15th Sunday after Trinity / 25th Sunday in the Year [by Dr. Karin Bassler and Antje Schneeweiss]

Evang. sermon text RC. 1. Reading RC. 2. Reading RC. Gospel
Luke 18:28-30 Isa 55:6-9 Phil 1:20-24, Phil 1:27a Mt 20:1-16a

A ‘Living wage’ here and there – preaching suggestions

The two pericopes Luke 18: 28-30 and Mt 20: 1-16a connect the subject of wages: Luke is concerned with the wages (‘rewards’) of Discipleship, while Matthew’s text concentrates with the wages (‘rewards’) to be paid in heaven. A wage should ensure a person a secure existence. Luke considers two other aspects also important for this secure existence, a house as a material basis and the social network of a large family. However, whoever does not belong to one of the few wealthy landowners’ families, in other words the great majority of the population – has to rely almost entirely on the sale of his own manpower and from the wage that he or she receives. [1]

Work, and thus also paid labour, is inherent to the human image of the Bible. It is life-long and sweaty toil (Gen 3: 17ff.), which ensures the upkeep of a family. The right to a living wage is therefore, neither in the Old Testament nor in the New Testament a mere marginal theme but rather, again and again, the litmus test of justice. The basic meaning of the Hebrew verb for remuneration is “to give tit for tat”. In Greek there are several terms, two of which are found only in Christian literature, and underline the importance of this subject in the New Testament.
Throughout the Bible, the principle formulated by Jesus in Luke 10: 7 for his disciples, is that the worker is worth their salary regardless of their relationship to the employer and the nature of the work. [2] Refusal to pay is contrary to God’s commandment and provokes judgement. [3] Particularly drastically in Ecclesiasticus: “Whoever does not give the labourer his reward is a bloodhound.” It is always clear that wages are for the upkeep and protection of livelihood. It is therefore expressly stipulated that those who are at the bottom of the wage pyramid and whose wages only just amount to the minimum subsistence level (that is ‘day labourers’) are to receive their wages on the same day on which the work was rendered. [4]

Because of the general anthropological importance of work, gainful employment and fair pay are of lasting importance as social ethical issues, despite the profound changes in the working society. Living wages are a basic pillar of equity and are, for example discussed in the EKD Memorandum”Gerechte Teilhabe” (“Just Participation”) of 2006. “There is a particular need to monitor on a permanent basis, the developments in the low-wage sector. The phenomenon of ‘working poor’, i.e., of working people, whose remuneration cannot lift them out of poverty, deserves more attention in the face of increasing pressure on wages, even in ecclesiastical institutions. A low-wage sector must not become an area where workers are exploited by a wage spiral that keeps moving downwards.” [5]

The right to a Living Wage is contained in the central documents of the Declaration and the Implementation of Human Rights, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [6] and ILO Conventions Nos. 95 and 131. Not only, but especially in the textile industry is it a widespread worldwide practice for employees to pay a wage for a 48-hour working week, with which the workers cannot even meet their basic needs. This practice violates human rights.

In the textile industry, the problem of low wages in all countries, from China, India, Cambodia and the Central American countries to the countries of production in Eastern Europe, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, is almost the same. The wage situation can be well described by comparing the cost of living with the level of wage. Above all, low wages are the most pressing problem of the millions of women textile workers in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, whose lives are often characterized by working hours far beyond the permissible level and the constant concern for the care of their families. In terms of social policy, wages below the subsistence level mean that large parts of the population from these countries cannot escape from poverty, even though they have a formal employment relationship. [7]

The payment of living wages in the supply chain is therefore a central aspect of sustainability, which should be demanded and expected of textile companies both by a Christian-ethically motivated customer as well as by ecclesiastical investors. Can they ensure that the subcontractors in Indonesia and Myanmar receive a salary for their work to pay for a family, to pay school fees and uniforms for their children, as well as medical expenses, and still have enough money to put aside for unexpected emergencies?
This question arises for everyone when buying clothes and sneakers, as well as when buying stocks/shares such as Adidas, Puma, Gerry Weber or Hugo Boss. And if you are looking for answers, you will find it at the SÜDWIND Institute for Economics and Ecumenism [8] or at Misereor [9].

Of the wages which assure existence, Jesus speaks both in Luke and in the St. Matthew pericope. His answer to the anxious question of the disciples in Luke is no more comprehensible than the parable of the day-labourers in the vineyard, without knowing what living wages have meant then and now. But for Jesus even more than that is at stake: economic and social contexts are significant as such – earthly righteousness is not irrelevant – but in the mouth of Jesus, they are always also signs and a reference to God’s dealings with mankind.
Indeed, it is God who secures their existence, here and there, on earth as well as in heaven. In contrast to the behaviour of earthly employers, who exercise their power to dictate conditions, to the detriment of the recipients of wages, God also pays an undeservedly high wage ‘reward’ to those who are at the very bottom, the very last,, which is much more than we would expect , “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, saith the LORD, but as the heavens are higher than the earth, my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isa. 55

Karin Bassler with Antje Schneeweiß


[1] See the following: Jürgen Kegler / Ute E. Eisen: Art. “Lohn” in Crüsemann, Frank et al. (Eds.): Social History Dictionary of the Bible, p. 357-359, Gütersloh 2009.

[2] Genesis 29:15: ‘Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what should your wages be?’. Ex 2, 9: Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will reward you; Num 18: 31: It is your reward for your work in the tabernacle of meeting;

[3] Jer 22:13; Woe to him who … makes his neighbour work for nothing, and does not give him his reward; James 5: 4: Behold, the wages of the labourers who have reaped your land, which ye have withheld from them, cry out, and the rebuke of the reapers has come to the ears of the Lord of hosts.

[4] Lev 19: 13: Thou shalt not cheat or rob thy neighbour. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning; Dtn 24,14 f.: Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

[6] Article 23, 3: Everyone who works has the right to a just and satisfactory remuneration, which assures him and his family a life corresponding to human dignity, if necessary supplemented by other social protection measures. www.un.org/depts/german/menschenrechte/aemr.pdf