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20 August 2009

Jesus, Anti-Labor Rights Campaigner

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.


  1. Damn it! Now you’ve ruined my faith.

    Tom / 12:21pm / 20 August 2009

  2. I was skim reading and skipped to bottom and misread and was kind of like “Why is Ryan saying we will probably always need onions?” (Not that I don’t think they are great in all manner of dishes!)

    Claire / 6:50pm / 21 August 2009

  3. It’s a massive leap from Matthew to “we need unions”. But I’m one of those people who thinks everything they see is evidence supporting their particular bias.

    Ryan / 9:19pm / 21 August 2009

  4. No this is an exciting passage. You know why??

    It is because the people who get hired at the beginning of the day are strong and fit and the people who get hired at the end of the day are less able people, that had initially been rejected. How hiring worked back then was landowners would go out at the beginning of the day and pick those who they thought would be most productive to do work, and the elderly etc could very easily get left behind. So by deciding to pay those who got hired last the same wage as those that got hired first is actually giving the less powerful workers the same as the most powerful workers.

    This was a big statement in those times.

    gem / 6:56pm / 22 August 2009

  5. Good old Jesus. I should have known there’d be a cheeky twist.

    Ryan / 9:23pm / 22 August 2009

  6. Thanks Gem. You’ve restored my faith.

    Tom / 10:16am / 23 August 2009

  7. Unlike Tom, I have a very strong faith, so that parable hadn’t harmed my faith. But I am glad to hear your reading of it.

    Ryan / 1:16pm / 23 August 2009

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