Jesus’ Paints a Full Employment Scenario

Waiting for work
Waiting for work in Westhampton. Photo credit: Erica Jackson

Matthew 20:1-16

The goal is like this:

A business owner went down to the corner at daybreak to hire workers to pick his crops. After agreeing with the workers to pay them each $87 for the day’s work, he sent them out to the fields.

Around 9 am, he went by the corner again, and found more people standing around. So he told them, “Go work in my fields and I’ll give you a fair wage.”

Again at noon, and then 3 pm, he went and did the same thing. And then at 5 pm he went by the corner and still there were more people standing around. He asked them, “Why are you hanging out here doing nothing?” And they told him, “Nobody gave us no yob today.” So he told them, too, to go and work in his fields.

As the sun set, the business owner had the foreman call the workers in to give them their wages. He had them line up with the last ones hired first in line, and those hired first at the end. And beginning with the first worker in the line, he paid out $87. Those at the end got excited, thinking they would get paid a lot more. But as everyone moved through the line, each and every one of them received the same $87. So the early-birds started griping about how they should have been paid more, since they had worked all day in the heat of the sun.

But the business owner replied, “Look, we agreed on $87 and I gave you what we agreed. Go home. It’s my money and I can do what I want with it. Why are you so resentful that I feel like being generous?

So the latecomers will be first. The early-birds will be last.

This is the story of what it might look like when the rules for collecting manna in the wilderness are implemented in real life. The principle is that everyone gets enough to feed their families, regardless of their ability, and nobody gets extra that they can then use to gain advantage over their peers.

The main question that should occur to you as you read this is articulated by the business owner: Why are there so many people out of work? And in response to “Nobody gave us no yob today,” the follow-up is, why not?

Then and now, the most able-bodied hanging out on the corner by the truckyard gate, or at the Labor-ready, and even at the state unemployment office jobs fair, get picked first. Those who are older, less capable, who got hurt on yesterday’s job don’t get picked, and don’t get paid. They can’t support themselves and their families. Meanwhile, among those who do work, the expectation is that if you work hard you will get ahead. That sounds great, until you consider that some getting ahead implies others get left behind. But that’s how it works in the real world.

The parable, on the other hand is Jesus’ way of helping us explore what it might look like if nobody gets left behind. What if everyone who showed up looking for work found a job? And what if everyone had enough to take care of their families at the end of the day. Every day. Some people might get upset. So, think about these:

  • What does the desire to “get ahead,” lifted up as an unquestionable virtue and infused into our thinking from kindergarten on, say about the condition of our souls and our communities?
  • Is greed really good?
  • And is “getting ahead” really, if we’re brutally honest about it, a euphemism for greed?
  • And if not, what does “getting ahead” really mean?
  • Do we really need exorbitant extrinsic rewards to do our best work?

All the best research tends to say that beyond a job’s providing an adequate wage to take care of the necessities and a comfortable life, additional bonuses tend to stifle production and creativity. (See Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, for an extensive discussion and references.) That fact should make a difference in how we do business. But for some reason (and I suspect it’s the same reason Jesus was aiming at in this parable) we still have a widening gap between rich and poor, and at least 9% (in late 2011) of those who show up looking for work each day are still hanging around, unable to support their families.

The parable is Jesus’ conjecturing what an alternative to unbridled capitalism might look like, recognizing that the implementation is going to be the occasion for a lot of griping from those who are used to getting ahead.