Papal Economics Book Club: The Scriptural Basis for the Living Wage

Papal Economics Book Club: The Scriptural Basis for the Living Wage March 2, 2014

Papal Economics by Maciej ZiebaHeads up for those who didn’t follow me over here from the Happy Catholic Bookshelf: We’ve got a book discussion group underway for Papal Economics.  Theodore Seeber has gotten the discussion rolling with this post.  He’s way ahead of me, but I’ll work through his thoughts bit by bit, and we’ll leapfrog each other as real life dictates.

Seeber writes of the parable of the workers in the vinyard:

This reading gives us a very basic idea of what Christian economics should look like. Yes, there is direct reward for work done, but there is also a concern for the needs of each individual worker taken by the owner of the vineyard. He didn’t punish those who were hired late- a denarius was enough to pay for a day’s bread and a place to sleep. Every one of his workers had the same basic needs, whether full time or part time, and deserved reward for using their time in the vineyard. Should we as Christians do any less?

I think he’s stretching here on the interpretation of this parable, but I don’t disagree with his general analysis of Catholic social teaching.  This parable is primarily oriented, in my view, towards our understanding of salvation: No matter how late in life you turn to Jesus, you still get the full amount of salvation.  Now we can add nuance to that by pointing to the various clear teachings in Scripture on purgatory, heavenly rewards, and so forth, but those are clarifications, not contradictions.

So where, then, do we see a biblical teaching on just wages?  How about this passage from James 5:1-6, which was one of the Mass readings earlier this week:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.

I like this passage because it dispels several simplistic misunderstandings of the Biblical teaching on wealth. It is essential that we understand:

  • Wealth can be used for good or for ill.  Amassing luxury at the expense of others is corrupt and ultimately worthy of condemnation.  In contrast, the wealth necessary for a reasonable living — such as the wages the workers have earned — is a good that each man has a right to.
  • Just wages are tied to work.  There is a place for almsgiving, but we must clarify in our economic thinking the difference between wages and alms.  This is why, for example, the notion that a large portion of US soldiers qualify for food stamps is so appalling: We instinctively know that a soldier’s pay ought to be sufficient to support a family.

The firm Biblical teaching that wages are tied to work does not therefore negate the other firm Biblical teaching of giving alms to the poor — that is, to the person who is unable to earn a wage, and thus is dependent on the mercy of others.  Just wages diminish the need for charitable giving, but they cannot in themselves fully compensate for the reality of illness, death, famine, drought, flood, and so forth.  The honest-poor will always be with us.

Seeber writes:

He didn’t punish those who were hired late- a denarius was enough to pay for a day’s bread and a place to sleep. Every one of his workers had the same basic needs, whether full time or part time, and deserved reward for using their time in the vineyard.

And here we might be reminded of St. Paul’s admonition on the giving of Christian charity: The willingness to work is pivotal.  We don’t let a man starve merely because the company wasn’t hiring earlier, or there wasn’t a suitable position available.  If we pick up Seeber’s line of thinking, the follow-on is that in the morning, those 11th-hour workers will report to work first thing, and put in a full day’s effort from thence onward.

(And likewise concerning salvation: From the time of conversion, we are expected to labor for the Kingdom of Heaven daily. There’s no “I gave at the office” when it comes to Christian discipleship.)

Scary Times at Walmart

Seeber concludes:

Better yet, in a nation where often the profit of the wealthy depends on the contraception and abortion of the poor, where many businesses find their profit margin in pushing working people on to food stamps and subsidized health care, are we truly giving our modern equivalent of a denarius to minimum wage workers? Or are we instead saying, these people aren’t worth enough to be given an opportunity to be a part of the culture of life?

If I were to point to the single most chilling aspect of our modern economy, it’s the utter lack of connection between worker and consumer.  When I purchase something, I the buyer have absolutely no way to know the working conditions of the person who produced the item I’m buying.  Price is no indicator.  Promises that the company pays the local minimum wage, or better than average . . . what does that mean?  Geographic origin is a poor and treacherous proxy: If I categorically boycott a nation’s goods because of a general reputation for poor working conditions, am I thereby starving that honest factory owner who does in fact pay a merciful wage?  Am I condemning the innocent along with the guilty?

Seeber’s conclusion raises a number of other complex issues.  Here in the US and Canada, poverty is tightly linked, statistically, to the failure of marriage. Add in other social ills, and it is tempting — though wrong — to dismiss the “cry of the poor” as the “whine of the poor”.  It is true that an intelligent, hard-working, able-bodied, morally-upright American does in fact have very good odds of making a generous living. That does not, however, allow us to ignore the plain teaching of the Bible.

In our public policy, therefore, we do need to distinguish among problems best resolved by:

  • Fair wages for the laborer.
  • Alms for the sick / widowed / orphaned / elderly.
  • A moral-makeover.

But we fool ourselves if, like the wealthy condemned in the letter of St. James, we dismiss all discussion of fair wages by deciding that poverty is someone else’s problem.

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