The Parable of the Living Wage

5 thoughts on “The Parable of the Living Wage”

  1. Thanks for this post. I like the reading that Jesus is actually talking about wages and workers and economic conditions, and not just giving us a nice allegory about God’s grace being given out equally. Perhaps we can push it a little further, though?

    A number of scholars would question whether a denarius was actually a living wage. It was meager, and perhaps not enough to live on. Another reading is that we shouldn’t conflate the wealthy vineyard owner with God, but simple leave him as Jesus describes him: a wealthy elite who takes advantage of a surplus workforce during an economic downturn (work must be hard to come by if there are laborers standing around looking for work at all hours of the day—and this landowner takes advantage of it, hiring people without even allowing them to negotiate for a wage: “I’ll pay you whatever is right” – but right according to him, not the workers).

    The workers are the ones who complain at the end of the story, and we’re trained to reject their complaints and side with the landowner, but is that really who Jesus or his audience would side with or be sympathetic to? I have my doubts. Jesus may well be highlighting the workers’ complaint, and showing that it is time to speak up against an economic system that is taking advantage of day laborers who have no resource but their own manual labor.

    But at the end of the story the owner shames these workers and their efforts. They have worked all day and he has *not* paid them a proper wage: ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

    The landowner unsurprisingly has no sympathy for the workers: “Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me? Take your pay and go.”

    See William Herzog’s brilliant work: “Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue for the Oppressed” for a fantastic exposition on this and some other parables.

    Thanks for your post! It helps readers think about this parable differently.

    1. Wow! Thanks so much for all of these thoughts! I have a BA in Religion, but I’m no Bible scholar and always appreciate additional perspective, so thank you, and for the suggestion for further resources. I love your shift in perspective of who we are actually supposed to side with in the story, something that hadn’t occurred to me. Nor was I aware about the disagreement among scholars about the actual value of a denarius. That would change things. In either perspective, I think it fits with what we’re taught elsewhere in scripture about “what the kingdom of heaven is like.” I always appreciate being stretched in my theology and understanding of biblical text, so thanks so much! Very appreciated!

      1. You bet! Maybe a book to add to the Christmas list? It was mind-blowing to me when I first read this perspective, and it is quite compelling, not to mention timely. I rarely see a more ‘materialist’ reading of the parables so I was intrigued and blessed by coming across yours. Thanks!

  2. Just discovered your blog. Fantastic integration of biblical principles and gospel mindset to real world problems. I appreciate that Bryan above opened up the conversation about different perspectives on interpreting parables because I have a similar point to bring up: the landowner pays them whatever they agreed to. Clearly there was a surplus of labor (we don’t now whether this was for just or unjust reasons, but it is a market condition that Jesus assumes exists and will sometimes exist), and the laborers at the beginning of the day probably felt ok about the offered wage so took it, and the ones later loved it. The point is, the fact that the owner paid them what they agreed to, thereby removing their right to complain, is praised, not condemned. Maybe the denarius was a nice amount, maybe not, we don’t know completely (I am guessing not since it was the common wage and we know that most people then lived at a subsistence level). Either way, the freedom of association and contract between the workers and employer is construed as a positive, or at least not condemned.

    I say all that to apply it to something you say later on in your piece: about advocating and voting, political actions, in our world today to move toward liveable wages. What methods are going to be used to extract those extra wages from employers who might not want to pay them? It clearly would be the state making laws to force, under threat of heavy fines and imprisonment, employers to supply this increase in wages. I suppose if they really owed them, that would be fair. But we already have laws that ensure employers pay what is mutually agreed upon between employer and employee at time of of hire. This parable seems clearly to praise the free market condition of wage negotiation that existed in the story. All the workers agreed to it, thereby they have no right to complain. I know as well as you that the government often gives very sweet deals to large companies who buy lots of power in Washington and it disrupts the equality of power in the job market between the individual and the companies. However, as a guiding principle, how can the Kingdom of God be advanced through state force? If there is injustice in pay (there may be), I am quite confidant to say that voting for certain laws that will produce corrective force is not anything that can be justified by this parable. Everyone has the freedom to not work if they don’t like the wage. And there are perhaps ways we can use political means to eleminate loopholes and cronyism that causes the rich to have power over the poor. But active force that would make an employer pay more than they are willing to freely? That isn’t Jesus. And it isn’t this parable either. “Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me?” Asks the landowner. Yes, yes he is. Even if he is a greedy person and his workers are poorly paid. Our mission of building the Kingdom on earth is to win the hearts of the fathers back to the children, not to capture the violent and proud mechanism of the empire through the polls to heavy handedly force the fathers to give their children good gifts. Because it can’t be done. The market, heartless as it can be, has its place in the parables of Jesus. It’s a feature of a cursed world (maybe even an uncursed world, another conversation). If you’d like to talk more about the mindset I’m putting forward, please respond, or follow me on twitter to find something that catches your eye. @DanielRChristy

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