How much money do you need to live well? That’s the question that the living wage movement has been trying to address, and lately, it has been having a moment.
Y’all have probably seen the headlines—about fast foodworkers in NYC, Walmart employees across the country, small communities of hair braiders and manicurists taking to the street and the internet and making the case for the “living wage.” Or maybe you remember further back, to Taco Bell’s Tomato pickers in Florida who went on strike a decade ago to draw attention to slavery conditions and unfair wages in the tomato fields of Immokalee Florida, or the 2000 movement in Baltimore led by religious leaders and activitists who came together to argue that tax dollars shouldn’t subsidize poverty-wage jobs, and who saw the living wage movement as a means to address local policy towards the working poor.
And then there are the more recent stories—about companies like Gravity Payments in Seattle, whose CEO cut his own salary in order to allow all of his employees a 70000 wage. About cities like Seattle, San Francisco, NYC, and Los Angeles, who have raised their minimum wage to $15.
In all of these cases, wages are framed as a moral issue—those who argue for a living wage seek to alleviate poverty, to reduce economic, racial, and social inequality, to empower working people, and to address the gaping chasm of inequality that grows wider every year.
But I bring all of this to your attention because it turns out that the living wage shows up long before the United States of America was a twinkle in the eyes of Thomas Jefferson. You see, long before we were debating wages in American society, Jesus was using them to teach the disciples lessons about God in our Scripture today.
Let’s take a look at the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 20:1-16:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’ 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? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
A few things we can notice immediately about this story:
- Things haven’t changed all that much since Jesus’ day. In this parable, the landowner needs laborers, and so what does he do? He goes to the ancient equivalent of the Home Depot and gathers some workers for his vineyard. So we know that in Jesus’ day, there were clear divisions—there was the landed, working class, and then there were the poor who provided day labor, those who left their families as the sun was rising and stood at the side of the marketplace for hours, hoping for a chance to make enough to pay for dinner.
- How much could they hope to make? Well, it turns out that there was a standard daily wage in effect during Jesus’ lifetime too. In this case, the full day wage for an unskilled laborer was a single denarius, or about $20 in today’s currency. So in exchange for 10-12 hours of labor, the poor could hope to earn as much as $2 an hour for often backbreaking work. They are not paid for the time that they spend waiting for someone to show up and offer them work, so we have to assume that this was better than any alternative.
- There are more poor people seeking a job than there are jobs to pay them. We can assume that this is true because the landowner in the story is able to return to the marketplace at noon and again at three, and finally at 5pm, which means that there are men who may have been waiting for a job for twelve hours before the landowner finds them. In each case, he agrees to “pay what is right,” which likely assumed they would receive less than the daily wage.
All of this is the backdrop to the story that Jesus plans to tell about God. And I think that it is helpful to remember at this point that Jesus told lessons in parables like this because he could describe something familiar to his audience. We can assume, then, that the people he was speaking to were familiar with this economic exchange. This was the stuff of daily life for many of them.
We can also assume something else, and that is this: that the people he was speaking to weren’t landowners. It is unlikely that a crowd of landowners had the time or the interest to follow Jesus around as he healed and taught in the countryside. What is more likely is that the laborers—again, the unskilled, the poor, the immigrants and the aliens—had little to lose in spending the day with Jesus. His ability to heal the sick and cure the wounded without expectation of payment likely made him quite popular amongst those who could barely afford to eat. Miraculous stories like the feeding of the five thousand probably sealed the deal for those who had little experience with the gracious providence of God.
Because that is exactly where this story is going. Because like many of Jesus’ parables, the story of the laborers in the vineyard takes an unexpected turn. After a day of work in the vineyard, the laborers gather to receive their wage. The landowner asks them to gather together based upon the time at which they were hired, presumably to differentiate their wages, and he calls those who were hired last to come up first.
Imagine the surprise of the other workers when they see that those who were hired last receive a full days wage! At first, they are excited—if this is how much the late-comers receive, then they are sure to receive even more! But expectation quickly turns to grumbling as they find that every person, from the last down to the first, receives the same.
It seems unfair. They grumble against them landowner, pointing out how much harder and longer they have worked, forgetting that they have received the wage that they agreed to. The wage that seemed sufficient until another worked less and received the same. They do not consider the hours that their neighbors endured by the marketplace, praying for work. They do not consider the calculations that their fellow laborers may have made as they wondered how they would pay for bread for their little ones. All they see is the perceived unfairness of today’s boss.
How often do we find ourselves in this situation—where we have labored long and hard to sustain a simple life, even as others seem to gain an easy life without much effort? How often have we found ourselves grumbling against the perceived ease of our neighbors, comparing our hardships against theirs? And how often have we felt that we were dealt an unfair hand, or than another was given an unfair advantage? How much energy have we spent building a ledger by which to compare our lives to our neighbors?
And how often do we consider what we do not see? Because when we spend our time building a spreadsheet to compare ourselves to our neighbor, what we miss is the good news—a story about the unmerited generosity of God. Because Jesus never set out to offer a blueprint on how to earn God’s favor. This isn’t really a story about wages and unskilled labor at all. Rather, it is a lesson about how life in God’s Country is different than our own. In God’s Country, no person is left by the edge of the market place. In God’s country, God keeps going back to gather up those who have been forgotten, and gives them a place to offer their gifts. In God’s Country, everyone has enough to feed their family today.
Jesus’ parable is a reminder to us that no person deserves the grace that God has offered. In the words of Paul: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive together with Christ—by Grace we have been saved. In other words—It turns out that all of us are the late-coming laborers! By grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, but it is a gift of God. None of us were here when the sun came up, and yet God has given us the gift of grace just the same. So perhaps it is time to give those who come after us a break. Perhaps we can make space for others to receive this gift which we did not deserve. And perhaps we can let go of the ledger sheet on which we measure our worthiness, and the worthiness of our neighbor, so that we can begin to appreciate the gift of grace for what it is: a living wage for all.