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Rethinking worldly justice

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, April 1, 2004

There is an intersection near downtown Portland, Ore. where every morning one can choose from dozens of men (and occasionally a few women), mainly Latino, who are waiting for work. I have often seen a typical scenario unfold during which a pickup truck or van parks for a bit, the driver jumps out, people crowd around him and after a few minutes a select group loads into the vehicle and heads off for a day of work. The work, I can only assume, is some form of physical labor: field work, painting, perhaps some basic construction. More often than not the prospective employer will choose the youngest, those who appear the strongest, and perhaps, should it be necessary, those with some knowledge of English. By the late morning, on the occasions when I have walked past this corner, I more often than not have found that many of the men who remain are older, or smaller, or even perhaps injured. They are, some might say, the least desirable workers, and having experienced a childhood of being among the last chosen for athletic teams I can understand some of their frustrations.

I think of my experiences passing by this corner when I read the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, found in Matthew’s Gospel. There Jesus tells the story of a landowner who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. Through the course of the day he continually returns to hire more workers, asking the last group: “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” Most likely they are the older, the weaker and perhaps the injured of the community, passed over by those looking for more “able” workers. They respond to the vineyard owner: “Because no one has hired us.” He sends them off to work and at the end of the day they, as well as those who labored the whole day, are shocked to see him pay all of them equally. Each is paid the wages typical for a full day of work.

Those who worked the whole day are paid last and receive their pay with dismay, expecting more to be paid them, what they “justly” deserve in accord with the labor they performed. The owner rebukes them, saying clearly that he is not being unfair to them. In our contemporary society this is hard to rationalize. Our notion of justice is that one is due an amount of money equivalent to the time they have worked and the value of the goods they have produced. Surely those who worked the full day are due more. This is not, Jesus’ parable tells us, how things are in the dominion of heaven.

If the denarius paid to each individual in Matthew’s parable is the standard wage for a day of work than it is likely to have been roughly equivalent to the amount of money needed for the average laborer to provide for the basic goods of a subsistence living. The elderly and weak have as great a need for these goods as those who are young and strong. Hence Jesus presents an understanding of justice predicated on giving to individuals based upon their need, not on their “contribution.” Each contributes what he or she is able, each receives what he or she needs.

This notion of justice strikes us as radical, but we know that it played a central role in the early Christian community’s economic self-understanding. In the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles we learn that: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” A consistent thread woven through the history of Christian thought on this subject and into modern Catholic Social Teaching is the belief that the needs of the poor do not simply represent a possible object of our charity, but rather they place a legitimate claim upon the excess goods we possess. The Earth and its fruits are a common gift to humanity and so the goods drawn forth from it must also be seen in this light. In the words of St. John Chrysostom: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” St. Gregory the Great declares this to be an act of justice: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” The modern Catholic Catechism speaks of the primacy of the “universal destination of goods” even when considering the legitimacy of private property.

What is called for here is a conception of justice in sharp contrast with our standard understanding of charity, through which the wealthy are applauded for their “generosity” in considering the needs of those with less resources. This conception of justice demands we rethink our individual and national priorities, both the ways in which we spend our own money and the ways in which our nation taxes the poor and wealthy and allocates money for social programs. The wealthy do not “deserve” the money they have “earned.” Rather, in a world where some bask in abundance, those with less are due, at the very least, a decent standard of living. By making this a reality we move closer towards the dominion of which Jesus spoke.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.