The kingdom of heaven is like… a non-unionized workforce?

Yesterday’s gospel reading was the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). This is the story in which the workers hired at the end of the day are (against all usual employment practice!) paid the same as the workers hired at the beginning of the day.

Our pastor preached a very helpful sermon on the passage. One particularly interesting point was that the owner of the vineyard will have known from the start how many workers he needed that day, and will have hired all he needed. So when he went back and hired more workers he was having compassion on people who had not found any other work that day. Similarly, when he paid the latecomers a full day’s wage he was doing so to ensure they would have enough to feed their families that day.

What I wanted to post, though, was a thought of my own regarding this passage. I was struck by the way in which it is taken for granted that the original workers have no basis to feel aggrieved, and that the employer’s behaviour is perfectly just. The workers had agreed a fair price, and that’s what they got, so how dare they complain when their employer uses his own money as he chooses.

The political uses to which that interpretation of the parable can be put in contemporary circumstances are left as an exercise for the reader.

However, I think it is critical to the meaning of the parable that the employer’s behaviour is indeed unjust and capricious. If this scenario were to play out in real life – and in a sense it does, for example where women workers find out that their male counterparts are being paid more than them – then the early-doors workers would have a genuine grievance.

This is partly because the employer could be argued to have taken advantage of them by entering into a contract with them while withholding from them crucial information about his intentions. Had they realised he would pay the same for an hour’s work as for a day’s, the workers could either have waited till later to start work, or negotiated a better rate.

Second, in more explicitly Marxist terms, the employer’s behaviour highlights the way in which the fruits of the early-doors workers’ labour – their surplus value – is expropriated from them by their employer. How is the employer able to pay the late starters the same as the early birds? Because the early birds’ labour has generated enough value for him to do so and still make a profit, with the early birds only receiving a fraction of the value their work has produced.

Even if you don’t buy those specific explanations, I do think Jesus expected his audience to be somewhat taken aback – even outraged – by the employer’s behaviour, rather than simply thinking, “Well, it’s his money, he can do what he likes with it. What’s their problem?”

Like all of Jesus’ parables, this story is intended to teach us what the kingdom of God is like. The conventional reading presents us with a kingdom of God that is like a just (but generous) employer dealing with ungrateful workers. However, if we shake off the notion that Jesus is teaching us how real-life labour relations ought to be conducted, then we can see that the point of this parable is to show us that the kingdom of God is not like the relationship between employers and workers. God’s compassion leads him to behave in a manner in which no sane employer would ever behave, and similarly we are profoundly misunderstanding the nature of the kingdom if we see ourselves as God’s employees, getting a fair reward for our efforts, fairly bargained and agreed between him and us.

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8 Responses to The kingdom of heaven is like… a non-unionized workforce?

  1. D.S.Ketelby says:

    …the kingdom of God is not like the relationship between employers and workers.

    While an employer’s resources are likely to be greater than the employees, God’s resources are infinite. A qualitative rather than a quantitative difference…

  2. Mack Ramer says:

    I’ve never heard a sermon on this passage which emphasized actual labor relations (can’t listen to the sermon here at work but it sounds from what you said like that’s what your pastor did). I think I would walk out. The focus has to be on God’s infinite generosity compared to the stingy stance mortals naturally adopt.

  3. CPA says:

    John,

    I await with bated breath your long and involved explanation of why the mustard seed may be said legitimately to be the smallest of seeds.

    Some fundamentalists want to make sure the parables are all accurate with regard to biology, others with regard to progressive labor laws . . . . 🙂

  4. John H says:

    Mack: our pastor opened with an illustration about how a trade union would react to this, but he wasn’t preaching about labour relations. His emphasis was on the generosity and compassion of the vineyard owner, hiring workers not because he needed them, but because they needed the work. i.e. precisely on the infinite generosity of God rather than “how to conduct your next wage negotiation”. 🙂

    My point was simply that even my pastor’s sermon basically took it as read that the employer’s behaviour was justifiable, which I don’t think is the case. I think Jesus’ aim is similar to that of Nathan with David: to tell a story which gets us stirred up by the atrocious behaviour of the vineyard owner, only to turn it back on us (“you are the labourer!”) by exposing how we think the kingdom of heaven should work.

  5. Chris Jones says:

    John,

    You wrote:

    I was struck by the way in which it is taken for granted that the original workers have no basis to feel aggrieved, and that the employer’s behaviour is perfectly just.

    I don’t think that this is “taken for granted.” I think it is what the passage says. When our Lord says Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?, that is a rhetorical question, the point of which is precisely that it is lawful for the employer to do what he wills with his own. Nor do I think that there is any reason (from the text itself) to suppose that a distinction between what is “lawful” (in the sense of “not proscribed by positive law”) and what is “just” (in a deeper sense) is in play here. (I will admit that I am no Greek scholar, and perhaps the use of exesti here, rather than dikaion, indicates just such a distinction. If that is the case, I will stand corrected.)

    When our Lord goes on to say Is your eye evil because I am good?, He is indicating that the employer’s generosity is in fact good; and that can only mean that the workers can have no valid grievance. For how can one and the same action be both good and unjust? And saying that their “eyes are evil” is hardly characterizing their complaints as legitimate grievances.

    It seems to me that what you are calling “taking for granted” is simply the common-sense interpretation of the story, the interpretation which our Lord intended and upon which the rhetorical power of the parable depends.

    It is true, of course, that Jesus expects his hearers to be “taken aback” by the employer’s behaviour (and the power of the parable depends on that, too). But we are to be “taken aback” by his radical generosity, not by the apparent injustice — and so while “taken aback” is appropriate, “outraged” is definitely not. At first blush, one might react to the story by saying “that’s not fair.” But a moment’s reflection shows that the claim of “fairness” is based on an assumed obligation on the part of the employer towards the workers — an obligation that is logically prior to any actual offer of, or contract for, employment. That assumption that the employer — merely by being an employer — is in the actual and potential employees’ debt, apart from any actual agreement is what underlies your “explicitly Marxist” analysis.

    Corresponding to the idea that employers are automatically under obligation to workers is the idea that God is under obligation to His creatures — that His generosity to some creates an obligation to all. Part of the point of this parable is to refute that notion. And while the parable is about grace, not about labour relations, our Lord would not make a true point about grace by making a false one about labour relations.

  6. John H says:

    Chris: thanks for your comment. I agree that “outraged” was putting it a bit strongly, and that (as our pastor pointed out) the emphasis is on the employer’s generosity.

    I still think though that if we reflect on how real workers would behave in that real situation, most of us would take umbrage at the employer’s behaviour in just the same way as the early-birds in the parable. Even if that umbrage is unjustifiable, part of the parable’s impact depends on the sympathy we feel for the original workers.

    Hence I do think there is an element of “Thou art the man!” in the punchline – Jesus exposing the way in which some at least of his audience take it for granted that they are among those who worked hard for the whole day, not among those who were helpless, hopeless and the recipients of pure unmerited mercy.

    And while the parable is about grace, not about labour relations, our Lord would not make a true point about grace by making a false one about labour relations.

    Up to a point. My invocation of Marxist notions of “surplus value” was somewhat tongue in cheek, but if it’s absurd to apply such notions to the parable, then it’s equally absurd to apply the parable to labour relations in a modern capitalist economy.

  7. D.S.Ketelby says:

    …part of the parable’s impact depends on the sympathy we feel for the original workers…

    Yes… but as with the Prodigal Son story, the sympathies and identifications of any given audience are likely to be a bit divided. Part of me (reasonably well-organised these days; responsible family man) would identify with the early birds, but part of me (given to procrastination; paperwork and interactions with employers and officialdom sometimes a bit muddled) would identify with the late-comers.

  8. I don’t know but I tend to look at it this way. The owner of the vineyard was doing them all a favor. The people he hired first didn’t have to sweat out the day wondering if they were going to be able to feed their families or not. They had the privilege of work. Those who were hire last, were probably at the brink of despair ready to return home to their wives and hungry children with nothing to eat. So who really had it better.
    Sometimes we who have grown up in the church resent those coming in. (I’ve seen it.) We don’t see why they should have an equal say in things. We resent God for giving eternal life to the strung out heroin addict/slash whoremonger, who converts on his death bed. Why should they get the same as we get. Why should he get a mansion in the father’s house? Yet God gives us all the same gifts of faith. The benefits are all the same. And rather than begrudge those who are coming into the church, or those who convert on their death bed for getting the same as us kids tortured in Sunday School, maybe we ought to be thankful that we have always known God’s love and generosity.

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