Bible Studies
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Friday, 20 May 2005

By Jim Jordal

"Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me," says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3:5 (NASB)

Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord…"

James 5:4 (NASB)

Many of Jesus' parables carry distinctly economic messages in the form of principles applicable to the existing society then as well as modern society today. These principles reinforce the messages of economic justice  found in the Law of Moses and in the prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Malachi. They are as relevant today as then, and possibly more so since we now have greatly increased ability to use technical and ideological advances (read automation and globalization) to further oppress and exploit the most poor and vulnerable of the earth's peoples.

Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16) is usually spiritualized to teach that all persons accepting Christ receive the same reward (eternal life), no matter how long their service as Christians. But this parable also presents principles of kingdom justice as a landowner (Jesus) goes out one morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. During that historical period it was customary at harvest time for laborers to appear in the market place at dawn, hoping to be hired for a full 12-hour day. The prevailing daily wage at that time was one denarius (a Roman coin equaling one day’s pay for a Roman soldier, and considered at that time a fair daily wage).

Early in the morning the landowner agrees to hire a group of laborers for one denarius per day. Later, he returns several times to hire additional helpers. These extra workers were evidently so desperate for employment that they did not even question their wage, agreeing instead to accept whatever the landowner thought was right. This revealed their utter dependence upon his sense of justice and mercy for their daily sustenance.

But before the landowner agreed to hire the long-term unemployed still without work near the end of the day, he asked them, "Why have you been standing here idle all day?" Thus he first determined whether or not their inability to gain full-time employment was due to their own sloth or to the failure of the labor market to provide suitable work. In other words, were they to blame for their own predicament? Or was their sad state a failure of society to provide adequate employment?

This parable makes several crucial points concerning economic justice. First is that the landowner did not take advantage of what market economists would term a labor surplus to bid down wages to subsistence levels. The "market" did not determine the prevailing wage, as is so often true today. Wages were based, not upon supply or demand for laborers, but upon the sole principle of a living wage for those needing such a wage and willing to offer honest labor to earn it.

The second principle is that the hours of labor or the task performed did not determine the wage. Those working for only one hour received the same wage as those who had toiled for the full 12 hours. Nor was there wage differentiation based upon what task was performed--all were deemed vital to successful vineyard operation and thus worthy of adequate reward.

A third principle is that not all unemployment arises from worker sloth or family dysfunction. Some occurs because the existing economic order is unable to provide employment for all, regardless of worker motivation or financial desperation. The landowner's understanding of this facet of economic justice was why he took pains to determine why some workers were still unemployed so late in the day (we might term them the "hard-core" unemployed). He wanted to determine whether they were merely slothful, or whether they had made an honest attempt to gain employment before he would offer them a living wage.

The fourth principle is that fear of human protest or pressure (from worker complaints regarding what they considered differential pay) did not motivate the landowner's generous, but seemingly irrational economic behavior. He was concerned only with economic justice based upon legitimate human need. He owned the resources and possessed the money, but he did not abuse labor with his power. We could imply that it was unnecessary for the laborers to form a union, since they received economic justice from their employer.

In summary, this well-known parable presents an employer who recognizes and practices the moral imperative that workers deserve a living wage for their labor. Whether they worked an entire day or a partial day is of no importance, provided that they made themselves available for full-time work. The fact that the labor market could not find suitable full time employment for all of them does not result in lowered wages, but in the generous provision of a living wage for even less than maximal effort. All honest labor was considered respectable and deserving of a living wage. They needed and deserved a living wage, and if their intent and actions indicated them to be potentially productive members of society, this is what the employer provided.

What do you suppose would happen today if employers and those who set legal employment standards (Congress and the various state, county, and city legislative bodies) understood and practiced these principles? What if the twin terrors of automation and globalization were harnessed to the welfare of all workers, not just the gratification of a few owners of technological and commercial resources?

It's coming, because sooner or later employers and business interests will realize that they cannot hope to sell their massive outpouring of goods unless the people who produce these goods have financial means adequate to afford them.

Last Updated ( Monday, 21 November 2005 )