According to a report released in November 2017, the top three wealthiest people in the United States — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — own more wealth than the bottom half of the total population. The 400 wealthiest people have a combined $2.68 trillion, worth more than the total wealth of 64 percent of Americans. What stood out to me when I first encountered this report is that one in five Americans has zero or negative net worth, a category overly represented by minorities. This means that 20 percent of people in our country are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and suffering when faced with financial setbacks.
Capitalism can be a force for good when it creates opportunities and capital for the most people possible. But America’s capitalist society has conditioned many white evangelicals to think poor people are responsible for their own situation. They’ve bought into the idea that if you work hard you will succeed. Furthermore, when we look at biblical passages about the responsibility to the poor, our full confidence in capitalism creates some distance between us and the commands of Jesus because we believe that it’s only a matter of effort that separates the poor from their needs.
As Christians, we believe nature is broken and in need of redemption. Free-market or laissez-faire capitalism allows for nature to take its course in the economy and expects that most people will benefit in the end. But if nature acts according to its sinful state, then the strong will prey on the weak and take as much as they can for themselves. What we see in God’s kingdom, however, is an intentional turning of the tables, where the first are last, and the last are first. This is no clearer than the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16.
Common interpretations today conclude that those hired at the eleventh hour refer to deathbed conversions or ministry to the Gentiles. These interpretations ignore, however, how the parable seems to be a fitting contrast to Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16-30). When speaking about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” What I think this parable describes, in light of the Rich Young Ruler’s hard-heartedness, is the radical generosity of a wealthy landowner who lifts up disenfranchised workers and alleviates their poverty.
A generous employer
In Jesus’ day many workers lost their land because of their debt in taxes to the Roman government. This created an unemployment crisis. The fact that this master owned land already gave him economic power, but his land was also productive property, meaning its fruits created more economic power. As a landowner with a vineyard, his ability to produce and distribute his own products in a time of economic turmoil meant he was rather wealthy, especially compared to those around him.
Earlier in 2018, major companies announced they were raising the minimum wage or offering employee bonuses in response to the new tax bill. At face value, higher wages and lower costs are good things. But some of these companies accompanied these pay raises by laying off others, sometimes affecting the employment of 10,000 workers in a single company. These companies prioritized maintaining their profit margin.
But the master of the vineyard in Matthew 20 doesn’t care about his bottom line. Sound business wisdom would tell him to hire workers throughout the day, but prorate their wages so as to maintain a healthy profit margin. That way, if he hired many workers at the end of the day, they could finish the work and he would pay them a fraction of what he is paying everyone else. But the master recognizes the need of the unemployed and makes a sacrifice.
This parable illustrates how the Rich Young Ruler should have responded. He came to Jesus asking how to inherit eternal life, and Jesus responded by commanding him to give what he possessed to the poor. The rich man refused and walked away. Now in Matthew 20, Jesus offers an example of kingdom generosity — a landowner sees the need of disenfranchised workers and goes out of his way to make sure all those who needed to feed and provide for their families could.
By sacrificing his profit margin for the good of the poor, the wealthy landowner willingly becomes last. Even though the order is reversed at the day’s end, all receive the same pay. The richest person, on the other hand, is willing to humble himself through this generous act and allow the disadvantaged to rise from their condition of poverty. Even so, his generosity is only a small imitation of the generosity of Jesus, who willingly left the riches of heaven to suffer on our account so that we, the spiritually destitute, could become co-heirs of the kingdom.
The restitution of wages
Hearers of this parable should rightly marvel at the radical generosity of this man. Could you imagine the headlines today if Bill Gates visited an unemployment center and paid everyone looking for a job as if they had worked for him? What this parable describes is the restitution of wages for those left behind in the workforce.
The parable divides the two groups as between those who were hired earlier in the day at various stages and those who were hired dead last. These disenfranchised workers were not unemployed on account of a lack of effort but a lack of opportunity (Matt. 20:7). Their perilous situation could be compared to the plight of the urban poor today. Without reliable means of transportation and housed in neighborhoods with few job opportunities and resources, many urban dwellers trapped in poverty find it nearly impossible to be in line first, right on time, or the healthiest of those competing for the same jobs. The same could be said for the disabled and other sectors of our society forgotten by the economy. Like the eleventh-hour workers, they are picked last.
New Testament scholar B. Rod Doyle says this parable captures the essence of Matthew’s Gospel for “concern with the marginalized, open to all, upsetting and overturning worldly wisdom, welcoming the nobodies, treating each, old hand and newcomer, as equal.”
Jesus builds his kingdom from the marginalized and those willing to give up everything to follow him. The grumbling workers are likely not the Pharisees, but the disciples. Once they see that it is difficult for the rich to enter heaven, they begin jockeying among themselves for first place in the kingdom. All the while, Jesus is telling them that they are looking past the poor, the invisible class of society. The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few, but even those who labor shouldn’t expect from God greater generosity than what he promises the poor and destitute.
If our political sensibilities are offended at the thought of richly rewarding those who cannot help themselves, then that’s precisely where Jesus wants us to listen to this parable.