One early morning, a certain vineyard owner sets out to hire laborers. He goes to the local bodega where laborers usually wait to be hired, negotiates a fair day’s wage and sends them to his fields.
Several hours later, mid-morning, he comes across some individuals by the Home Depot, so he employs them also and sends them to his fields. At noon, he finds more unemployed laborers in the parking lot of a justice-based church and sends them to his fields.
The process is again repeated in the mid and late afternoon. When the day ends and it is time to pay the workers, the vineyard owner reverses the order and begins to pay those who were hired last and worked only a few hours.
He begins by paying them the amount he originally agreed to pay those hired first thing in the morning. Then he pays those who worked the entire day the same amount. Some worked all day, some just a few hours, yet everyone got the same amount of money.
Is this fair? Shouldn’t workers be paid according to the amount of time they invested in the job? Doesn’t time equal money?
To reconcile how our present capitalist economic system defines fairness, the Bible must be spiritualized. The parable (Mt. 20:1-10) is interpreted as God providing the gift of salvation (the denarius) without regard to how much work is done by the individual, nor how long one has labored for God. All who come to God are given the same portion of grace regardless as to when in their life journey they turned to God.
But for those who are accustomed to standing at designated street corners throughout major cities of this country waiting and hoping for a patron to stop and offer a job (off the books to avoid employment taxes), the fairness of this parable resonates. For those who are relegated to the barrios, unemployed or limited to minimum-wage service jobs, the fairness of this parable provides a vision for a just society based on the rule of God.
How many day laborers end up working all day only to be paid a fraction of their worth because they have no recourse? How many of these workers injure themselves at the job only to be dropped off at the closest hospital and left to fend for themselves?
To read this parable from the margins, from the perspective of the poor, is to recognize that the vineyard owner — that is, the employer — has a responsibility toward the laborers, a responsibility that goes beyond what traditional capitalist thinking defines as just.
Jesus was aware of the laborer’s plight. He fully understood that poverty prevented those who were created in the image of God from participating in the abundant life he came to give. In his parable of the vineyard owner, Jesus attempts to teach economic justice so that all can have life abundantly.
It was not the laborers’ fault that they failed to obtain employment for that day. They awoke in the early predawn, walked to the spot where potential employers came to find workers and waited. Whether or not they were chosen to work that day, they still needed a full day’s wage to meet their basic needs: food, shelter and clothing.
Earning only half a denarius meant that several family members would not eat that day. Only an uncaring and unmerciful heart would declare it just that these laborers leave without being able to meet their basic needs because, through no fault of their own, they were unable to find a job.
Reading the Bible from the margins, the lesson is that those who are economically privileged, like the vineyard owner, must remain responsible for those who are not.
For those who live under an economic system that commodifies time, justice is defined as a set pay for a set number of hours worked. Yet Jesus here defines justice as ensuring that each worker obtains a living wage, regardless of the hours worked, so that all can share in the abundant life.
It did not matter how many hours a laborer worked, what mattered was that at the end of the day, she or he took home a living wage so that the entire family could survive for another day. The workers’ responsibility was to labor, and it was the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the employee left with enough.
What does this say about our present system, where if a person works full time at the minimum hourly wage, he or she will earn several thousand dollars below what the U.S. government has determined to be the poverty level?
First Published in Baptist News Global