buckthorn: the leaders we deserve
(fr. Cyprian, Wednesday of the 20th Week in Ordinary Time)
We’re following the Book of Judges this week, which is really the story of these mighty men (and one woman, Deborah, let’s not forget, who is associated with the judge Barak) who were great warlords during the time of Israel’s conquest and occupation of Palestine. It was because of their reputation for brave exploits that they were given authority in legal disputes and political squabbles between the different tribes. They’re usually numbered as twelve, and listed as major judges, such as Samson and Gideon, and the minor judges. Abhimelech, who we hear about today in chapter 9, comes right in the middle. But he is not listed as a judge; he is listed as a usurper and a tyrant. Abhimilech is the son of Gideon (or Jerubaal, as he is called here), but he’s not a son of one of Gideon’s many wives; he’s the issue of Gideon’s concubine.
We also have to remember that there is a general mistrust of monarchy in ancient Israel before the time of Saul and David, a hesitation at having a king like the pagan nations did. As a matter of fact, Gideon himself had all the authority of a king, which he then passes on to his 70 sons, but he refused to be called a king. Abhimelech then goes and kills all of Gideon’s other sons, except for Jotham, who escaped, and then has himself declared king over Shechem. It is that same Jotham who is telling this fable today. You’ll notice of course how the trees and the plants get humbler as they go: first there is the olive tree, a noble tree that gives shade and fruit, and has strong wood, who refuses to be king; then the fig tree, not such good wood but still some shade and good fruit; and then the vine, no shade at all, but still a useful cheering fruit. But instead now they are stuck with a useless buckthorn. This is one of the central morals of the Book of Judges, a warning to Israel: the one who claims to be king is a usurper and a tyrant.
I had to look buckthorn up to understand how bad it was. Buckthorn is of the genus Rhamnus cathartica (see picture below), and it’s usually referred to as an invasive shrub––sometimes it’s even called a “fruitless noxious weed”––that degrades all other habitats because it can out-compete native plants for nutrients, light and moisture. It also forms an impenetrable layer––it’s used for hedging in modern times––but it shades out the other plants that grow on the forest floor. It also serves as a host for all kinds of pests but it lacks natural control because it is immune to insects or other diseases. (It’s like our invasive non-native pampas grass. “You could have had a redwood tree, or an orange tree, or even honeysuckle––but you chose pampas grass!”) The noble useful trees and plants refuse kingship, but the invasive shrub usurps authority and claims it as its own.
I found this very instructive as our political season heats up, and I thought of more than one politician or presidential candidate who I could compare to an invasive weed, or world leader that has proven to be nothing more than a fruitless, noxious shrub. But, my Dad used to say, we get the leaders we deserve! Our Fr. Robert keeps reminding us that the people of Germany actually voted for Hitler! It would be well for us also to be a little suspicious of self-styled kings, especially ones who choke out other voices. It would be well for us to remember this in local communities, as a church, as a nation, as a world: the gospel, as inexpedient and counter-intuitive as it is or seems to be, has more to teach us about true leadership than any manifesto or political playbook. ‘It shall not be that way with you!’ We too ought to be careful not to put too much hope in any human authority, especially tyrants and those who choose expediency over justice and respect for each and every life, especially the down trodden and the poor.
It’s interesting that we hear Jesus’ parable about the vineyard on this same day (Mt 20:10-16), the humblest of the noble plants mentioned by Jotham. And the landowner, instead of being a tyrant choking out the rest of the forest, is showing forth this prodigal graciousness, even seemingly unjust generosity: the first to be hired are not getting any more than the last ones who came at the eleventh hour. That’s what God is like! Jesus is trying to tell us. Maybe that’s what the universe is really like, too, and anything to the contrary is against the way of heaven and earth. Let’s pray that through the Eucharist we share we could find that kind of prodigality and generosity, and learn to trust in the benevolence of heaven and earth.