Yesterday, our morning bible reading was The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It's a nice little piece about gratitude and the virtues of property ownership and worker exploitation. It's not often I get upset with stuff Jesus says, and I'd never thought about this passage but when I read it yesterday I got cross.
The idea is that workers who negotiate a wage should be grateful, even if the value of their work is far more than the wage. In the case of this parable workers are clearly being employed for a fraction of the value of their work to the landowner. But if they are desparate for work and only have the social power to negotiate a small wage, according to Jesus, they have no reason to complain. If there are others who don't need the money and can hold out for a better wage, then good for them. The landowner is apparently entitled to spend his money however he chooses.
I have largely felt that the New Testament does not serve power, and that is why I find it so confusing and compelling. This parable clearly serves power, using the familiar rhetoric of demanding gratitude for whatever scraps the powerful decides to throw your way. It is even surprisingly transparent. Jesus is clearly saying that a rich man has the right to distribute money however he chooses. On one level it is reasonable to argue that people can negotiate a contract for any wage, but price-discrimination as Jesus is suggesting would probably be illegal in Australia at the moment. Although it probably approximates an AWA.
The outcome of this mentality is fairly clear and until unions came along was basically how wage negotiations worked. The powerless worked for a subsistence wage and the powerful worked for the value of their contribution (however difficult that is to figure out). Those who needed the money to feed their children were certain not the get it and those who didn't need the money were showered with it. It's a perverse situation, but was totally pervasive for hundreds/thousands of years. This parable is almost a perfect case study for how the powerful will always do whatever they think they can get away with and why we need (and probably will always need) unions.