A Dialogue between Matthew 20:1-16 (the Prodigal Employer) and Ku Kim’s My Hope: Part I

Hyun Ho Park 2


Once again, an Indonesian man with a white bandage on his ring-finger came to my office where I was volunteering as a labor-counselor at the Galilee Presbyterian church in Seoul, Korea, back in 2005. ‘No, please do not uncover…’ I busted in my heart, but the pastor asked him to proceed. Then, there it was, another cut finger. He lost a tip of his finger while working. A few weeks later, his case was resolved after the pastor contacted the boss while working with a professional labor counselor. He received compensation, $800, for his cut finger, and his belated wage for the last month, $400, which the employer was reluctant to give.

The laborer deserves his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18). True. He got his money. But, I marveled at how a part of one’s body and a month of his construction labor can be paid off with that little money. Another lingering thought kept haunting me, after I saw another Pakistani male repeatedly saying,“I wished I could hit him,” while I was listening to his case: ‘What if they were fellow Koreans?’ The case would have been somewhat different. They received their wages, but they were not paid enough and further treated badly, because they were immigrant workers who could not speak Korean well and above all outsiders to Korean society.

In other words, “The laborer deserves his wages,” this seemingly infallible statement often serves labor exploitation in the global context, especially as it is joined with migration. On the one hand, as we see above, have-nots migrate to the so-called first world countries and are often stuck in menial labor. On the other hand, haves migrate to the so-called third world countries and make profits by paying less for the labor of have-nots. For example, Richard M. Locke writes after observing subcontractors of Nike in Indonesia that “minimum daily wage only covered 70% of the basic needs of one individual” and pinpoints that “Nike’s Korean suppliers were seen as especially stingy with wages and abusive to local workers.”1 Since consumers prefer paying less in buying, while producers wish to make more profits in selling, no one seems able to deny that some sort of exploitation inevitably happens in the labor market of the immigrants.

This paper, however, introduces an alternative ethos based on Matthew 20:1-16 and My Hope by Ku Kim, a founding father of the Korean government. My paper argues that the basic human need and, at the same time, the utopian vision of giving should govern labor ethics over the dominant exploitation model. For this enterprise, the paper first briefly explores the background of exploitation of the other in western philosophy and its biblical counterpart in the Hebrew Bible. Second, it shows how Matthew 20:1-16 gives another paradigm, “Laborers deserve their food,” by locating the basic human need above the logic of exploitation and military power in the Roman imperial setting, and how the prodigal employer reverses three commonly accepted work ethics (equal pay, competition in employment, and goodness). Third, the paper explains how Ku Kim under two imperial powers, Japan and the U.S., overcame their dominant logic of exploitation and military power with his own vision, which is the fulfillment of basic human need and the utopian vision of giving, like that of Matthew 20:1-16. Fourth, the paper explores in what ways this alternative labor ethics can be applied in Asian/Asian immigrant context to overcome the dominant logic of exploitation.

Exploitation of the Other in Western Philosophy

Why is labor exploitation widespread in the immigrant context? What justifies exploiters taking advantage of people? Its root is not just in a socio-economic desire for more money but in a philosophical dimension influenced by western philosophy: ‘Humans can be objects.’

After Descartes, a pioneering figure in modern philosophy, humans are considered to have the ability to think for themselves apart from God. Thus, he concludes, “Cogito ergo sum.” This was not only a liberation process for humans but also an alienation process from nature. “Humans became an essentially different being from nature,”2because they became the subject of investigation, while turning nature to the other, the object of investigation. For example, a Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) categorized the living world into five categories –“class, order, genus, species, and variety”3–and gave names to plants and animals, while placing humans above all other living creatures. This action was a first movement toward justifying exploitation of nature.

After Hegel’s Dialectic was introduced, that sees human history as a constant struggle between thesis and anti-thesis which produces synthesis and thus advances to the higher level, this alienation process extended even to different human groups. In this Hegelian thought, there have been fights in history between human reason and superstition, between civilization and barbarism. Thus, people who are not civilized, which means not westernized, became an anti-thesis over against a thesis, western civilization. They have to be overcome. Other non-western, primitive tribes were considered not as humans but as “animals that do not have human reason.”4

This other-ing process that sees other ethnic group as an inferior object was backed up by modern science in the colonial setting.5 For example, Georges-Louise Buffon (1707-1788) writes that “the white man meaning the normal man who truly represents humanity, has grown progressively blacker in a tropical climate and can recover his original normal color by returning to the temperate zone.”6 A Dutch anatomist, Pieter Camper (1722-1789) dissected a Southeast Asian great ape, Orangutan, from Indonesia which was the Dutch colony. He “compared Europeans, Africans, and central Asians (Kalmucks) with a monkey and an orangutan” and said “I produced a Negro physiognomy, and definitely the profile of an ape, of a Chinese, of an idiot in proportion as I inclined this same line more or less to the rear.”7 It is not only plants and animals but also other humans who are under normal humans – white westerners.Those inferior humans, therefore, are also objects of exploitation as well as investigation like plants and animals.

This other-ing and degrading process for other humans is accelerated when labor is involved, because of the power dynamic which is created between employers and employees. Racial and ethnic difference reinforces exploitation of labor even more when the employer is in a different racial or ethnic group from the majority of employees, as is witnessed earlier in the case of Indonesia and Korea. It is not only the possession of the means of production but also the employer’s distorted feeling of superiority that justifies his/her abusive acts toward employees.

Counter Response from the Hebrew Bible

In contrast to modern western philosophical thought, the Hebrew Bible presents an opposite labor ethics. Humans are not the object of exploitation, but the object of divine compassion, as is often addressed in Exodus and the Prophets.

First, in Exodus, YHWH’s intervention which brings the Hebrews out of Egypt is initiated by labor exploitation. When YHWH first calls Moses in the burning bush, YHWH says that YHWH heard the cry of the people because of their oppressor (nagash: taskmaster (NRSV), slave driver (NIV)) and knew their suffering (Exodus 3:7). YHWH saw how the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites (Exodus 3:9). They were ruthless (Exodus 1:14). Moses, thus, is sent to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians (Exodus 3:8). Second, exploitation of foreign laborers is a main cause of YHWH’s judgment upon Egypt. The Israelites used to be neighbors, but after their number had grown, they were no more fellow human beings but a potential threat in the eyes of the Egyptians (Exodus 1:10). Here happens once again an other-ing and degrading process seeing those foreign Israelite workers as outsiders and objects of exploitation like animals – ‘They are not part of us, let us use them’: “they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor” (Exodus 1:11 NRSV). The Israelites were bitter (Exodus 1:14). Therefore, YHWH brings judgment upon Egypt (Exodus 6:6). Third, YHWH is identified as the deliverer from forced labor. The Israelite will know YHWH as the one “who has freed you from the burdens (skalot: burden carrying, compulsory labor) of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7). YHWH is God who is compassionate and never ignores the suffering of foreign laborers.

God’s concern for laborers is not limited to the Exodus narrative, but is extended to Israel’s prophetic tradition. For example, Isaiah condemns Israel’s fasting, because while fasting they exploit their workers (Isaiah 58:3). Jeremiah proclaims that reforming the way of their life in order to live in their own country in the face of Babylonian threat is “not to oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jeremiah 7:6). Likewise, Zachariah says, “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10). Amos also adds the word of judgment for those “who oppress the poor and crush the needy,” they “will be cast out toward Harmon” (Amos 4:3). Finally, Malachi makes sure that on the Day of Judgment YHWH will bear witness “against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien” (Malachi 3:5). This stream of God’s compassion for laborers and foreigners does not end in the Hebrew Bible but continues into Matthew’s Gospel as well.


Hyun Ho Park

Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity

Graduate Theological Union (GTU)


  1. Richard M. Locke, “The Promise and Perils of Globalization: The Case of Nike,” MIT Working Paper IPC-02-007, July 2002, p. 10. Locke continues “One worker at Nagasakti Para Shoes, a Nike contractor, said that she and other Indonesians were ‘terrified’ of their South Korean managers: ‘They yell at us when we don’t make the production quotas, and if we talk back they cut our wages.’” Richard M. Locke, “The Promise and Perils of Globalization: The Case of Nike,” p. 10. 
  2. Jin Kyung Lee, Philosophy and a chimney sweeper (Greenby: Seoul, 2005), p. 43. 
  3. Charles Loring Brace, “Race” is a four-letter word (Oxford University Press: New York, Oxford, 2005), p. 25. 
  4. Jin Kyung Lee, Philosophy and a chimney sweeper, p. 178. 
  5. Gay L. Byron similarly defines ethnic-othering in literature as follows: “Ethnic-othering was a common literary tool used to stereotype and slander those perceived as threats (e.g., religious, military, economic, etc) within ancient world.” Gay L. Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (Routledge: London and New York, 2001), p. 2. 
  6. Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton University Press: Princeton and London, 2004), p. 9. 
  7. Charles Loring Brace, “Race” is a four-letter word, p. 33. 

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