The New Testament and the Labor Question

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. The landowner agreed to pay the workers a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” “Because no one has hired us,” they answered. He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”

Copperplate engraving depicting the reward of the workers in the vineyard (Carl Schuler, published circa 1850)

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” (Remember the order.) The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.

When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

The preceding is a parable Jesus tells his disciples (the account is found in Mathew). Of all the religious passages I’ve encountered, I find this one to be among the more revealing of the true nature of Christianity, one that renders Christianity incapable of being a practical moral philosophy.

What Jesus is advocating with this parable is obedience to money-capital and disregard for the unjust treatment of workers. The landowner’s money-capital he used for wages was not given to him by his god. He acquired that money by exploiting the workers in his field. They produced the surplus value for him, which he took to market and sold for the costs of production plus profit. This provided him with the money-capital he used to pay the workers.

This situation of exploitation was created by the landowner’s usurpation of land, which required the power of the state and law in the hands of his social class, which meant that those he hired could not provide for themselves, but had to rent their bodies to him in order to acquire money to survive. Those who worked all day in the field were, in the meantime, away from their family and opportunities to pursue other more creative and interesting endeavors.

Those who did not work but an hour were given the same amount, apparently just so the landowner could assert his right to do by virtue of him being their master and brag about his power over their fortunes. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” he asks rhetorically just before accusing them of envy, all the while making it appear as if he is the job creator who, out of his generosity, allows them to work for him. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is just like this. 

Also, in consideration of the labor question:

  • “[Y]ou may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way” (Leviticus 25:44-46).
  • “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever” (Exodus 21:2-6).
  • “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment” (Exodus 21:7-11).
  • “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property” (Exodus 21:20-21).

You object. Those are Old Testament rules. Yet, in the New Testament, we find:

  • “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
  • “Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them” (1 Timothy 6:1-2).

Here is a parable from Jesus himself (in red letters) on the occasion of a slave misbehaving: “The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it.” Jesus adds, though, that “people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly.” So the slave who misbehaves in ignorance shall receive a less severe beating. Jesus concludes with this moral: “Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given” (Luke 12:47-48).

Paul, perhaps of the most central of Christian teachers, violates the commandment in Deuteronomy (23:15-16) wherein it is forbidden to return to a master an escaped slave. In his letter to Philemon, Paul admits he returned an escaped slave to his owner.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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