17 Aug, Wednesday of Week 20
Judg 9:6ff. With an ancient riddle Jotham brings down a curse on Abimelech and the people of Shechem responsible for killing Jotham’s entire family.
Matt 20:1ff. Parable of the estate-owner who pays the same agreed wage to the first as to the last.
Justice for the Weak
Especially in the case of parables and riddles, the word of God does not give quick, final answers but prods us into reflection, as we read at the end of the Book of Ecclesiastes, “The sayings of the wise are like goads.” Elsewhere the word of God is compared to rain and snow that come down from heaven but do not return without soaking the earth, “giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater.” (Isa 55:10). God’s word is not simply the words of the Bible but the biblical message as absorbed within our own heart and mind, and as planted in the earth of our questions and hopes, like seed that is sown in the field or like bread that nourishes our lives.
Once goaded into thinking by the word of God, we must attend to its literary form. The text from Judges is of the riddle form, which draws on homely examples, where the main actors are generally plants and animals and which hides the truth as much as reveal it. Riddles require reflection and imagination, to uncover its intricacies. Allegories and parables are homespun stories with details drawn from everyday life, never pretending to be historically accurate, but serving to prod us to some personal application. The meaning of parable is not as deeply hidden as in the case of a riddle, and the message of each is delivered in different ways. The parable usually musters many details, all for the sake of the moral or final punch-line while in the allegory each detail in the story can be applied to contemporary life.
The riddle of Jotham cries to heaven for revenge. Gideon’s son, Abimelech, connives with the people of Shechem to kill all of his brothers, except for young Jotham who manages to escape. Dramatically from the heights of Mount Gerizim, Jotham shouts the riddle, actually a curse. Those who seize authority by violence will themselves be destroyed by violence. The final plant, the buckthorn, chosen to be king, provides no shade and easily burns and devours itself and anything close by.
The allegory of Ezekiel helps us to look at some details in our style of leadership. Every adult acquires some type of authority over others, be it a parent over home and children, priest and parish team over parishioners, seniority in one’s place of employment, elected positions in civil administration, those who hire people for occasional work in the home or office, even each of us in our attitude toward the persons delivering our mail or daily paper, those who collect garbage, and hosts of others who touch our lives in various ways. Each line of Ezekiel’s allegory puts a serious question to us. Do we use our authority for our own benefit: by not strengthening the weak, or refusing to bind up the injured? by lording it harshly over others ? by being indifferent to what happens in their daily life? These questions are put to us very seriously. Unless we change our ways, God swears, “I am coming against those shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and stop them from shepherding my sheep.”
When Jesus spoke the word of God, he used the Semitic form of speaking. Therefore, in the case of the parable of the vineyard workers it is entirely irrelevant to discuss the social justice (or injustice) of the estate-owner, who was paying only a denarius, less than minimal wage for those who worked all day but more than adequate for those who worked only an hour in the cool of the evening. The punch-line declares that new arrivals are equal to those who have been around a long time. Jesus may have been defending his disciples, newly arrived on the religious scene, against the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes whose leadership had been long accepted. The early church reinterpreted the parable, to mean that gentiles are equal to Jews in the kingdom of God. Today the parable may put in question our ability to recognize new leadership from the ranks of the laity, including the women, or to give proper credit to the young generation, to transfer the mantle of authority, to accept change within the forms of civil or religious authority.
First Reading: Judges 9:6-15
Then all the lords of Shechem and all Beth-millo came together, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem.
When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you.
The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ The olive tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honoured, and go to sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?’ So all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”