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The Riddle of Jotham

The Riddle of Jotham

Yesterday we heard the story of Gideon, one of the twelve judges of Israel.  Today we hear the story of two of his sons, Abimelech and Jotham.  Gideon actually had seventy sons of many different wives and concubines.  However, Abimelech plotted against them and killed all of them except Jotham who escaped.  The people of Israel then crowned Abimelech their king which is what he had in mind all along and was his motivation for killing his brothers. 

That’s the back story to the reading we hear today.  Jotham shouts out a riddle from the top of Mt. Gerizim.  When the Word of God comes to us in riddles, parables and allegories, the intent of the sacred writer is not always readily apparent.  Consequently, we don’t arrive at quick and easy answers when we hear them.  Only when we sit with them and let them penetrate our hearts can we come up with a way to heed the message that is hidden in the riddle or the parable or the allegory. 

The characters in Jotham’s riddle are trees and plants.  So one has to know something about botany to appreciate the message of the riddle.  Buckthorn, the plant that is eventually crowned king over all the trees and plants is an invasive species of plant.  It is dangerous to plant buckthorn in your fields.  If you were to Google “buckthorn” on the internet, you would find the following: Buckthorn out-competes native plants for nutrients, light, and moisture, degrades wildlife habitat, threatens the future of forests, wetlands, prairies, and other natural habitats, contributes to erosion by shading out other plants that grow on the forest floor, serves as host to other pests, such as crown rust fungus and soybean aphid, forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation, and lacks "natural controls" like insects or disease that would curb its growth.  Obviously, Sr. Marilyn will not be planting any buckthorn in her flower gardens.  

Abimelech has stolen the crown.  Jotham’s riddle is his way of telling the people of the danger they are in for having crowned him their king.  Those who seize authority by violence will be destroyed themselves by violence.  Jotham’s warning, his riddle, proves true.  Abimelech leads Israel back into idolatry and sin.  Once again Israel is enslaved by its neighbors.  

As we listen to this riddle today, the question becomes one of whether there is any buckthorn in the garden of our souls.  Have we allowed some idol or some bad habit crowd out the virtues that God would have us cultivate?  Is God the King of our lives?  Have we instead crowned our own will, our own ideas, our own way of doing things rather than doing what God has asked of us?  

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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