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The Capitalist Parable

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., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.