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.'"
O Lord, your strength gives joy to the king;
how your saving help makes him glad!
You have granted him his heart's desire;
you have not refused the prayer of his lips. (R./)
You came to meet him with the blessings of success,
you have set on his head a crown of pure gold.
He asked you for life and this you have given,
days that will last from age to age. (R./)
Your saving help has given him glory.
You have laid upon him majesty and splendour,
you have granted your blessings to him for ever.
You have made him rejoice with the joy of your presence. (R./)
Jesus told his disciples this parable: "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."
Today’s story from Judges is a strange riddle. Riddles may use details from everyday life, but don’t pretend to report actual events. Like parables, their purpose is to prod us to think. Jotham’s riddle is a cry to heaven for revenge. The tyrant Abimelech had connived with the people of Shechem to kill all of his rivals, and young Jotham barely escaped alive. Then from the heights of Mount Gerizim, Jotham shouted his dramatic riddle, as a curse on his enemies. Those who violently seized power will themselves be destroyed by violence. The last plant he lists, the buckthorn, when chosen as king, provides no shade but will destroy both itself and all that is nearby.
When speaking in parables, Jesus used the language and imagery of his own time and place. Therefore, when he uses the parable of the vineyard workers it is irrelevant to discuss the social justice (or injustice) of the estate-owner, who was paying only a denarius a day, a minimum wage for those who worked all day but more than was due to anyone who worked only an hour in the cool of the evening.
The punch-line says that new arrivals are equal to those who have been there first. Jesus may have been defending his disciples, newly arrived on the religious scene, against the Pharisees and Scribes whose leadership was well established. The early church reinterpreted the parable, to mean that gentiles are equal to Jews in the kingdom of God. Today the parable may challenge us to recognize new leadership arising from the laity, including women, or to give proper credit to the young generation, to transfer the mantle of authority, to accept changed forms of civil or religious authority.
We instinctively protest against behaviour that we consider unfair or unjust. If we ourselves are being treated unfairly, we can feel especially irate. That can make us uneasy about the story Jesus tells in today’s gospel. We sympathize with the complaint of the workers when people who only worked an hour got the same wages as others who had worked all day. But the employer was operating out of the category of generosity rather than the minimum required by justice. He wasn’t unjust to those who worked all day; he gave them the agreed wage for a day’s work. But he was extremely kind to those who only had worked for an hour, giving them a full day’s wages too.
God’s generosity does not fit into the neat categories of human justice. Heod does not deal with us according to our merits, giving us only what we deserve. Divine mercy is freely given to those who have no claim on it. In a sense, we can identify with those who worked only an hour; for we are all, in a sense, latecomers. God’s generous grace will surprise us and leave us humbled.