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The Good Capitalist: Part I – An Ancient Story

[For this Part I blog and the next Part II blog, I share an edited version of a sermon I recently preached titled “The Good Capitalist” with the expectation that you’ll see how the right moral conviction leads to the right business decision. Whether that business decision was 2000 years ago as in Part I, or just in 2015 as in Part II. First please read Matthew 20:1-15, either here or in your preferred version, so that you’ve got the context.]

Rembrandt (1606-1669) The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

The parable of the vineyard owner might sound like a stretch to our modern ears, as if describing a purely imaginary situation. But that’s far from the case. Drive into any Home Depot parking lot, and you can often see a huddle of day laborers clamoring around a pickup truck competing for a day’s work. Our parking lot laborers are the economic ancestors of this parable’s marketplace men.

Apart from the vineyard owner’s generosity, this parable describes the kind of thing that happened frequently at certain times in Palestine. For example, the grape harvest ripened toward the end of September, and then close on its heels came the rains. If the harvest wasn’t gathered before the rains broke, the harvest could easily be ruined. So to get the harvest in often became a frantic race against time and any worker was welcome, even if for just a concentrated hour.

A denarius was the normal day’s wage for a day laborer during the time of Jesus and the writing of the parables. The exact worth of a denarius is up for debate because it fluctuated, just like our current dollar. But whatever the exact amount, its value falls between $2-$4 US dollars. A day’s income of $2-$4 dollars sits just above the World Bank’s current global poverty line of $1.90/day (which about 10% of the world lives on) but relatively far below the average global living standard of $5.50/day (which about 50% of the world lives on). To put these wages into a visual context, think of a range represented by the pictures of skeletal children we see on charity solicitations, and images of ghettos and slums in our news feeds. At best this is barely survival living; certainly not an income that leaves breathing room or that one can afford to skip.

There’s no evidence the marketplace men were street corner idlers, lazing away their time. The marketplace was the equivalent of the labor exchange. A man arrived first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him. Like those in the Home Depot parking lots. The men who stood in the marketplace wanted and waited for work. The fact that some of them stood on even until 5:00 o'clock in the evening is proof of how desperately they needed work, and how desperately they didn’t want to return home empty-handed to wives and children.

Day laborers during this time were the lowest class of workers, and life for them was always desperately precarious. Frankly, slaves and servants of those days had it better. At least they were attached to a family with some wealth. They were at least within a group. Yes, their fortunes would vary with the fortunes of the family, but slaves and servants in ancient Palestine were not in imminent danger of starvation. It was simply a different world for day laborers. They were not attached to any group. They were entirely at the mercy of chance employment. They and their families were always living on the semi-starvation line. Who can set aside for a rainy day on $2-$4? Literally, no one who has to go it alone. For these day laborers, to be unemployed for a day was a disaster, and the vineyard owner likely knew that.

This parable focuses on the goodness of the owner and the envy of those who thought they should get more for their work. The key to interpreting this parable is verse 10: those hired first thought they would receive more. And the place where we, as careful thinkers, engage this parable is around its themes of envy, justice, and kindness done to others.

Why is kindness often the occasion for jealousy? Why do we too often find it difficult to rejoice over the good fortune of others, and why spend any time at all calculating how we’ve been cheated?

More specifically, this parable is about generosity. That’s the reason it opens with the words, “The Kingdom of God is like.” You know the Kingdom: “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the Kingdom we humans are charged with bringing down from heaven and establishing here on earth, which we do when we imitate the character of God when we deal with each other. The better we do our job, the more of the Kingdom we have on earth. But God’s Kingdom, with its focus on communal love, can’t be experienced as long as we’re comparing ourselves with others, or calculating what is due us, or being envious of what others received. We need to be generous with each other, whether in a group or not.

Justice is critical and can’t be sacrificed, but it’s time to polish our understanding if not definition of justice. Justice is not some cold standard by which the poor are kept poor. We claim we want and are working toward justice, but too often we dress up and parade as justice what is really jealousy, or we use justice as a weapon to limit generosity.

Justice requires positive action seeking the good of all persons, especially the poor. True justice, that is, God's justice, seeks mercy and ways to express love. This parable teaches us to give up envy and calculation of reward in favor of embracing and imitating the character of God. Those who worship the God Jesus points to must imitate that generosity, not begrudge it. Imitating God is how we will receive the answer to that prayer, “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The climax of this parable or the mic drop, is with verse 15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The vineyard owner correctly asserts his right to pay the workers not strictly on their merits but also on the basis of compassion. Why should his generosity be condemned as a slight or an injustice by others? Of course Jesus pointed to a God of justice, but in his vision of God, the divine compassion greatly informs the divine justice.

There may be some among us whose sense of justice is still offended by the vineyard owner paying all the workers the same wage. Perhaps you feel those who worked longer should be paid more. I’m not going to go to the mat with you over that and I suspect neither is God if, IF, as the vineyard owner you choose to pay a denarius to those who work one hour while increasing the pay of those who work longer. That would certainly be generous of you and a good imitation of God’s character. After all, it’s your money and are you not allowed to be generous with what belongs to you?

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