a man that is an householder.” The social structures which exist and have existed for all of human history— let us call them what they are: the three estates— architectonically reflect, are like unto, the kingdom of heaven, even though wicked men use and abuse them. But they are nonetheless fundamentally good. Just read Luther in the Large Catechism on the Fourth Commandment— really, on all the commandments. It’s all there.9

The second commended good is societal patronage. Above I said that this parable has something to say about how all householders are to love those neighbors who rely on them for daily bread. In ancient, late-ancient, medieval, and early modern times…basically, for all of human history until the industrial revolution, such neighbors were those whom the ninth and tenth commandments refer to as “manservants and maidservants.” The degree of bond-servitude varied, of course, but what did not vary was this: such people were not mere “employees,” mendicant individuals for hire hawking their labor on the open market (— such alienated souls existed, of course, but their state was not considered enviable, as such desuetude often ended in premature death); rather, they were members of households, under the authority of the head of that household, i.e. the father, the householder. He was responsible for their welfare. It was their duty to work hard at whatever he gave them to do; it was his duty to see to it that they were fed, clothed, and taken care of. So it is with the householder in the parable: he pays well, and he takes care of those whom he has hired into his vineyard— notably, by giving them work in the first place.10  11

But just what or who is a householder in this day and age? It’s somewhat convoluted, to be sure, but I would think that we would have to regard any employer as a householder, simply based on the nature of the employer/employee relationship, whether or not the employer is the actual proprietor of the business or— as is increasingly the case in this age of transnational corporations— some kind of intermediary steward. That almost feels like a Pollyannish best construction. I suppose the larger point that I am trying to make is that real membership is the desideratum of the human soul; individual autonomy, ironically expressed by the proletarian concept of the “hourly wage,” simply is not, no matter how much we might imagine otherwise.

Membership in what? Ultimately, membership in the Body of Christ; belonging in the Household of God, where Jesus the Good Householder gives us our daily bread, both that which perishes with the using and that which endures unto everlasting life. This is the greater truth. But it is a truth no less ordained of God that we, His creatures, flourish only in ordered, hierarchical communities, never as alienated “liberated” individuals. “Individualism” and “self-determination” are idolatrous mythical delusions. “Why, think you, is the world now so full of unfaithfulness, disgrace, calamity, and murder,” Doctor Luther asks in the Large Catechism, “but because every one desires to be his own master and free from the emperor, to care nothing for any one, and do what pleases him?”12 Our most ardent desire to the contrary notwithstanding, most men are unable to be their own masters, because most men are unruly, poor, or both. Most men need masters, and, truth be told, most men have them, even today, if only in the sense that most men are dependent on other men who are more powerful than they to be kind to them, give them good work to do, and look out for them.13 In general, they do not need to be “liberated” from their masters. Rather, what such men need is for their masters to be like Christ (cf. St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon).

“Yes,” you say, “but this world is not our home, we have no abiding city, and our hearts are restless ’til they find their rest in God. Doesn’t that mean that we shouldn’t pine after permanence and ‘belonging’ in the City of Man?”

I certainly believe all of that to be true— those very antecedents and that very consequent. However, I do not believe that it follows from them that we should pay no mind to the conditions of our mortal life in the earthly city, or that we should not man the cultural and civilizational ramparts against the godless and the deranged, or that we should not prefer social arrangements which are more spiritually and metaphysically sound to those which are, in a word, perverse. What that all means is…quite a lot, but I’d rather talk about it all with friends over food, drink, and tobacco than continue to attempt sorting it out in this already quite long blog post.

Thank you for reading.



  1. In allegorizing in this way about what the denarius “is” or represents, I am admittedly putting myself under the indictment of Dr. Luther, who in his Church Postil for Septuagesima says outright, “it does not harmonize with Scripture to say that the shilling signifies eternal life”; also: “we must not consider this parable in every detail, but confine ourselves to the leading thought, that which Christ designs to teach by it. We should not consider what the penny or shilling means, not what the first or the last hour signifies; but what the householder had in mind and what he aims to teach, how he desires to have his goodness esteemed higher than all human works and merit, yea, that his mercy alone must have all the praise. Like in the parable of the unrighteous steward, Luke 16:5ff, the whole parable in its details is not held before our eyes”; and: “Hence the substance of the parable in today’s Gospel consists not in the penny, what it is, nor in the different hours; but in earning and acquiring, or how one can earn the penny.” Johann Spangenberg, however, does allegorize in his interpretation, suggesting that the reward of the laborers does indeed represent salvation (see fn #7).
  2. Annunciation pun unintended.
  3. This is a paraphrase of and elaboration on some comments made by a professor of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval British Literature whom I had as an undergrad at Hillsdale College. I don’t know how the conversation about Matthew 20 came up in his class, but it did, and I never forgot it. The phrase “not good and better, but good and more good” has stayed with me. If you were there, and you can help me remember more, please do tell.
  4. cf. John Locke and Karl Marx— two peas in a godless, modernistic pod.
  5. Josef Pieper in his monumental Leisure: The Basis of Culture contends that frenetic work for work’s sake is actually of a piece with acedia, i.e. sloth, one of the seven deadly sins:

    “The code of life of the High Middle Ages said something entirely opposite to this: that it was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restless- ness of work-for-work’s-sake arose from nothing other than idleness. There is a curious connection in the fact that the restlessness of a self-destructive work-fanaticism should take its rise from the absence of a will to accomplish something. This is a very surprising concept, which requires no small effort to explicate. But it is worth the trouble to spend a little time with the topic. What did the old code of conduct mean by idleness, by acedia? To begin with, it meant something other than what we usually mean, when we speak of the ‘root of all evils.’ Idleness, for the older code of behavior, meant especially this: that the human being had given up on the very responsibility that comes with his dignity: that he does not want to be what God wants him to be, and that means that he does not want to be what he really, and in the ultimate sense, is. Acedia is the ‘despair of weakness,’ of which Kierkegaard said that it consists in someone ‘despairingly’ not wanting ‘to be oneself.’ The metaphysical/theological concept of idleness means, then, that man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself; … and this sadness is that ‘sadness of the world’ (tristitia saeculi) spoken of in the Bible.

    “What, then, would be the concept that opposes this metaphysical/theological concept of idleness? Is it that acquisitive effort or industriousness, as practiced in the economic life of civil society? To be sure, this is how acedia has been understood by some, as if it had something to do with the ‘business-ethos’ of the Middle Ages. … The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God— of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused, by anyone with any experience, with the narrow activity of the ‘workaholic.’ We would probably get this all wrong, if we hadn’t been expressly told: Thomas Aquinas understood acedia as a sin against the Third Commandment. So far from seeing in ‘idleness’ the opposite of the ‘work-ethic,’ he understands it as a sin against the Sabbath, against ‘The soul’s resting in God.’” (Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Gerald Malsbary, South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 47-49)

  6. cf. Hebrews 9:14ff
  7. cf. Johann Spangenberg’s comments on this pericope: “16. Does God summon all men into His vineyard at the same time? No, God summoned the Jews early in the morning, and this was the condition which he spoke of through Moses [in] Deut. 28:1-4, 6, Lev. 26:3, 12 … 17. When were the Gentiles summoned? Late, about the eleventh hour, and in the last age of the world. As St. Paul says, we are those ‘on whom the end of the world has come’ [1 Cor. 10:11]. For when Christ came into the world, He found the Gentiles idle, without any calling, without faith and Word, in idolatry and unbelief. He promptly sent out His messengers and had them summon through the Gospel, and made no requirement for them, simply saying, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be condemned. … 28. Can you distinguish the laborers? Jews labor in the law of Moses, but not correctly, for they refused to understand it, therefore they only received the temporal blessing. But the Gentiles labor correctly in the Gospel, for which reason they receive both the temporal and the eternal blessings, not from merit, but from grace. … 32. What did the master of the house say to these murmurers? … In other words, he says, ‘Poor sinners have a great advantage over hypocrites and the works-righteous because they confess their sins and believe in him who justifies sinners, and plead for grace, and they get it, too— not through their merits or works, but through Christ in whom they trust, and for this reason they are saved. But the works-righteous look for wages not from grace but from obligation. They only want to trade piece for piece, one thing for another and nothing for free, for which reason they are cast out and get nothing. Indeed the first become last. So it was with the Jews, and so it may be with us Gentiles, too, if we should prove ungrateful like the Jews.'” (Johann Spangenberg, The Christian Year of Grace: The Chief Parts of Scripture Explained in Questions and Answers, tr. Matthew Carver, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 90, 92)
  8. And the cup. Calm down.
  9. This is why Karl Marx was so fantastically evil, and why all who follow in his train are in the grip of a delusion which is nothing less than demonic. This is not at all to suggest that capitalism is the antidote to Marxist communism. It is, I believe, no less a species of pernicious dialectical materialism. Whatever the case may be, I do not purpose to plumb the depths of that debate here.
  10. cf. Deuteronomy 24:14-15
  11. That this parable has anything to do with economies of scale or societal patronage is a rather large and admittedly tendentious claim. For an interesting read on this topic, or, rather, on a topic which is very much related, see here: “Neofeudalism: A Manifesto”
  12. LC I.154
  13. From “Living On Sufferance,” by JMSmith over at the Orthosphere: “American workers adopted the word ‘boss’ in the nineteenth century, when the old title of ‘master’ began to chafe their republican pride. A slave had a ‘master’ but a free man had a ‘boss.’ The common point of master and boss is that both had hold of ‘the whip hand.'”

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