Matthew 20 and the Minimum Wage: Conservative Theological Responses to David Barton

Last Thursday, David Barton and the gang on Wallbuilders Live talked about the Bible and economics. During the segment, Barton claimed that Right Wing Watch bloggers criticized his views because they have not read their Bibles. He also mentioned me by name as a Christian professor who also criticized his biblical views. RWW has the audio and transcript. I am going to include the whole segment on Mt. 20 (from 5:00 to about 10:00 on the original), including where Tim Barton implies Ben Carson is wrong in his interpretation of Mt. 20.


David Barton: Right Wing Watch listens to every program we do and they make fun of me because Barton says the Bible addresses the minimum wage. It is highly unlikely that they even know what’s in the Bible. But they’re making fun, oh the Bible doesn’t deal with…yes, the Bible does deal with that. And the concept of a free market means free from government regulation. A minimum wage is the government telling you what minimum wage you have to pay to someone. So let me take you to Matthew 20 for just a moment and look how the Bible is specific even on something like freedom of wages, the viability of employer-employee contracts.

From 41 seconds to 2:11, Barton tells the story of Matthew 20:1-16. At 2:12, Tim Barton interrupts and asks:

Tim Barton: But wait a minute, isn’t that why it’s socialism, because they all got the same thing?

David Barton: They all got the same thing!

Tim Barton: They all were paid the same no matter how long you worked. Everybody makes the same.

David Barton: And some of them put in more hours than others but they all got the same. But this one guy says but wo, wo, wo, wo, wo, wait, but I’ve been here longer. He says now wait a minute, didn’t you tell me at the beginning, you were willing to work for me all day long for that silver coin?

Tim Barton: So you agreed to that!

David Barton: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I did agree to that and then in Matthew 20:15, Jesus says, ‘Is not my money to do with as I please? I’m the employer. Don’t I get to decide what I’m going to pay everyone in this thing?'” No, no, no, the government has a minimum wage. No it didn’t. Jesus says, ‘My money is mine to do with as I please and, by the way, you made a contract with them.’ And then he tells the guy, ‘If you didn’t like the contract, you can go down the road to another vineyard and see if they’ll pay you two silver coins for what you did, but you agreed to work for me for that.'”

So what you have here is Jesus says, ‘The government doesn’t tell me how much to spend, I get to choose my own wages and, two, if you choose to work for me for that, you have an agreement, we have a contract; and three is if you’ve got greater skill, you can sell it to somebody else for a higher price, you can go down the road.’ That’s all free market stuff, there’s no government regulation of wages; and by the way, Right Wing Watch, that is the minimum wage. Government doesn’t tell you want to pay an employee, you make a contract with that individual for whatever they agree on and what you agree on, and if the don’t like that, they can use the free market to go somewhere else and try to get more. All of that is in Matthew 20. That is a great story of socialism versus free market.

Tim Barton: This is not just news for Right Wing Watch, but that too many Christians don’t what this is either. (crosstalk)

David Barton: Oh yeah, because Warren Throckmorton, Christian professor also makes fun of me for saying that. He’s a Christian professor.

Tim Barton: You go down the list.  Even people that would support us. You have people even like Ben Carson that says well, socialism that he seems to think based on this that everybody should get it. There’s Christians across the board that has a very different idea of what this says if they even know what this says, probably at Right Wing Watch they probably don’t know what this says much less understand the interpretation.

Barton teaches that Matthew 20 teaches economic policy about the minimum wage, employer contracts, and employer control of wages. Since the vineyard owner paid everyone what he wanted to pay, Barton reasons that the government can’t tell private business owners how much to pay their employees.

I can’t find a prior post where I disagree with Barton on Matthew 20 (although I certainly do). I have taken issue with his interpretation of various Bible passages but I don’t recall writing about the minimum wage. In any case, I do think he is wrong as do some people who I am pretty sure have read the Bible more than me.

I asked several Bible teachers about Matthew 20. I asked what the parable teaches and if it teaches that governments may not institute a minimum wage. Here are their replies:

Joe Carter, Senior Editor for the Acton Institute.

Our task as interpreters of parables is to find how the relevant meaning of the story applies in our own context. And while Jesus frequently referred to money and economics in his parables, never is the point of any parable to teach us about monetary or economic policy.

The illustrations used in parables are not meant to be normative, though I do believe they can be instructive. For example, since Jesus would not use a positive example that was based on injustice or evil, we can assume that there is nothing inherently wrong with negotiating with people to pay different wages — even for the same type of labor. However, that does not mean that we must take this illustration as a normative basis for personal ethics, much less as a direct claim about government policy.

Also, the statement in verse 14 — “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” — has to be read in a broader context. As the Bible makes clear, we don’t have an absolute right to do what we want with our own money (c.f., Mark 12:17), so it can’t mean that the landowner can do anything he wants. What about the broader context? We don’t know what the economic context even is — probably because it was unimportant to Jesus’ point. We don’t know, for instance, if in this parable the denarius was the government required “minimum wage” for a day’s labor.

There are many prudential reasons for opposing the minimum wage. I oppose it myself because I believe there is evidence that it harms, more than helps, many economically vulnerable groups (low-skilled workers, young African American males, non-native English speakers, etc.). But while my motivation for opposing the minimum wage (i.e., a concern for helping the poor) is based on the Bible, there is nothing in Scripture that directly supports my policy preference, much less forbids a government from instituting a minimum wage.

Adam Dolhanyk, Cornerstone Ministries:

I’ve never read a commentary or heard a sermon that taught anything other than a direct analogy to the kingdom of Heaven; as you said, both regarding Jews & Gentiles as well as people who come to faith early in life vs late in life.

Kevin Labby, Pastor, Willow Creek Presbyterian Church, Winter Springs, FL

There is great temptation to read into the parables things never intended by Jesus. The meaning or, in some cases, meanings of parables are made apparent by examining things like the historical context, prologue (cf. Lk. 18:1; 9), epilogue (cf. Mt. 13:36-43; Mk. 14:13-20), a direct interpretation by Jesus (cf. Mt. 13:18-23; 36-43) and a natural reading of the surrounding biblical context. Regarding this, Dodd adds:

The task of the interpreter of the parables is to find out, if he can, the setting of the parable in the situation contemplated by the Gospels, and hence the application which would suggest itself to one who stood in that situation.*

It’s pretty clear to me that Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 serve as bookends of sorts for this parable. Through the parable, Jesus clearly and simply intends to illustrate the principle that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

Finally in my opinion, this parable has nothing to do with clarifying specific or even general principles of economic justice. That seems entirely forced, and might in fact prove too much. If Jesus intended to communicate principles of economic justice by this parable, one might note that the owner uses his liberty to lavish his wealth on the undeserving, not keep it from them.

* C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (N. Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), p. 14.

Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:

The account in Matthew 20 is a parable, in which Jesus is teaching the kingdom of God and how it is entered. It has no more to do with setting economic policies for nations than Matt. 18:33-34 has in setting up debtors’ prisons.

Justin Taylor, Executive V.P., Crossway Books

Evangelical New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, of Denver Seminary, has authored what has become a standard book on the parables, arguing that many of Jesus’s parables have three main points (one per main character). In his analysis of this parable, he shows that the three groups of characters in this parable all deal with the unifying theme of “the status of individuals before God at the final judgment.” The three main points are as follows, according to Blomberg:

  1. From the earlier groups of workers, one learns that none of God’s people will be treated unfairly (cf. v. 4—”whatever is right I will give you”); that is, no one will be shortchanged.
  2. From the last group of workers comes the principle that many seemingly less deserving people will be treated generously, due to the sovereign free choice of God.
  3. From the unifying role of the master stems the precious truth that all true disciples are equal in God’s eyes. [my emphasis]

What Barton seems to miss is that Jesus is using a fictional story to paint a picture of God’s rule and reign (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). The result is a portrait of the way God acts with his people. It has virtually nothing to do, one way or another, with whether it is wise, moral, or legal for a secular government to establish a threshold for employers remunerating workers. I happen to think such laws often have the ironic and unintended consequence of hurting the poor they purport to help (contra Prov. 14:31). But it is anachronistic eisegesis to think one can get a good argument about minimum wage from Matthew 20:1–16. If we think that Jesus is doling out economics lessons here, why couldn’t we make the case instead that he was a socialist, paying everyone the same wage no matter how long they work?

Taylor’s final question highlights a critical pitfall of looking at Bible stories written for one purpose (to illustrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like) to teach public policy lessons in the present. One may find several contradictory lessons depending on what part of the story you examine. On that point, Ryan Kearns, pastor at Redemption Church in Seattle, WA sent along a link to an 2009 article by A.B. Caneday, Professor of New Testament Studies & Biblical Theology at Northwestern College (MN) on the parable. Caneday wrote:

By telling the vineyard parable Jesus offers no commentary upon human contractual work relationships of his day, whether they are just or unjust.24 (page 37)

Efforts to domesticate these unexpected features derive from hearing without adequate discernment. Jesus’ purpose is not socio-political. He is not overturning human employment practices by imposing a new ethic to govern hiring contracts so that all workers should receive the same pay for unequal duration of labor. Jesus’ parable is an earthly story that figuratively portrays things heavenly, not earthly. (page 38)

By the way, Right Wing Watch apparently has read the passage. Kyle Mantyla’s take on the passage sounds remarkably like our conservative Christian Bible teachers above.

The problem here isn’t just that Barton eisegetes the passage (reads into it), it is that he ridicules those who see it differently than him by accusing them of biblical ignorance. For Barton, people who disagree with his novel biblical interpretations are ignorant liberal enemies of God. I think it will be hard to reconcile his attitude with the information presented by the scholars who have commented on this post.


I want to thank the Bible teachers and pastors quoted in the post who responded to my request for assistance.