taking the words of Jesus seriously

During a recent taxi trip through the various neighborhood of Rabat, Morocco, I was reminded of the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Hundreds of Sub-Saharan migrants sat or stood by the side of the road in Takadoum, a rougher area of town. They were hoping to be hired as day laborers. As I make this journey fairly often, I have seen Moroccans pull up with trucks, and several young men smile at their fortune of being selected to earn a day’s wage as they bounded up into the back of the truck to ride to a job site.

On my most recent journey, I first rode by in the morning, about 9:30, and then again at about 1pm. By the early afternoon, almost all of the groups of migrants had disappeared. Seeing that they would probably not be called upon to work, most left, leaving only the most desperate men standing, looking for someone to hire them, but quickly losing hope.

The vineyard owner of the parable of the workers in Matthew 20:1-16 made a trip to the daily labor market as many who sought and still seek manual labor did and do. He went in the morning and selected the strongest-looking of the potential workers. This is what the Moroccan foremen do in the Takadoum neighborhood, such that by mid-morning the crowd of potential workers look less physically impressive to a potential foreman who will recognize them as a good investment for the day.

It is at this time that we read of the first strange behavior of the landlord in the parable. He went out to the market at about nine (verse 3) and then again at about noon (verse 4). The landowner would have had a good idea about how many workers he would have needed for his vineyard. More than that, the vineyard owner would have had a good idea about how much money he would have been able to spend on laborers and still make a profit on his grapes and/or wine, as it was one of the crops that the Roman Empire bought in vast bulk and provided at subsidized prices to the citizens of the cities in the empire. A smart landlord would have used as little labor as possible to harvest grapes in order to ensure maximum profits.

The landlord in the parable, however, not only keeps hiring laborers, thus cutting into his profits, but keeps hiring progressively less physically impressive laborers from whom he knows he will receive diminishing marginal returns. After mid-morning, only the weak, unknown, or argumentative laborers are left in the market. After noon, only the desperate are still waiting around to be hired.

You can imagine the incredulity of the landlord when he asked those still waiting around in the market at almost the end of the day: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” (verse 6). Why did you not go home, find somewhere to take a nap, or at least get out of the hot sun? Their reply turns the culpability for their lack of employment back on all the potential employers who passed them by: “Because no one has hired us!” They wanted to work, they displayed their dedication to finding work all day long — and probably not for the first time — but still no one had chosen them. They were the weak and unpopular, and the daily rebuke of their full humanity, dignity, and willingness to work must have stung them every morning as they watched those who were stronger walking to their gainful employment while the human leftovers stayed in the market, kept there only by vain hope.

The rest of the parable is well-known. The landlord employed even those desperate few who still stood in the market at the end of the day. As it came time for payment, the workers who labored all day were shocked that their wages were the same as those who were chosen last. Their principal complaint was that “You have made them equal to us…” (verse 12). I think that was the whole point! Those who were rejected all day were shown to be just as valuable as those who were chosen first. The parable ends with the reminder that the first will be last and the last will be first (verse 16).

The Kingdom of God works as a powerful equalizing force as we realize that our best and only claim is to be beloved children of our Father in heaven. Indeed, we are to rejoice in this equaling: “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation” (James 1:9-10a).

God, like the landowner, has chosen to demonstrate our equality at great cost to Godself. The requirement for me, then, is to recognize and treat my Moroccan and Sub-Saharan neighbors as precious, equal brothers.

About The Author

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Cory Driver is a professor of North African history and religion. He earned his Ph.D. in Jewish religious cultures from Emory University. Cory lives with his family in Rabat, Morocco.

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