Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where Are the Jobs?

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

“And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

“When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew 20:1-16

The traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is that it is about the grace of God. It is also about what Luke presents as “the great reversal,” the idea that in the Kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down.

But at its most basic level, it is a story about jobs and employment.

In his commentary on this passage, William Barclay observes, “There is nothing more tragic in this world than a man who is unemployed, a man whose talents are rusting in idleness because there is nothing for him to do.” He notes that a great teacher used to say that the saddest words in all of Shakespeare’s plays are the words: “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” Workers stood idle in the market place in the late afternoon because no one had hired them, and in his compassion the owner of the vineyard hired them “because he could not bear to see them idle.”

The owner agreed to pay the first workers at the prevailing rate for a day’s labor. Those hired later in the morning were simply told that they would be paid a fair wage. And those hired at the end of the day were given no promise.

But in the end each of the worker’s was paid for a full day. Barclay writes, “The master well knew that 4p a day was no great wage; he well knew that, if they went home with less, there would be a worried wife and hungry children.”

Barclay concludes that the parable sets forth “two great truths which are the very charter of every working man—the right of every man to work and the right of every man to a living wage for his work.”

In his time, in the middle of the last century, William Barclay was the standard for biblical commentary. He seldom broke new ground, but he presented the biblical truths with simple and forceful clarity. His was the consensus of traditional Christian opinion.

In our time, I’m not sure that we have consensus on the two great truths of the parable:
1. The right of every man [person] to work.
2. And the right of every man [person] to a living wage.

Economists tell us that the recession ended almost two years ago. But where are the jobs? And more to the point, where are the jobs that pay a living wage? Some of the jobs have been lost to globalization, others have been lost due to a mis-match between the skills of unemployed workers and the training needed in new technologies, but there are other factors.

In the middle of the last century, when William Barclay wrote his commentaries, the pain of a recession was absorbed in three ways: lost profits, lost productivity and lost jobs. Today we still have those three categories of impact, but approximately two-thirds of the losses are absorbed in unemployment.

Half a century ago, some workers were let go, and those who remained typically did less work, resulting in less productivity and lower profits. Today, the workers who remain find themselves doing more work to make up for those who were laid off. And workers have responded by “doing more with less” and increasing productivity. This increased productivity has not resulted in higher wages, but in higher profits.

Economists will tell us that corporations have learned to manage the downturns more efficiently. But at least part of it is because we no longer have a consensus that people have a right to work and a right to a living wage.

These are not simple issues, but they are issues that should deeply concern us.

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