The Politics of Just Wages—Matthew 20:1-16 (Mark Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In Jesus’ parable of the day laborers on the vineyard, we encounter two competing views of what constitutes just compensation, one determined by ‘fairness’ and the other by need. In its commitment to the human-centered “economics of need,” the Reign of God teaches us to value work—and the worker—in a new way.

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Day laborers have always been easily exploitable. In New Testament times these laborers would be landless peasants, probably urban dwellers, with no union power and even lacking the job security of indentured servants. With no sustained employment, they would queue up every morning, waiting for a foreman to come by and point to them, relying completely on the chance that someone needed workers for that day. In almost every economy throughout history, the abundance of those needing work has vastly outnumbered the employers who are looking to hire. That inequity of supply and demand keeps day laboring wages low, masking the critical role that day laborers have actually played in agriculture, mining, fishing, building, and maintenance industries over the years.

I recall visiting a small canton in El Salvador, where the primary employment for real wages—outside of creative bartering systems that develop out of necessity—was the brief harvesting season for coffee beans. That year, despite the exorbitant increases in the cost of a cup of coffee at local coffee shops in wealthy countries, wholesale prices for coffee beans were at an all-time low. The owner of the local coffee finca—not a local person, but an investor from San Salvador—decided that it would be more profitable to allow the beans to rot and fall to the ground than to pay the costs of harvesting and selling them. It was simply an economically rational choice for the landowner. It was a devastating choice for the local community.

The day laborers in this canton would be considered idle, at least when it comes to wage-production. Common wisdom claims “idle hands are the tools of the devil,” approving of the judgment that has been echoed from II Thessalonians 3:10, to Captain John Smith, and even Vladimir Lenin that “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” But, they were not idle. They scratched out their own gardens as much as possible, since they had no money to buy seed or fertilizer. They broke boulders and used the pieces to make a steep dirt path into a cobblestone road that would not wash away in the rainy season. And they became inventive, fashioning something useful that they might barter on the street during market days.

In the parable of the workers, the remarkable fact that some of the workers were still at the market as late as five o’clock, indicates that the jobless outnumbered the jobs that day, and they didn’t even have their own sustainable gardens to go home and tend. This parable, then, is grounded in that intersection of power and material dependence that we have come to call the “political economy.” As such, the parable posits two competing views of what constitutes just compensation—I call them the “economics of fairness” and the “economics of need.”

In the “economics of fairness” we think of wages as hourly payments, setting human need aside for an objective, fixed measure of “this much per hour.” With such an objective measure—whether it is the negotiated “usual daily wage” of the parable or the “minimum wage” of current economies—the “economics of fairness” gives an aura of blind justice at work through the rule of simple mathematics. What the “economics of fairness” typically leaves out of the picture is that the fixed number is typically calculated according to the correlation between available laborers and scarce jobs, not the actual costs of living.

The “economics of need” is based on something other than the medium of a fixed wage per hour. It is based on the workers’ needs. That is, it recognizes that someone who is only employed for one hour out of ten still needs to pay 100% of the costs of feeding a family, not just 10% of those costs. That seems to be the landowner’s point in the parable. The early morning hires did what they agreed to do and received what they needed. The five o’clock hires did what they agreed to do and received what they needed. The “economics of need” reflects the human-centered and not wage-centered economy, which Jesus says is what the Reign of God is like.

Whether speaking of a 1st century field hand, a 21st century peasant in El Salvador, or a single mother working a minimum wage job with no benefits, the parable of Matthew 20 still arouses indignation among those whose needs are already met. Appealing to the “economics of fairness,” we find reasons why the poor are poor, why our own level of comfort is justified, and why we ought to be passionate that “they only get what they deserve.” The Reign of God calls us to a new way of viewing the value of work, by keeping the value of the worker central—even that worker who has only been working since five o’clock.


D. Mark Davis is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Theology, Ethics and Culture. The author of two books, Talking About Evangelism and Left Behind and Loving It, Mark exegetes the RCL Gospel reading each week at leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.org.

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