“Bankers are going to Hell!” the woman I was speaking to brusquely insisted.
A bit surprised, I asked, “What makes you think so?”
“Jesus teaches it!” she confidently declared.
“Really?” I responded. “And just where do you find him teaching such a thing?” I asked, with more than a little incredulity.
“The parable of the unforgiving servant, the Gospel of Matthew chapter 18,” she announced. “Remember, Jesus tells of a servant who owes his master a huge amount of money and he is about to be punished. But the servant whimpers and begs so the master forgives him. Then later he runs into someone who owes him a piddling amount of money and is unable to repay. Instead of forgiving him, the first servant has the other one pitched into prison. When the master hears about what happened, he rescinds his forgiveness and has the man mercilessly punished.”
“And how does that support your claim?” I press.
“Think about it!” she says. “The bankers with their predatory lending and fraudulent mortgage-backed securities that went bad, cost masses of people hundreds of billions of dollars and tanked the economy. They deserve to go to prison. But instead the master, I mean, Uncle Sam, bails them out with tax payer money. And then, what do the bankers do? They start foreclosing on the homes that people now can’t afford. Many of these people couldn’t even understand what they were getting into with the sub-prime loans the bankers and their cronies were pushing. But instead of being forgiving -or at least graciously renegotiating their mortgages- the bankers started foreclosing on homeowners.”
“And so,” she ended, raising her voice to punctuate her point, “bankers are going to Hell!”
I’m a little less confident about that particular application of scripture. Drawing such a straight line from the Bible to a contemporary issue or policy and saying with assurance, “This is that,” is usually misguided. I’m not at all suggesting that the message of ancient scripture has nothing relevant to say about our present problems. But too often those pushing a political point or policy take passages of scripture to serve a purpose that has little –or nothing- to do with the actual meaning of the text. The ease with which some well known religious leaders have played fast and loose with the Bible for partisan political purposes is appalling.
Earlier this year David Barton, of the religious right organization Wallbuilders, boldly declared, “Most Christians can’t tell you about the two parables Jesus taught about the capital gains tax nor can they tell you about the four verses of the Bible that condemns the estate tax, nor can they tell you what Jesus said in Matthew 20 about the minimum wage.” There is a very good reason that most Christians can’t tell you about these things: there are no scriptures about capital gains tax, the estate tax or minimum wage because such things didn’t exist in biblical times. It is safe to say that absolutely no credible Bible commentary of this generation or any previous one supports Barton’s view of these scriptures.
Obviously there are lots of ideas, institutions and issues that exist today that were unheard of two thousand or more years ago. The Bible no more offers precise instructions about tax policy or environmental policy or size of the government than it does about acceptable forms of transportation. Only by twisting, stretching and distorting the message of scripture can it be made to speak in a direct way to many of the issues that concern us.
As an example, let’s look at the one passage specifically named by Barton, Matthew chapter 20. He not only finds a lesson about minimum wage in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, he also proposes that this passage of scripture contains a condemnation of unions and collective bargaining. In the parable the owner hires a number of men at the beginning of the day at the normal wage for a day’s work. Then he hires others later at different times. At the end of the day, all are paid the same amount. Commentators on this passage agree that the lesson is not an economic one. Rather it pertains to a spiritual truth: God has the right to give grace equally to anyone at any time, Jew or Gentile.
But a totally different message is found by Barton, who claims, “There is an implication that the landowner had a right to determine the wages his workers received.” The landowner was not constrained by a minimum wage law, supposedly suggesting that there should be no such thing today. Further, Barton asks, “Where were the unions in all this? The contract is between an employer and an employee.” He insists, “He went out and hired individually the guys he wanted to work.” No collective bargaining, no labor laws interfered with the right of the owner to decide who all would work for him and how much they would get paid. And that, according to Barton, is an economic lesson Jesus sought to teach.
If we accept this dubious approach to scripture, as outlined by Barton and others like him, and if we claim there are economic lessons in this passage, it is easy to find very different lessons than the ones he seeks to push. Consider the following:
First, the men were paid a denarius for their work, the normal daily living wage at the time. This is certainly more than minimum wage. The generally-accepted standard for affordable, sustainable housing costs is that they should be about a third of a household’s income. By that standard a person with a full-time minimum wage job cannot afford housing in any state in the union, according to a recently released report. If the parable contains a condemnation of minimum wage, as Barton suggests, it condemns it for being too low, since it is not a livable wage. A living wage is the acceptable biblical standard. More can be paid, but not less.
Second, if we are to assume that because the owner of the field went out to hire the workers he wanted this somehow implies that collective bargaining is to be condemned, so too is the use of a personnel department to do the hiring condemned. The owner himself must personally take on that task. Does this fail to take into consideration the complex business world such as we have in our time? Indeed, it does. But if we insist that we adhere to a primitive model for labor, then we must do the same for owners and managers to be consistent.
Third, in this parable no matter how much the laborers worked, they were all paid the same amount. If we are as recklessly imaginative as our friends on the religious right, then we can see this parable as implying divine support for equal pay even where there is not equal work. Would this disincentivize workers? The owner of the vineyard didn’t seem to be concerned about that possibility so apparently neither should we. The parable “proves” that equal pay is biblical and supported by Jesus.
Finally, workers must be paid at the end of each day. That is what takes place in the parable. Will this be a huge book-keeping headache for the owner? Probably. But too bad. That is the biblical way things are supposed to be done. In fact another passage of scripture reinforces the importance of this practice: “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers….You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt” (Deut 24:14-15).
Is all this farfetched? Certainly not more farfetched than the claims made by those on the religious right who misuse the Bible to support an economic agenda that is most advantageous to those with the greatest wealth and power and anything but genuinely biblical. Scripture does, indeed, have some things to say about economics and other important matters that continue to affect us today. But playing fast and loose with the Bible for partisan advantage –whether one enlists scripture to consign bankers to Hell or to oppose the capital gains tax- shows little concern for the way of Jesus and the truth of the Gospel.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”