Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Parable of the Living Wage

Photo of workers picking strawberries in a field. Image source.
Today let's take a look at Matthew 20:1-16. In this passage Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who hires workers at various times during the day. When he hires the first group, very early in the morning, he tells them they will be paid 1 denarius for the day. Then he goes out 4 more times during the day and hires more people- some of them arriving in the late afternoon and only working a few short hours. In the evening, he pays the last workers first- and they each receive 1 denarius. So when the ones hired first come in to get paid, they expected to get more- but they also received 1 denarius each. And complained about it. But the vineyard owner says they can't complain because at the beginning they agreed to the terms, and he has the right to pay everyone the same if he wants.

So here's the interpretation I always heard in church: The vineyard owner is God, and "working in the vineyard" means being a Christian. The day represents a person's lifetime. Some people become Christians during childhood ("early in the morning") and serve God faithfully through their entire lives. Some people "repent" and "accept Christ" on their deathbed. But all of them get the same reward- they get to go to heaven. And we shouldn't criticize God for the way they chose to reward people.

But let's try a different interpretation, one that's not so spiritualized. The workers are working for a very low income, and they don't even have guaranteed employment from one day to the next. They stand around in the marketplace and wait to see if anyone will hire them or not. And at the end of the day, the vineyard owner pays them all a living wage, even though some of them didn't "work hard enough" to "deserve" it, by capitalism's standards.

The book The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary has this to say about the practice of hiring workers as shown in the parable:
The manner of recruiting workers is a familiar sight even today. The traveler to the Middle East can observe day laborers who wait beside streets or at street corners early in the morning to be hired by landowners or others who have work for them. One finds the same scene played out in various parts of the world (including the United States) wherever there are fruit and vegetable crops that need planting, weeding, or harvesting by migrant and other temporary workers. Those looking for work stand at a place where landowners can come in trucks and hire as many as they need. 

The laborers portrayed in the parable have no permanent employment, no ongoing economic relationship with an employer. In this respect they differ from "slaves" who have permanent work on an estate. Their lives and livelihoods are less secure than those of slaves, since their employment is seasonal.
The commentary also mentions that "A denarius was considered adequate pay for a day's work, neither generous nor miserly."

Another blog post about this parable says:
But there is also a broader application. The owner in the parable pays all the workers enough to support their families.[2]The social situation in Jesus’ day was that many small farmers were being forced off their land because of debt they incurred to pay Roman taxes. This violated the God of Israel’s command that land could not be taken away from the people who work it (Leviticus 25:8-13), but of course this was of no concern to the Romans. Consequently, large pools of unemployed men gathered each morning, hoping to be hired for the day. They are the displaced, unemployed, and underemployed workers of their day. Those still waiting at five o'clock have little chance of earning enough to buy food for their families that day. Yet the vineyard owner pays even them a full day’s wage.
Because, in the kingdom of heaven, everybody deserves to have enough money to eat. Everybody deserves health care, good housing, etc. You don't "earn" that by being financially beneficial to an employer. No, people already deserve those things, just because they are people.

One might say it's not fair that the people who were hired last got paid the same as the others. They didn't work as hard, apparently. In reality, though, it's a lot of work to be unemployed, or poor, or homeless. And on top of that, there's the stress of not knowing where the money is going to come from for your next meal. Aren't the workers who were hired first in a better situation because they didn't have to worry about not finding a job and not getting paid? It's not logical for them to be jealous of the people who spent most of the day worried they would go hungry.

I'm not saying all jobs in all of society should be paid the same. It makes sense for people to have the opportunity to earn more money as they move up into positions that require more skills. Nothing wrong with that. I'm talking about the opposite end of the spectrum- unemployment, minimum wage jobs, poverty. Nobody should have to "work hard" in order to "deserve" food and housing and health care. People deserve those things already.

Good evangelicals (in white American Christian culture) would say my interpretation is wrong and this is just a parable about spiritual things like "getting saved" and going to heaven. These are the same people who claim to be following "the plain teaching of Scripture" and not "distorting" it. Somehow, in "the plain teaching of Scripture", a parable about money and economics and poverty is, apparently, not actually about money and economics and poverty at all. Somehow, a story where Jesus commends a man who pays all his employees a living wage does not actually have anything to do with the question of whether employers should pay a living wage. Nope, apparently it's just meant to teach us not to be too jealous of deathbed converts.

Sure, okay.

From cover to cover, the bible preaches that society needs to care about those who are poor and in need. But evangelicalism trains us not to notice- trained me not to notice. And so when people say "the bible is clear", they're usually talking about rules for other people's sex lives.

That's messed-up. In Matthew 20, Jesus teaches that people deserve enough money to meet their basic needs, and it's not dependent on how hard they work or their value in the eyes of capitalism.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: White Privilege and the Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-20)

Next post: On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost (Matthew 20:17-28)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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