September 6, 2015
“Jesus Wants an Ethical Minimum Wage”
It is Labor Day weekend, so I have to
begin by saying something about my work. Some of, my work, as you know,
involves writing sermons and the strange activities involved in preparing to
preach: studying scripture, studying the world, looking for those places where
scripture and the world intersect—or don’t.
I’ve often joked that I sometimes feel
that it takes me as long to come up with a sermon title as it does to write the
sermon. So I was glad when I saw an article in the Huffington Post titled: “Jesus Wants an Ethical Minimum Wage and a
Serious Campaign Against Poverty.”[i]
And since one cannot copyright a title, well, the first few words seemed to be
just what I was looking for to put in the bulletin and on our sign out front.
I like it when work is easy—and
stumbling upon a sermon title that I can use is almost as good as a Monday
“Jesus Wants an Ethical Minimum Wage.”
Yes, I was feeling kind of playful when
I chose that title. You know that I don’t usually talk like that. Rarely—if
ever—have I tried to tell you directly what Jesus does or does not want you to
Sometimes it seems that is would just be
easier if I were a biblical literalist.
Then I could simply read that lesson
from Deuteronomy about not withholding the wages of a poor or needy laborer and
the sermon would be over. I once knew someone who was fond of saying: “The
Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
And if that didn’t settle it, I could toss out those words from I Corinthians
that echo the words of Jesus: “The laborer deserves to be paid.”
On face value, the Bible seems to
support efforts toward a fair and living minimum wage—even an ethical one.
There are, of course, two problems.
First, I’m not a biblical literalist.
And I don’t know of any in this congregation. That is not part of our
Congregational tradition of liberal Protestantism. We take the Bible seriously,
but we do not take it literally.
The second problem is that those who do claim to take the Bible literally
don’t seem to take it seriously. And really, in spite of their protestations to
the contrary, they pick and choose what they accept on face value and what they
want to explain away. So it’s hard to convince anyone that Jesus wants an
ethical minimum wage just by using scripture.
Etched in stone on the north side of our
building are the words of Jesus in chapter 17 of the Gospel of John that echo
the words of the Psalmist: “Thy word is truth.” Scripture is “true” in many
ways and as people of faith it is important for us to find the seriousness
rather than the literalness in the truth that we encounter there.
So when we think about labor—and about
the just reward of labor—it helps to keep our Bibles handy. Scripture is a good
starting point, but we need to go beyond it as well.
So keeping the Bible close at hand,
let’s consider the minimum wage.
How much should it be?
What is fair?
What is possible?
We’ve been debating and voting on this
question locally as Johnson County moves to set the minimum wage at $10.10 by
2017. Two of the three required votes have passed. As with so many things, the
legality of this proposal is disputed. The state labor commissioner says it is
not legal. The county attorney disagrees. And even if it is legal, the County’s
largest employer—our good neighbor, the University of Iowa, would most likely
be exempt from the regulation.
The final vote by the Johnson County
Board of Supervisors will be held this week, and our friends at the Center for
Worker Justice are continuing their actions to achieve a $15 minimum wage.
As our multi-year election season
continues, the debate is going on nationally as well.
Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton has
indicated favoring raising the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to
$12 and hour by 2020. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley (yes, someone named
Martin O’Malley is running for President) both support the goal of $15 an hour
And, yes, there are some Republicans who
would raise the minimum wage as well: Ben Carson to an unspecified amount and
Rick Santorum to $8.75 over three years. Carly Fiorina would abolish the
minimum wage entirely and most of the other candidates “reflect a longstanding
Republican opposition to a strong federal minimum wage.”[ii]
Here’s the thing: The minimum wage has
not kept us with the times. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage peaked
in 1968,when it was then at the equivalent of $8.54 an hour. If that amount had
kept up with inflation, it would be more than $10 today. If it had kept up with
the increased productivity of American workers in that time, the minimum wage
would be over $21 an hour.
Half of those working at minimum wage
jobs are over 35 and many are the main providers for their families. When
people are not paid enough to raise them out of poverty, the nation as a whole
ends up subsidizing their low wages through food stamps, Medicaid, housing
assistance, and welfare payments.
Our nation is out of whack. Only
in America is there an entire class of people called "the working
poor." The richest, single family in America is worth the same as the
bottom 30% of all Americans combined. America’s CEOs earn between 300, 500 or
1000 times more than their employees.
Something needs to be done.
It’s not just Jesus who wants an ethical
minimum wage. A couple of days ago the editorial board of The New York Times expressed its support for a $15 minimum wage.
“Going to $12
by 2020 would bring the minimum more in line with historical benchmarks, including
wage and price inflation,” The Times
stated. “But it is a stretch to believe
that $12 an hour in 2020 would provide a minimally decent living. In 14 states
and Washington, D.C., the cost of living for one person is already near or
above $12 an hour, according to data compiled by economists at M.I.T. In most
of the remaining states, one person now requires an hourly wage of $10 to $11
to eke out a living.
dollars, phased in gradually, is the better option,” they concluded. “It would
be adequate and feasible, assuming that policy makers also take steps to raise
middle-class wages, which would include tough enforcement of updated laws on
overtime, scheduling, worker classification and other labor issues.”[iii]
So let’s return to the scripture
lessons once more, in particular those words of Paul. Now Paul was probably a
little cranky when he wrote this and he makes a good case for why he should be
fairly compensated for his work. And cranky, underpaid clergy have often turned
to this for the same reason. But what is really interesting here is how Pau makes his case. He says that
God—not just Moses but God—commands that an ox who is treading the mill should
“be allowed to eat whatever supplemental grain they want. In other words, these
working oxen would be allowed ‘bonus’ feedings over and above the normal
feedings provided by the farmer. Then Paul indicates that God’s real reason for
this command is to instruct employers — employers of oxen, yes, but more
importantly, employers of human workers — that all who help produce a harvest
are meant to share in the rewards.
“The real thrust of Paul’s argument is
that God takes this shared-rewards principle so seriously that it extends
beyond the human workers (who plow and thresh) to the working animals whose
labor helps contribute to the harvest. According to this principle, workers
deserve not merely market-dictated wages, but an appropriate share in the
rewards of business success — the harvest — they help create.[iv]
There are good biblical reasons to
support a living minimum wage.
There are good economic reasons to
support a living minimum wage.
It will take political will and
political action to make this happen in Johnson County and across the United
Time will tell if we as a nation have
But even now, there are occasional
glimmers of light and hope.
Last Spring, Dan Price, the thirty-one
year old owner of Gravity Payments, a Seattle credit card processing firm,
announced that he was slashing his million-dollar compensation package so that
the 120 people he employed would all receive a minimum salary of $70,000. He
said the idea came to him when a friend shared her worries about
paying both her rent and student loans on a $40,000 salary. He realized a lot
of his own employees earned that or less.
Price’s action has caused a lot of conversation. Some are wary of what this
might portend for other businesses in the Seattle area or nationwide. Others
have been supportive.
Rush Limbaugh declared it socialism and doomed to fail.
But, I don’t know—it probably made Jesus smile.