September 6, 2015

“Jesus Wants an Ethical Minimum Wage”


Deuteronomy 24:14-15

I Corinthians 9:9-14


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 holiday.

“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 do.

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 by 2020.

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.

Fifteen 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 States.

Time will tell if we as a nation have that will.

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.