A Modern Day Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

It isn’t often, when we get to see one of the savior’s parable’s directly at work in our modern society. Often, concepts like wheat and tares, or vineyards are abstract and removed from our day to day concerns. This week, however, the Savior’s parable of the workers in the vineyard which Elder Holland so expertly discussed not too long ago in General Conference replayed itself for all too see.

Dan Price, a CEO of a Seattle Credit Card Processing Company in Seattle decided that he would pay all of his workers a minimum salary of $70,000 a year after realizing that many of his younger employees were struggling to pay student loans and other obligations. He did this mostly by cutting out his large bonus.

The New York Times this weekend ran a follow up article and looked at some of the results. The whole article is worth reading in full, but one detail stood out to me in particular. At least two of Price’s most talented workers quit, because they were upset that workers less skilled than they received such a high salary. This came even though they had received a wage increase, although not as sharp an increase as the lower salaried employees. The article is filled with quotes from these higher paid employees belittling the skills of their less experienced former colleagues.

When I saw this article, I thought of the Savior’s parable. As with the parable, the master has decided to pay the workers less skilled or less experienced workers a greater amount than they “deserve.” He has decided to be generous and kind. And those who worked “harder” felt entitled to a greater salary and angrily quit. (unlike the workers in the parable, they did earn more than the other workers just not as much as they felt they were entitled to receive). The words of the parable are deeply applicable:

11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,

12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?

14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.

15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

I am sure that others will look at this story as a way to score political points,  but for me reading this story underscored the spiritual truth of what the savior taught more than two thousand years ago. Indeed, it is interesting to see that human nature has not at all changed from the time of the savior. The natural man is still prideful and self-seeking. The natural man still seeks his own. The natural man would rather lose a good and well paying job, then see someone else benefit”undeservedly.”

It is very difficult—exceedingly hard in fact—to put off the natural man and to be humble enough to glory in the triumphs and successes of others. It is exceedingly difficult to cease from boasting, bragging or self serving behavior.  With all of these tendencies, is it any wonder why the early saints struggled to live the law of consecration? Yet, we are all called to prepare ourselves for the day when we must fully live this higher law.

This instance for me further underscored how difficult and fraught the preparation can be.

These now workers failed to learn Elder Holland’s profound and yet simple lesson: “So be kind, and be grateful that God is kind. It is a happy way to live.” How can we avoid following their example?


12 thoughts on “A Modern Day Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

  1. The big difference here is all the employees are not promised the same outcome, regardless of the wage, effort, or skill level.

  2. Actually, they had already agreed to work for a specific wage. A promise of payment had been given and accepted. They were in fact given a salary increase through no specific merit of their own. They were given more than their promise, and were not asked to do any more for it. They were, however, more worried about what others were being paid, than what they themselves were being paid. They were all coming out ahead. But they were more concerned about how much more ahead the others seem to have become.

    Really, they have every right to leave. I am fine with that. But based on the idea that the move in salary to $70K was still a raise (though not as big of a raise as for others), I wonder if they were then able to find new work for an equivalent or greater salary even though the $70K seemed to be above market conditions. If not, then that is really letting one’s pride speak for them. Some might even call it cutting off the nose to spite the face.

  3. Many people in skilled fields work for more than the compensation. They want to feel valued for their abilities, which they have usually honed over many years.

    I know that if I received the typical annual raise at my workplace, and the office screwup received a much larger raise that made his salary equal to mine on the basis of some social engineering theory, I would seriously question whether my employer valued my work very much. In effect, part of my compensation — the sense that my work was valued enough for me to have a good salary — would have been taken away. That such value is not spelled out in my work agreement does not alter the fact that it is part of the unwritten order of things at my workplace.

    Contrariwise, and possibly closer to my actual work situation — if I was given generous compensation but meaningless work assignments, I might accept a job elsewhere at a lower salary where I felt more like I was actually wanted and needed.

    Given that none of these dynamics seem to apply to the parable of the workers, I don’t find the analogy entirely persuasive. Nor does the parable explore how the workers might behave the next day, given the new incentive structure. I think Thomas Sowell actually made the wry remark in one of his books that the Almightly has the advantage at the Last Judgement that he doesn’t have to worry about what happens the next day.

    Put another way, taking a parable that uses the worldly to teach something about the spiritual and trying to turn it around to teach us something about the worldly is probably a parable too far.

  4. Also interesting to note on the parable according to our understanding thanks to modern revelation, workers not only receive the same wage as each other but as the Master himself.

    The parable also helps demonstrate some of the modern angst of that doctrine who think it robbery for man to equal God.

  5. “we are all called to prepare ourselves for the day when we must fully live this higher law.”

    Nibley would want us to clarify that, while the church does not currently implement the law of consecration at an institutional level, each of us personally *is* called to live it fully on an individual level.
    Great thoughts in this post, though. Thanks!

  6. Where husbands either added (polygamy) or exchanged new wives for old, women have lived this parable. Indeed we felt fortunate if we retained the same wages as the ‘new laborer’.

  7. The difference is that infinity can be divided any number of ways and still be infinity. And (yes I know the basics of set theory) infinity is still equal to infinity.

  8. I can see why you would be reminded of the parable, but I think you are missing a few key points. The story may be similar, but the parable was teaching about the rewards of the kingdom of heaven, not how to run a business or the ideals of a high minimum wage. The lesson of the parable is not the same thing as the story used to teach that lesson, just like we are not literally wheat and tares.

    While it’s admirable to see a liberal put his money where his mouth is, since so few of them do, this obviously wasn’t a great business decision. According to a recent news article his company is now struggling as a result of this. I have no problem with businesses paying competitive wages, but businesses aren’t charities and they don’t have unlimited resources to pay everyone salaries that are way beyond what the market will bear for those jobs. There’s the difference between the lesson of the parable and the literal example — a business with limited resources cannot compare to God and His worlds without number.

    I think the employees that quit were smart, not jealous and mean spirited. If the company goes bankrupt none of them will have jobs — forget the $70K, they won’t even have their old salaries, they’ll be unemployed. If I saw my company make similar bad decisions I would quit too. I don’t think it’s the natural man for one to be concerned about their job security and their ability to provide for their family. Again, I have no problem with companies paying generous salaries, and I wish I was paid more, but the smart way to do that is through a profit sharing program, not an across the board raise to some high utopian ideal.

    Another thing I just thought of, the rewards of heaven aren’t wages or something we can earn through our hard work and diligence. Ultimately we all need the grace of Christ to gain eternal life. Thus the laborers that came last didn’t earn their reward any more than the first ones did. This is completely different than the question of fair compensation for a job performed.

    *Dan Price, Seattle CEO who set company minimum wage at $70K, struggles to make ends meet (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/aug/1/dan-price-seattle-ceo-who-set-company-minimum-wage/)

  9. David, I read a different article that had a different take on his company’s struggles. One of the struggles is even though he has lost some customers, he is actually growing his customer base at a rate of 350 customers per month, up from 200. However, he doesn’t receive revenue from those customers for a year. So he’s looking at having to scale up faster than anticipated, while paying the higher wage. In some ways, its a good problem to have, but it is a serious problem that many growing businesses aren’t able to overcome. Yes, growing to fast is a problem.

    I think this article describes the situation much better.

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