Was Jesus an evil capitalist?

(Matthew 20:1-15 NASB) — “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place;and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner,saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’

I’m really not going to offer any commentary.  I’d like to let the text stand.  For readers not familiar with the parable, Jesus is relating to his listeners that regardless of when in life someone comes to Him for their salvation, they will receive the reward of heaven.  It also speaks to people who might question the “fairness” of what we might call ‘death-bed conversions’ and God’s sovereignty.

Seeing that Jesus made reference to a capitalist system and even defended paying someone the same salary for an entire days work as an hour of work which diminishes the hourly wage significantly for the all day worker, and raises significantly the hourly wage for the single hour worker, would you support Jesus’ view of employer’s rights?  Namely that it is the employer who should be the deciding factor in what a job’s value is, and not the worker (or union for that matter).

Comments

  1. Everybody gets the same regardless of how much they work is not anywhere close to capitalism. It is the precise definition of communism.

    • JP

      But that’s not even what’s going on here. In the parable the employer negotiates a wage with each individual. It only happens to be that each wage is the same. As Dan says the non theological point seems to be that a land owner can do with his land and money as he sees fit. That he holds the final say, not the employees.

      • J. Palmer says:

        I don’t think Jesus ever intended to make any “non-theological” points with his parables. We are talking about someone whose economic philosophy was literally to “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Trying to extrapolate fiscal policy from Jesus’ teachings seems a bit misguided–especially if the conclusion you draw is that Jesus advocated for capitalism. If Christ was one thing, it was unselfish, and capitalism (in theory and practice) is a selfish system.

        Thanks for the discussion.

  2. That depends on how you look at it. One of the central tenets of communism is fairness. There’s no way that what happened there was fair… except from a communistic perspective. But then again, there is the issue of private property rights, which is the point I think that the passage is making. In the passage Jesus is making the point to the Jews, who felt entitled because of they were Jews, that their “owner”/maker, God, could do with them as he pleased. Private property is a central tenet to capitalism. IF there is no private property there is no capital to invest.

    Dan

  3. While I agree with you that Jesus never intended to make non-theological points, he did use non-theological truths to make his points however. This is just one case in point. And here is another point. Systems are not people. It is impossible for a system to be either altruistic or selfish. Capitalism and communism are neither selfish or generous. The people involved with them are the ones who exhibit these traits. The real question therefore is “are people generally selfish or generous?” If they are generous then either capitalism or communism would work fine. But if they are selfish, then both will suffer. It just so happens that they suffer more under communism.

  4. TBG:

    Great point. Systems themselves cannot be selfish/unselfish.

    Communism has certainly brought a great deal of suffering to the nations that have tried it, but I also see a great deal of suffering in America, where capitalism rules. People can argue all they want about the aspects of the American economy/government that contribute to poverty and inequity (taxes, entitlements, etc.), but my faith in a free market system is constantly being corrupted by the selfish CEO’s who repeatedly put their interests ahead of those they claim to serve–and they do it with impunity because the invisible hand of the market is stronger than the long arm of the law.

  5. Nice parable. A good lesson. I believe it is misinterpreted and over interpreted. The parable has little to do with economics. This parable is about how you should enjoy the benefits from life without regard to how others might be drawing more benefits. Generosity is a beautiful thing and should not be limited by those who have received less generosity. It is a parable about attitude.

    I would be careful about getting economic lessons from the Bible. (Nor would I get my physics and math lessons from it, etc.). The Bible contains moral imperatives, not economic ones.

    Let me comment on this:
    “Namely that it is the employer who should be the deciding factor in what a job’s value is, and not the worker (or union for that matter).”
    Communism is an attempt to prevent exploitation of those without capital by those with capital. The problem with communism is that it goes too far. Although it solves this problem, it introduces many others. The fact is, however, that we need to put some brakes on what those with capital can do. This is not anti-wealth, it is simply putting a priority on human dignity. In other words, humans are more then economic entities. If my economic worth is close to zero (e.g. I am disabled), does that mean my human worth is zero also?

    I have two blog posts related to this topic:
    http://mannucci.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/the-end-of-the-weekend/
    and
    http://mannucci.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/true-collectivism/

    -Anthony Mannucci

  6. Didn’t Jesus see the sellers in the temple and tell them to stop? Markets are wrong?

    Didn’t Jesus make the ultimate sacrifice: his life to save mankind from sin? Zero profit transactions are good?

    I could go on…

  7. J
    Yes there is suffering in America. In that sense America is like every single nation on the earth since man has walked on it . There is suffering and inequality. The system you support, whatever that system might be–it really doesn’t matter–will produce more yet. Anyone can point at flaws in a system. The real question is which system produces the least amount of flaws. It is clear in this era that that system is capitalism. If you disagree then point to a communist system that works better.

    Regarding the market vs. the long arm of the law, it is misguided to paint the “rich” with a broad brush. First, it is not against the law to be rich, at least not yet. Second, if people are basically good, (a premise I and capitalism rejects) then why do they keep purchasing from a company that overpays their CEO’s.? If man is basically good, then why are some greedy and selfish. Where are all the altruistic people pooling their money to help the poor? And third, The fact remains that in many cases the rich are rich because they discovered a more economical way to bring goods to market, or they have created something that the world is willing to pay for.

  8. Anthony

    He wasn’t upset with buying and selling, indeed he sent his disciples into town in John 4 to BUY food. He was upset that people had turned his Father’s house in to a din of robbers and thieves.

    “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER’; but you are making it a ROBBERS’ DEN.” Matt 21:12-13

    And yes zero profit transactions are good, just as are profitable transactions. I would not say however that Jesus’ sacrifice was a zero profit transaction. I have profited greatly from that transaction as have untold others, and I for one am eternally grateful.

    Dan

  9. TBG:

    I see the suffering in America only as part of a result of capitalism. And I am not trying to advocate for communism–although I do think it is a much more Christlike theory. That said, I still think we should being working toward a better system instead of choosing the lesser of two evils–because as Jerry Garcia once said, “Choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.”

  10. “the lesser of two evils” refers as much, if not more, to outcomes, than to actual choices of evil. It’s merely an expression. A better and more accurate variation would be “lesser of two less than desirable outcomes”. Just sayin’.

    Also,

    There are only two possible entities that any CEO “serves”. The stock holder and the consumer of the product or service provided by the company. The employee is not one who is served by the CEO, but rather, is paid to serve the company. Just wanted to clear that up.

  11. Marshall:

    Whether you call it a lesser evil or a less desirable outcome, American capitalism is not an economic system that a free country should settle on. We can do better.

    You have oversimplified your description of CEOs. They do not always have stockholders and they can certainly serve themselves instead of the consumer. It was exactly this kind of behavior that contributed to our country’s economic downfall.

  12. J. Palmer,

    You’re right. If CEO’s are running companies that don’t have stockholders, then they themselves are the third possibility of entity they would support. What’s your problem with this? Are they not in business to make money? Who are you supporting when you work (assuming you don’t own a business), besides yourself (I include one’s family as the same as one’s self)? No business owner will succeed without serving his customers. To say that CEO’s looking out for themselves is the reason for our economic woes is simplistic to say the least.

    There is no better economic system known to man at this time than capitalism for providing the best opportunity for the most people. I defy you to name another that is better.

  13. I didn’t say there “is” a better system. I said we can do better, as in the better system has not been created yet. There was a time when people were willing to settle on chattel slavery as the best economic system, but that didn’t make it right. The world becomes a better place when people stop accepting what is and start working toward what could be. According to your logic, the Sony Walkman was a perfectly good device for listening to music and there was no need to waste time and energy creating the ipod.

    Keep defending capitalism if you like. I can only imagine it is a system that has personally worked for you, so in your small-mindedness, you believe it should work for everyone else. I, on the other hand, see the exploitation that sustains capitalism and will continue to challenge its validity in hopes of progressing toward something better.

  14. The parabole is refered to “the kingdom of heaven” talking about the “landowner’s” generousness to those who enter the “kingdom” which will have the same high reward disregarding when they enter.

    When it cames to capitalism, it has little to do with “I’ll pay you anything I want”.
    A denary per day was a very high wage at a time when a fisher or an artisan could gain a denary per two days. Landowner was paying them far beyond their work value, and the extra came from landowners generousness.
    In no way justifies that the job value should be employer’s only decisition nor justifies employer’s greed and worker exploitation.

  15. Deuteronomy 24:14-15
    No oprimirás al jornalero pobre y menesteroso, ya sea de tus hermanos o de los extranjeros que habitan en tu tierra dentro de tus ciudades.
    En su día le darás su jornal, y no se pondrá el sol sin dárselo; pues es pobre, y con él sustenta su vida; para que no clame contra ti a Jehová, y sea en ti pecado.

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