(Sunday Homily) Jesus Advocates a $58.00 per Hour Minimum Wage!

living wage

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 6-9; PS 145: 2-3, 8-9; 17-18; PHIL 1: 20c-24, 27A; MT 20: 1-16A. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092114.cfm

What will the Kingdom of Heaven be like for minimum wage workers? Ask the poor people Jesus speaks to in today’s gospel. There the Great Teacher tells them a story about a character every employee – all of us, I’m sure – encounters at some point in her or his life. He’s the skinflint boss who imagines himself a great humanitarian, despises his workers as lazy, and treats them with complete arbitrariness. He takes great delight in disappointing them – simply because he can.

The familiarity of this comic book character must have set Jesus’ audience laughing. And it probably started a long animated conversation about bosses, wages and employment.

Anyway, the story goes like this . . . It’s late in the harvest season and this big fat landowner goes to the town square to hire fruit pickers who are shaping up there. (You can imagine him coming by in his pick-up truck, smoking his cigar, pointing at the strongest workers, and shouting, “Hey, you guys, get off your lazy duffs and jump in the back. I haven’t got all day. There’s work to be done!”)

In the story, you can tell the owner’s a cheap skate because he’s careful to hire just the minimum number of workers he thinks can get the job done – if he pushes them really hard.

But he miscalculates. So he has to return at noon for more pickers. But instead of blaming his own stupidity, he blames the workers. He calls them “lazy” for “standing around idle.” He shouts at them, “Get in the truck, you lazy no-goods! You should be working!” (What does he expect? They’re waiting for someone to hire them, for God’s sake! But then coupon-clippers, like the boss in the story, always despise calloused hands.)

Now it’s almost quitting time. With only an hour’s daylight left, and with his fruit ready to rot in the fields, the skinflint owner finds himself back in the square hiring more workers. Again, he blames them for being lazy. But off they go to finish the day’s work.

Then the punch line comes. The completely capricious landowner suddenly decides to play the generous humanitarian. So with great flair he gives a full day’s wage to those last hired – my guess is: just a few workers.

Naturally, the other pickers rub their hands together, drooling with expectation that they’ll be paid more generously too. But of course old Scrooge disappoints them. (These kinds of bosses always do! They love it.) He decides instead to turn legalistic and teach these lazy good-for-nothings a lesson – about power.

“What do you mean: ‘MORE?’” he shouts like the beadle in Oliver Twist. “Have you forgotten our contract? And besides, I’m the boss. I can do what I want, and you can’t do a thing about it!”

By this time, Jesus’ audience surely had stopped laughing. They were probably grumbling and rehearsing their own similar experiences with cheap legalistic bosses who love to play the generous philanthropist.

But then Jesus gets everyone smiling again by adding with a wink: “And so it will be when the revolution comes (or as he put it – “in the Kingdom of God”) where “the first will be last and the last will be first – you know what I mean?” He winks again.

It takes a while for the message to sink in. Not everyone “gets it.” The audience scratches its collective head. Finally the penny drops.

“Oh, I see what you’re saying, Jesus,” someone says. She looks around at the others. “Don’t you get it?” she asks. “All of the workers in the story are ‘the last;’ it’s the boss who’s ‘first’.” In the final judgment, Uncle Scrooge will be last and all of us will be first!”

The audience starts to cop on.

“Yeah,” someone else says doing a quick calculation. “And do you know what that means for us, doncha?”

“What?”

“It means we’ll all be on Easy Street; that’s what it means. Think about it; in the Kingdom, we’ll all be making a hundred grand a year!”

Everyone laughs.

“No, I mean it. Do the math: minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, right? That means that those guys who worked only one hour earned $58. That’s $464 dollars a day, if they had worked all day – or $2320 per week, or $9280 per month, or $111,360 per year! Now that’s a just wage for bustin’ our butts. Whaddaya think? Talk about a workers’ paradise!”

By this time, everyone’s laughing so hard, they’re in tears.

Hmm . . . Kingdom economics. Kingdom pay for minimum wage workers: $58.00 an hour. . . . First/last; last/first . . . .

The Waltons should take note!

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

15 thoughts on “(Sunday Homily) Jesus Advocates a $58.00 per Hour Minimum Wage!”

  1. My take on this parable is a little different. In my vision of the Kingdom it is a social utopia where everyone is paid the same amount regardless of what kind of work they do, or even if they work at all! In that society each person will receive an equal share of the collective wealth generated by all of them.

    One might object: But in that case no one will want to do any work! Remenber however that in this advanced spiritual society people are operating from a higher level of love and giving and sharing of responsibilities. How we get to that inner level is our problem. Many things that would seem impossible for people at our present low level of spiritual development would become simple and automatic for those at a higher level. As Augustine said: love and do as you will. Deep authentic love is a great remover of obstacles…

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    1. Mike, I completely agree with you. You’ve put this very nicely. However, I don’t think we have to wait till the world undergoes a spiritual conversion before making more equitable arrangements regarding compensation for work. That task had already been largely accomplished before the Reagan counter-revolution against the New Deal. Workers have lost a lot of ground since then.

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  2. Mike,

    Your version of this gospel story is classic. As I read it, I was thinking that would not the 1st century Jewish ears heard the story in like manner?

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    1. As I read the parable, it’s almost impossible not to have it start thoughts and conversations about justice in the workplace. I’m betting that happened with Jesus’ listeners too. Where commentators usually go wrong is in allegorizing the parable and making the cheap skate landowner represent God and the way God deals with us all. No wonder there are so many atheists!

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  3. Divine love does not have to be earned. It is given freely and equally to each and all regardless of “merit”. Our economic model of social relationships is deeply flawed.

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    1. Again, I agree with you, Mike. This is a wonderful insight. However, unlike most commentators, I don’t find that valuable lesson in this particular parable. What I was attempting in the homily was to say that it’s a mistake to allegorize this parable, making the bi-polar landowner into a cipher for God. Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God to poor people routinely exploited by their employers. I take his point to be that a Great Reversal is on the horizon — what John Dominic Crossan calls “the Great Divine Cleanup.”

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  4. Mike, when I took a Macroeconomics class at Berea, a lovely young classmate, one of your Peace & Justice students, dropped out early in the class after the instructor assigned reading in a textbook chapter that covers “Command Economies”.

    She rejected any information available about the economic failures of the former Soviet Union. Apparently she wanted to believe otherwise, even though most people who lived through the Soviet experience eventually came to the conclusion that communist reality fell unacceptably far from original expectations.

    The Soviet dictatorship devolved into organized crime (which survived the collapse of the Soviet Union). One of my daughters asked a young man (whose family left Kiev around 1991) about Russian organized crime. I had warned my daughter to be wary of mobsters, and she passed along my warning to him… which led to personal discussions. The young man laughed and told me that underground mob government was the only way anyone could get anything done in the former Soviet Union. Rule of law existed at the surface, but actual power and decision-making rested in the hands of people completely outside the law. (I am aware that there are places in the U.S. where this is also the case, unfortunately).

    The reasoning and results of minimum wage laws make an interesting study topic. Like many other laws, minimum wage is capable of producing unintended results (alcohol prohibition laws developed a prosperous crime mob in the 1920s, drug prohibition now has enriched organized crime as well; rent control in major cities results in apartment scarcity and impossibly high rents for newcomers).

    If anyone reading this has never taken an economics class, you might enjoy doing so, even if you find the information challenging to cherished belief systems.

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  5. Microeconomics is probably the best place to start. I overheard a dance major at Berea’s tutoring center praise her Economics class (S. Steele’s?) to a group of other young students. She said that her Micro class had completely changed the way she planned her life and choices (and no, it isn’t about being a “skinflint”. Excess in any direction is a character flaw). The dancer just learned to consider carefully the consequences of her efforts, and how to use her energies most effectively (allocation of resources). Money is not the only valuable item. Time and energy can be focused in ways that are beneficial or wasteful to the self and others.

    Power can be abused by anyone — is it right to focus on business leaders over other kinds of leaders (military, academic, medical)?

    There are teachers who abuse power, but they are certainly not the majority. You would rightfully object if teachers were caricatured in the same way as business owners. Do you scapegoat business owners over, for example, university presidents and staff?

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    1. Of course, you’re right, Mary. But I was just commenting on Jesus’ parable which focused on a landowner rather than teachers (he does that elsewhere), military leaders or college presidents.. In his parable Jesus seemed to be making fun of the land-owning class — or at least the behavior of an individual belonging to it. And I’m sure, I was saying, his audience could well relate to the fun. So can many of us today who have experienced the “world of work” and its disproportionate power relationships. It’s just a (meaningful) joke.

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  6. Rather than try to decide which interpretation of this interesting parable is the “correct” one, I would rather think that there is more than one true and meaningful understanding that the story can engender. For me, myths and tales are provocations to see reality from multiple perspectives, thus enlarging and deepening our understanding.

    From the wiki entry on midrash:
    … approaches to exegesis, interpretation of Biblical texts in Judaism is realized through peshat (literal or plain meaning, lit. “plain” or “simple”), remez (deep meaning, lit. “hints”), derash (comparative meaning, from Hebrew darash—”to inquire” or “to seek”) and sod (hidden meaning or philosophy, lit. “secret” or “mystery”).

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    1. Yes, I agree, Mike. The whole point of parable is to start a discussion about its meaning. As Crossan points out, it took only a couple of minutes to tell a story like this, but then the discussion probably went on for an hour or more. And the point of discussion is to give voice to various interpretations. As always, thanks for yours.

      ________________________________

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  7. Very thoughtful interpretation. I agree with you, about the point – then and now – as we try to re-interpret the original intent for our present economic system. I also agree with the points that Mike K
    makes..

    Speaking for myself, I think that each time I read a parable I try to situate myself among the hearers or those for whom the teaching is meant. In my case, I have been a trade unionist for most of my working career – first at a newspaper and then for 30 years with a state teachers’ union. As such, this parable speaks to my union loyalties and experiences: ‘equal pay for equal work’ and ‘last in, first out’ (seniority), as well as the right to grieve workplace unfair labor practices. Now, however, another layer of meaning has been added that requires a different consideration. That is: who is eligible to enter the Kingdom ( who is invited to partake of the Banquet?) that Jesus refers to in this and in other parables?

    I checked through six books that I have in my Scripture library that specifically address parables
    (especially as a literary form). One that I liked is, And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms, by Margaret Nutting Ralph. (New York: Paulist Press, rev.ed.. 2003.)

    I think Ralph summed it up clearly when she said,
    “The Method of parable interpretation…stops short of involving the modern-day audience in the action. Many parables, however, reach out and involve a modern-day reader in exactly the same way in which they involved Jesus’ contemporaries. As we read or hear a parable we, like Jesus’ original audience, get involved with the story and start to pass judgment on the characters. As soon as we do this the parable has the potential of calling us to new insights, repentance, and conversion, just as it did its original audience.” (pp. 226-27).

    Isn’t that precisely what we all have been doing here? Don’t you agree that this is exactly what Jesus intended that future readers/hearers would do? Proof once again that, properly understood, Scripture is a living thing intended for all persons and generations – until the Kingdom becomes a full reality???????????????

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    1. Thanks for your comment aliceny. I have read Ralph’s book, and agree with just about all she said there – and with your thoughts also. We learn by sharing our various interpretations:

      Many of the Holy Ones
      Have we named
      Since our life has been
      A conversation
      And we have been able to
      Hear from one another.

      Holderlin

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