The Catholic Thing
The Capitalist Parable Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 06 September 2010

In Matthew 20, we find parables on the Kingdom of Heaven. The first parable concerns a man who is a grape grower. The harvest is here. The grapes need picking. Evidently, a hiring hall is available. Workers congregate for daily jobs. The owner is early. He hires several workers for a set daily wage. The workers agree to this wage. They hasten off to the vineyard. No problem here. The employer owns the property. He needs workers. Workers are available. The going wages are agreed upon. No one complains.

The owner comes by some hours later. Other workers stand around. He hires them on the same basis. They go off to pick the grapes. The same thing happens several hours later. Finally, near the end of the day, the employer sees others standing by “idle.” He wants to know why. They tell him that no one has hired them. The owner hires them. All of these groups work for the rest of the day in the vineyard.

The day ends. The workers expect their wages. Those who bore the heat of the day naturally expect higher wages. But the owner pays each worker the same agreed-upon wage, one denarius. Every thing seems according to agreed-upon contract. Each early morning worker knew what he was getting when he went into the fields. The paymaster begins with the last hired. He gives each worker the same wage.

At this, we begin to hear murmurs. “What’s this?” The last get as much as the first? Those who worked all day “grumble.” After all, it was hot out there in the fields. Those hired last did not pick as much and were not as much subject to the heat. Is this a case of injustice?

The owner is a reasonable man. We assume he owned the vineyard in good faith. He was not out to gouge the workers. One denarius for a day’s work was a good wage. They knew that or they would not have taken the job in the first place. The owner confronts them. “Take what belongs to you and go,” he tells them. But they want more than what belongs to them. The owner remarks that if he chooses to give the same wage to those who only worked a few hours, why can he not do it? If he chooses to be generous, is that not all right. Is not the money his to distribute?

This parable contains nothing of the famous “just wage” issue. It might even be said to be Marxist – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” But we do not see that the owner thought those who came later needed more, though they obviously needed a job for that day. With their wives and kids at home, the owner may have thought those later hired also needed a day’s wages. In that case, he went beyond justice. In fact, he tells the first-hired, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity.”

The parable ends with the famous: “So the last will be first and the first last.” We suddenly realize that this parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven. We have overtones of Jews and Gentiles. We also see the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God. There is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who need no repentance. We can lose the Kingdom of Heaven if we are just but begrudge generosity to others. Must God in dealing with us be only just? Must we blame Him if He is more than just? Must we be more than just?

Modern theories of society hesitate to allow room for generosity. The owner’s property does not belong to him; it belongs to the community. Here, everyone gets only what is just. No room for generosity is allowed. All ownership that would allow for generosity is unjust. The early workers were deprived of what was rightfully theirs, even if they agreed on a set wage for the day.

In a state built on “rights” and “justice,” we find little room for generosity and abundance. Everything is controlled by the state. No one receives more than others. Envy rules. The capitalist parable, as I call it, when spelled out, deals with God’s ways with us. We can save our souls to the very end, even the worst of us. What is it to me, who have borne the heat of the day? In the divine owner’s contract with us, we must accept one condition, namely, His generosity. Many a just man refuses it. He will work forever only on his own terms.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Mark, September 07, 2010
Excellent read, but part confuses me. You wrote, "In a state built on 'rights' and 'justice,' we find little room for generosity and abundance. Everything is controlled by the state."

This seems a contradiction, for a state truly built on rights and justice is not a state that controls everything. The all-controlling state -- the collectivist state -- ignores rights and justice in favor of policy.
written by Howard Kainz, September 07, 2010
I would interpret the complaints of the first-hired differently. They are not complaining that they should be getting more, but rather that the last-hired should be getting less. That's why the owner refers to his "generosity."
written by Other Joe, September 07, 2010
The same sense of "unfairness" occurs in the story of the prodigal son. The brother complains in a similar fashion. Do we rejoice when a gangster has a deathbed conversion? Do we really, or is there an edge to our acceptance of the possibility. The greater question may be; can unconditional love be fair? Certainly it is not fair in the political sense. Reason suggests that the gangster must have been close to conversion for many years, perhaps in torment. Since we cannot know another’s heart, we are reminded not to judge. Was it St. Francis who prayed, “God make me chaste, but not yet”?
written by Emina Melonic, September 07, 2010
Other Joe,

"God make me chaste, but not yet" was St. Augustine, in Confessions.
written by manduca, September 07, 2010
Some work all day for a living wage. Some must work only part of the day, perhaps an hour. No one who didn't work was paid in this story. There seems both justice and generosity here.
written by Tom , September 09, 2010
Today the cry of "unfair" is directed at those who receive far more than the average person, rather than at those who receive the same for less work. Even if we receive a just wage and the rich do not come by their wealth unjustly, we still want to get our hands on their bounty. Is the "invisible hand" of the market nothing more than the generous hand of the owner?
written by Brian Jones, September 09, 2010

You make a valid point about a society built on "justice" and "rights. However, Fr. Schall's remarks resemble what Pope Benedict said in Deus Caritas Est. "Justice" and "rights," apart from a true anthropology of man, become distorted. Generosity springs from the depths of Christian charity, and can not be reduced to mere legal terminology.

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