Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (Matthew 20:15).
This is the most powerful affirmation of private ownership in the New Testament. The only affirmation more authoritative was God’s announcement of an ownership boundary around the forbidden tree (Genesis 2:17).
In this pair of rhetorical questions, Jesus challenged the idea that an aggrieved participant in the transaction — an early morning worker — has a moral claim retroactively against the employer, who came to an agreement with the worker, and who then fulfilled the terms of the original agreement.
The context of this affirmation of ownership rights was a parable. Jesus described a man who owned a vineyard. The owner wanted to share the work. He wanted to bring as many workers as he could into the vineyard, so that they would have employment. Of course, he also had goals of his own. He wanted to make certain that the vineyard would be cared for and made more productive. But his initial motivation was to help others gain employment.
So, one fine morning, he came to a group of unemployed laborers and made an offer. He would hire them for a day for the payment of a penny. (This was before central banking; the offer seemed plausible to Jesus’ listeners.) In the third hour, which meant 9 AM, he again went out in search of other workers. He found some of them who were idle, waiting for work. He hired them, and he promised to give them an honest day’s wages. They trusted him, so they went into the vineyard to work. He did this in the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and the 11th hour. In each case, he promised to pay them fairly.
At the end of the workday, he paid each man a penny. That was what he had offered the men who had been hired early in the morning. Those who were hired later had no complaints, because they were getting paid as much for a partial day’s labor as the first men who were hired received for a whole day’s labor.
Those who were hired earliest complained. These others had been paid the same amount, they complained, but they had worked fewer hours. The others did not complain, although most of them did work a lot longer than the last group, who had been hired in the 11th hour, and who also received a penny. Late-comers knew that it was a good deal, because they were being paid more per hour than those who had been hired at the beginning of the workday. Why complain?
The first group did complain. The owner of the vineyard had a specific answer: “But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee “(vv. 13-14). Then he announced his principal ownership: he had the right to do what he wanted with that which he owned.
His goal had been to spread the work. He wanted to hire as many people as he could locate at a competitive wage. He benefitted the community, and he benefitted the individuals hired. He also benefitted himself. This was a win-win-win deal. But still, there were complaints. “It’s just not fair!”
The lesson of the parable is twofold. First, the best way to spread the work is to allow voluntary negotiation. Second, the appropriate wage is the wage that clears the market. This means that there is nobody who wants to work who does not gain employment, and there is no employer standing around, looking for somebody to hire. Throughout the day, the employer in the parable had offered to hire all the men available at that hour. His offer cleared the market every time. Only the earliest employees complained.
If the owners of labor had not found a willing employer at a wage they were willing to accept, they would not have gained any money. They would also not have contributed to increased productivity to benefit specific future customers, as well as the community in general. Their skills would have been wasted in idleness. Their productivity would have been zero. This would have resulted in reduced output, which would have reduced the wealth of customers in the future. Future customers would have had a smaller array of goods to choose from.
The owner of the vineyard put his capital to good use. He had land and vines and money. By adding labor to his land, he was able to increase production. This was one of his goals. It also made possible greater income in the future, assuming that he was correct with respect to what future customers would be willing to pay for the output of his land, vines, and hired labor.
(For the rest of the chapter, click the link.)