May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Creator, Redeemer and Saviour.
I was shocked when I read about Jesus saying these words:
Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.’ Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?’ So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!
Jesus’ use of the master-slave imagery, an economic and social construct which is so unacceptable in our world today, nevertheless highlights the unconscious way we all use and abuse power and how easily it happens all around us in in our daily lives.
Jesus language and imagery is shocking.
Jesus’ story deliberately points to a use of power that was normal and ordinary for those who were listening to him. It was so ordinary no-one noticed it, queried it or challenged it.
Slavery and ownership of other human beings was embedded in the economy, in society, in the maintenance of the empire and was part of the status quo. It was the way things were. People saw it as God given!
The problem for Jesus’ disciples is one that one of my favourite authors, Arundhati Roy explained with terrifying clarity:
The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable. [Roy, A. 2002:172]
The disciples listening to Jesus are perplexed. Jesus has commented on the ordinary making it deeply uncomfortable.
Jesus unpacks the layers in his story: he points to the ordinary use of an individual to labour in the fields or look after the animals all day, for someone else’s benefit and profit, without any personal gain. This individual is then expected to come in and prepare a meal for others and to have no expectation of being helped, served or fed themselves until everyone else is done.
And then as we unpack the next layer of the story, we notice this piece of property is to expect no thanks, no acknowledgement for the work and contribution because this is all that their worthless life is about. Nothing else. Invisible in society, a piece of property to be used for good or ill by the master, useful only from an economic perspective, worthless except when used, valued only for what they produce which does not belong to them. And to have no recognition and to die without leaving a trace. Forgotten, unknown, thrown onto the scrapheap of humanity.
The shock is that Jesus thinks his followers should be like this. And what’s more, as disciples they would accept and acknowledge they are worthless and their labour is not special, unusual or worthy of special treatment.
The shock is that today, we still treat other human beings like this, as invisible, in our response to the world in which we think we live. The previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed out the dilemma and the contradiction (Christianity: Public Religion and the Common Good, 12 May 2007). He said:
I stand before holy ground when I encounter another person – not because they are born with a set of legal rights which they can demand and enforce, but because there is a dimension of their life I shall never fully see; the dimension where they come forth from the purpose of God into the world, with a unique set of capacities and possibilities. It means that there are no superfluous people, no ‘spare’ people in the human world. All are needed for the good of all. […] but the Christian gospel declares that there is nothing more Godlike and precious than a single human person.
So we are rightfully challenged by this brief Gospel reading and the questions it raises.
The inherent contradiction of what Jesus is asking of us as disciples and how we make sense of what this is about goes to the core of our faith. How can we make sense of this? The only way we can is through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is at the point of contradiction we are invited into this worldview, and by ‘being’ and living as the contradiction with Jesus’ help we have the capacity to break open the injustice and abuse of power by pointing to what is the reality for many of God’s people, making it untenable. We are invited as disciples to be in solidarity with, and give witness to, this reality.
Luke’s Gospel is all about turning the world upside down, challenging the status quo. Jesus is inviting us to be disturbers of the peace alongside him, as we listen to stories which pull us up short and make us think about what we have accepted as normal, what we are doing to keep these privileges we enjoy in place; and, how we are currently ‘being’ in our version of God’s kingdom.
In the end, in a world full of slavery imposed through the abuse of power, Jesus’ invitation to enter God’s kingdom, is an invitation to live disturbingly, to forgive generously and abundantly, to believe madly and to follow joyfully.
The Lord be with You.