Thursday, January 29, 2015

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard: Justice is Not Equality

I have posted numerous times on justice and equality (for instance here, here, and here).  It's a theme that runs through this blog.

The liberal view on justice is often that justice is equality.  Often this takes the form of justice being understood in terms of equal outcomes.  Are there a lot of white males in the administration?  Injustice!  Wage inequality? Injustice!  The first link above addresses that mindset.  Sometimes justice as equality takes the form of equal treatment.  To be just is to treat people or be treated by them equally.

This too I think is incorrect.  What all forms of justice as equality have in common is that the idea of justice is a COMPARATIVE notion.  Justice is a relation of equality that holds between a group or society wherein two or more people are treated equally or have equal outcomes.  And one only knows that a certain event, action, or state of affairs is just when one compares the action, event, etc. with actions, events, etc. done to another party.

I think that is wrong and I think the Biblical view of justice is that it is simply rendering or being rendered one's due.  I can treat you justly or unjustly and can know that I've treated you justly or unjustly regardless of whether I make a comparison with myself, you, and others.

I give everyone A's on the test. Have I acted justly?  Unjustly?  Has justice been served?  There is no way to tell simply by taking note of the fact that everyone has received the same outcome.  Rather, what I need to know is whether students have received what they were due--that is, whether they all had rights to an A and whether I had a duty to give them all A's.

I just recently reread the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 and I think it better supports the view of justice as rendering or being rendered one's due rather than justice as equality.  Below the fold I reproduce the story and give my analysis.

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like [a]a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a [b]denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the [c]third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the [d]sixth and the ninth hour, and did [e]the same thing. And about the [f]eleventh hourhe went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
“When evening came, the [g]owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a[h]denarius. 10 When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; [i]but each of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ 13 But he answered and said to one of them, Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye [j]envious because I am [k]generous? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last.”

The word "justice" is nowhere in the English text, nonetheless, it seems to me that the concept is at work in the background (in addition, in vs. 13 "I am doing you no wrong" could just as well be translated "I am doing you no injustice.")  The main point seems to be about generosity--God (the landowner) is generous. Another point implied is that God is not unjust in being generous.  He is free to be generous and wrongs no one in being generous (a point Paul labors to drive home in Romans).  Still, the story assumes a certain view about justice/injustice, rightness/wrongness which we can see by keeping a close eye on the conversation between the landowner and the first set of workers.

Pay attention above to what is in bold.  Did the landowner wrong the first set of workers?  No, he says.  They made an agreement and he paid them what they were due--no more, no less. He did nothing wrong.  He's not unjust.  The first workers, though, complain and are (like many who hold that justice is equality) envious.  They compare themselves to the other workers who got the same wages for less work.  Injustice!  We have been wronged!

 Yes, there is a sense in which the landowner treats everyone equally--he does give everyone the same pay.  But the sense of rightness and wrongness, justice and injustice at work has nothing to do with equal treatment or equal outcomes.  The landowner doesn't say, "Look, of course I did nothing wrong.  I treated you all equally.  You all got the same pay.  That's justice."  No, he appeals to the contract that they made.  Implicit is that justice was done because he honored the contract.  He didn't break his promise; he kept it.  They got what they were due regardless of what the others got.  "Equal work for equal pay!"  Hardly.  The landowner might have added, "Stop making comparisons with other people.  You have not been treated unjustly simply because someone else gets more than you for less work.   You won't find justice by making comparisons about equal treatment or equal outcomes.  You agreed to work for a denarius.  That's exactly what you got.  Justice was fulfilled.  If I want to give other people more money for less work, that has nothing to do with you or whether you've been wronged."

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