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Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Judges 9:6-15 & Mt. 20:1-16

Today's first reading is very mysterious. What are we to make of Jotham’s parable of the thorn bush? Abimelech and Jotham were sons of Gideon, who was one of God’s great warriors. Abimelech wanted to be king of Israel at a time when God made it clear that the Lord alone was to be ruler. As part of his scheme to seize authority, he killed 70 who could have been contenders for the throne. Jotham, the only surviving brother, came out of hiding to deliver his parable of reproof.

The point Jotham was trying to bring home is that kingship was not something, which ought to be sought by any wise or capable man. The olive tree, the fig tree and the grapevine are productive plants which brought many benefits to harvesters but the plant that is willing to become king is the bramble! In effect what Jotham was saying was that Abimelech was not a worthy man.

Abimelech’s end could be seen as a vindication of all that Jotham had said about him. Having won the allegiance of many in Israel he set out on a military campaign and, during the storming of a watchtower at Thebez, a woman dropped a millstone from the tower, crushing his skull (Judges 9:16-7). Abimelech died at the hands of a woman, which was considered a disgrace for a warrior, punished by the Lord for his presumptions to power and the murder of his brothers.

The parable in today's Gospel about a landowner paying his hard-working labourers, who sweated and toiled all day, nothing more than those who had worked but a short while the same day seems very unfair and unjust. Were they not right to expect more, for they had worked longer hours? Some people wrongly see this as Jesus condoning unfair practices. But is Jesus simply not trying to get His listeners to consider and realise how extravagant God’s love and mercy can be?

A little background information on the work practices in Jesus’ time may help us grasp more easily the point He is trying to make. Most people in Palestine had to hire themselves out as day labourers. They would go to the market square each morning and wait for a landowner to hire them for some job such as harvesting the fruit of the vineyard. To stand idle all day without any work usually meant returning home empty-handed. And no money earned meant no food on the table.

So when the owner of the vineyard in Jesus' parable hired those men at the last hour of work, he was showing compassion for those who had not been hired by anyone earlier in the day: he did not want to see a person who was willing to work return home with nothing. That’s why he gave them a full day's wage, thus ensuring that they would have enough for the family's sustenance that day.

As with the landowner, God does not want to see us suffering or in want. His love overcomes the logic of what we 'deserve' and gives us instead what we 'need' - lavishing upon us the gifts of His kingdom, supplying not only what we lack but giving us more than we can expect. Let this truth fill our hearts and minds with amazement and gratitude today.

Lord Jesus, Your love knows no bounds! Fill our hearts with gratitude for the gifts You lavish upon us every day! Do not let us be tempted to take anything which we are not entitled to have. Help us to be generous like You, with our families, our friends and even people whom we do not know.

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