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 honored, 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.'
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."
The story from Judges today is a bit of a riddle. Riddles draw details drawn from everyday life, but don't pretend to be historically accurate. Like parables, they serve to prod us to think. Jotham's riddle is a cry to heaven for revenge. Gideon's son, Abimelech, has connived with the people of Shechem to kill all of Jotham's brothers, and young Jotham barely manages to escape alive. Then from the heights of Mount Gerizim, Jotham shouts his dramatic riddle, which is actually a curse on his enemies. The men who violently seized power will themselves be destroyed by violence. The las plant he lists, the buckthorn, when chosen to be king, provides no shade and easily destroys itself and all that is nearby.
When Jesus spoke his message about God, he used the speech patterns of his own time and place. 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.
Most of us react instinctively against any form of behaviour that we consider to be unfair or unjust. If we think we are being treated unfairly, unjustly, we can feel especially irate. It is probably that instinct in us that leaves us feeling a bit uneasy about the story that Jesus tells in today's gospel. We can easily sympathize with the complaint of the workers who bemoan the fact that those who only worked an hour got the same wages as those who worked all day. Yet, whereas those who complained were operating out of the category of justice, the employer was operating out of the category of generosity. He wasn't unjust to those who worked all day; he gave them a denarius, the normal wage for a day's work. But he was simple extremely generous to those who only worked an hour, giving them a day's wages too.
Jesus was saying through this parable that God's generosity does not fit into the categories of human justice; it doesn't respond to human calculations. God does not deal with us according to our efforts, on the basis of what we deserve. There is nothing calculating about God's generosity. God displays his mercy to those who have no claim on it. We can all identify with those who worked only an hour; we are all, in a sense, latecomers. The parable assures us that God's generosity will surprise us and leave us humbled.