Economic Justice not Mercy OR the Fairness of a Living Wage

Mary Magdala Community

“Economic Justice not Mercy OR the Fairness of a Living Wage”

Thoughts on 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time September 24, 2017

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

When one believes in and holds to a Social Teaching then by definition one believes in the priority of the Good.  This is to say that the Social Teaching gives guidance on moral standing, moral clarity, moral priorities in life.

Recently we have been reminded of this guidance on the issue of race in this country.  This time it was relted to the question of the superiority of the white race.  Those who live with the benefit of moral standing, might I say even of common decency, know that this viewpoint is never right.  It is clear to any morally fit person that persons who consort with, or who give comfort, to those who hold to this idea are not “fine persons.”

Social Teaching has the ability to give moral clarity.  Today’s very familiar parable of the owner and the workers is a clear example of social teaching.  I was a little surprised when I read one commentary on the parable in which the author stated that this story is not about economic justice, rather it’s about mercy.

I believe the exact opposite.  This example Jesus gives us about the fair-minded owner of the vineyard is precisely about economic justice.  It is a social teaching of moral clarity.

Here’s what I mean.  It revolves around this notion of fairness.

The owner says to the disgruntled workers who worked the whole day, “I am free to do as I please with my property, am I not?”  So, the owner makes this apparent claim that he is free to be free.  Now, if this story was about mercy then the owner acts entirely on his own our of sympathy or pity or, as some would have it, out of a misguided, though kindly, philanthropy.

However, as a point of economic justice the landowner is not free to be free.  Rather, the owner is free to be fair.  Fairness is the good that makes the critical point here.

So, what is it to be fair?  Let’s take a look at the agreement struck between the owner and the first group of workers.  And let’s ask from an economics standpoint what is the interest of the workers if not to agree to a wage on which the worker can live.  (Of course, this assumes that the workers are able to act upon their own best interests.)  In this case the wage agreed upon is a fair wage for living.  So, the wage is connected to living and not necessarily to the work as such.  If it was about the work that would be about economics.  But since the wage is about living and fairness is about justice (not mercy);  and since the owner chooses the good of being free to be fair then this story is about economic justice.

Each worker receives the same wage because that is the living wage which is the result of an honest, open, and fair negotiaton.  So, this is Jesus’ teaching on the fairness of a living wage.  His point being that economics is to serve justice.

This relationship of economics to justice was a key issue in Pope Paul VI’s letter in 1971 entitled, “A Call to Action.”  The Catholic Dictionary of Social Thought has a summary article on this teaching by the pope which was his own recognition of the 80th anniversary of the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII entitled, “Rerum Novarum.”

Pope Paul’s view on the relationship between economics and justice clearly stood on the view that economics serves the priority of justice.  Its role of distributing resources is one of service to the greater participation of all people in politics and society.  People participate when they have the means to do so.

Paul teaches that it is this full and open participation, which the fair distribution of resources makes possible, that clearly demonstrates the priority of justice over economics.

It may have also become clear that holding to, believing in, a Social Teaching is not some very nice, pie-in-the-sky moral theory.

Today we can say that this parable about the owner who is free to be fair is about the fairness of a living wage for all and the moral clarity of justice over economics.

A Prayer

We praise you, O Christ!

You are among us to encourage and to strengthen our commitments:

To act with fairness in our everyday relationships –

especially the economic ones

To act with openness in our role as citizens,

To act with depth in our moral choices.

Justice convicts us in our weakness.  But justice also grounds us to put your love into practice – today, every day, now and forever.   Amen!



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