This is the good news of the Gospel: that our value, our true value, rests not in the eyes of anyone else other than the generous and merciful God who created us.

Exodus 16:2-15
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

An Upside Down World

I have always preached this parable with a word of caution, that this is not a business model. It’s about the Kingdom of God, not a recommended plan for how a CEO should treat employees. After all, if you paid hard-working staff the same as the employees who wandered in at four o’clock and punched out at five, who would get any work done? Wouldn’t everyone start coming in at four in the afternoon?

Or, if your starting salary for a new hire was the same as your senior staff, what would that do for the morale around the office? No, this is not a real-world business model. This is the bizarro world of Jesus’s parables where a camel passes through the eye of a needle and the self-righteous walk around ignoring planks of wood sticking out of their eyes.

The CEO of Gravity, a credit card payment-processing company, wasn’t listening to what I had to say about this parable. Five years ago, Dan Price made a radical change to his company’s compensation structure. He had built a successful company and, at thirty-one years of age he had a million-dollar salary that was comparable to other CEOs of companies the same size in his field.

One day, Price took a hike in the woods with an old friend, a young woman who had served eleven years in the military and got a decent job after her service to the country. But, living in Seattle, she could barely make ends meet. He did a few calculations after that conversation and realized that most of his employees were not making enough to get by. In Seattle five years ago, it took $70,000 a year to rent a decent place to live, buy groceries, pay all your bills, and have a little left over for flannel shirts and an occasional concert of your favorite grunge rockers.

So, Dan Price did something radical. Price was raised by devout Christian parents, so he knows Scripture. I don’t know for sure if he thought about this parable when he made his decision. He took a 90% pay cut to finance a new minimum wage in his company of $70,000 a year. Any employee making less than that received a pay raise of up to 20% per year over the next three years in order to get caught up. While he did not impose his own pay cut on any of his employees, those already making six figures got much smaller raises than the newer hires and those who had been under the minimum.

Predictably, two of his highest paid employees quit.

A right-wing radio host called him a communist and predicted that Dan Price’s company would become a business school lesson in how not to run a business. This turned out to be a “Rush” to judgment.

But, we can see why Dan Price’s plan would be met with skepticism by most and resistance by some. It’s not fair.

In this world, we have a highly-developed sense of justice and fairness, and it is based on a horizontal axis, not a vertical one. In other words, we judge fairness according to how our treatment, or our compensation, compares to others. And often, financial compensation gets used as a measure of comparative worth.

Notice, in this parable, how the employees who worked all day long do not say, “You have compensated these one-hour workers in an equal amount!” Instead, they say, “You have made them equal to us.”

In Jesus’s parable, the workers assign human value according to economic value. Surely, those who worked in the field all day long in the hot sun created more economic value for the landowner than those who worked for one hour, no matter how efficiently they worked. It had to hurt to see the landowner compensate them the same, even if they got what they agreed upon.

The landowner presented it as his own generosity, but that’s not how it felt to the all-day workers. It felt like injustice.

And, we can imagine, in the time when Matthew wrote this Gospel, that the fast-growing church faced similar problems of morale and hierarchy. It did not make sense, in any economic model, that a full measure of grace and salvation would be extended to the most heinous sinner at the moment of repentance and baptism, a measure of grace that put the tax-collectors and low-life thieves on an equal footing with those who had been raised in the faith and had a chest covered with Sunday School perfect attendance medals.

It is just not in our nature to focus on the vertical relationship with our merciful and generous Creator without at least taking a peek at the cosmic books. And, however we measure it, in financial compensation or in length of days, this world does not deal with us justly. Good and righteous people sometimes die young and sometimes the mean and stingy live long and prosper.

In my own field, I have seen kind and faithful pastors struggle to get by serving two or three small rural congregations at the same time and I have seen egotistical and narcissistic clergy called to serve in tall-steeple churches.

When the injustice of it all seems overwhelming, I remember something my grandmother Edith used to say: “Never criticize those who marry for money. They earn every penny of it.”

There is, according to the Gospel, a hidden but real economy running beneath this life of comparative worth. In the economy of God’s kin-dom, justice gets defined by God’s generosity rather than our economic value to others.

In the August 20 edition of Interesting Engineering, I read about how Dan Price’s compensation experiment has progressed five years out. He still brings home about 90% less than other CEOs in similar positions. So, in that sense, his experiment has not paid off for him. And, someday when he retires, or when he sells the company, the board will face a reckoning as they go looking for a new CEO to succeed him.

But, Dan Price has no regrets.

Since 2015 when he started this compensation structure, the company’s business has tripled.

The number of staff who own homes has grown by ten times.

401(k) contributions doubled.

Turnover dropped by half.

76% of staff report that they are engaged in their work, twice the national average.

Five years ago, one share of Gravity cost $1.80. It closed Friday afternoon at $135.00.

But, this is the statistic that most excites Dan Price:

"Before the $70,000 minimum wage, we were having between zero and two babies born per year amongst the team. And since the announcement - and it's been only about four-and-a-half years - we've had more than 40 babies."

"I can’t think of anything better that I could get in return out of it than that,” Price said, “and that’s the impact. That’s the legacy. Because, those babies, they carry with them almost infinite potential, solving some of the existential crises of humanity, curing cancer, solving things like global warming. You name it. Who knows what those babies are going to do, and probably I won’t be around to find out all the cascading effects that will come from that."

And, Price’s company Gravity is now a case study in successful business models in Harvard’s MBA program.

So, I was wrong. Jesus’s parable is not just about some bizarro world; it’s about the Kin-dom of God; and, that reign of God, no matter how different from the world we see around us, is nevertheless breaking in.

The question this parable puts before us is this: how do we evaluate one another? How do we measure the worth of another child of God? To what extent do we make our instant calculations based on another’s wealth, earnings, success, race, or age, or nationality, work history, or criminal history?

And, this: How do you measure your own value?

This is the good news of the Gospel: that our value, our true value, rests not in the eyes of anyone else other than the generous and merciful God who created us.

Thanks be to God.