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In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels we read a passage in their gospels which is challenging on multiple levels from our vantage point today:
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 24:45-51
“The Lord answered, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men, and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.’” Luke 12:42-46
A Word about Slavery and Jesus
Luke sums up Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18 with the phrase “to set the oppressed free.” Jesus was a prophet of the poor who called those who exploited them to radical wealth redistribution and to embrace solidarity with them. He called those at the helm of an exploitative economic system to account, speaking truth to power to the degree that the elites ultimately worked to see Jesus executed.
And yet, our passages above foreground one of the challenges with elevating Jesus and his teachings for our society today: Jesus never spoke one word against slavery. This silence was used by Christians in the U.S. to justify Christianity while they held tight to slavery. Moses Stuart of Andover Seminary in Massachusetts wrote that abolitionists “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing.” [See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era)].
Regardless of how one explains Jesus’ references to slavery and servanthood, the reality remains the same: an enslavement culture is at the heart of some of Jesus’ strongest parables about a new social order.
What Can We Glean From This Week’s Saying?
I believe much is lost when we immediately apply sayings such as these to a future second coming of Jesus rather than to the unexpected nature of the social vision Jesus shared during his life.
Jesus emerged among the exploited, poor class in his society announcing the return of YHWH’s liberating Presence among them (i.e. the kingdom or reign of God). He called for the evidence of this Presence to be expressed in his listeners taking responsibility for each other’s care. This is the centerpiece of this parable in the regrettable context of slavery:
“The master put [the slave] over his household to give” the rest of the household “food.”
The slave’s job was to distribute justice; to make sure everyone had enough, and to make sure no one had too much if someone else would go without.
The Jewish tradition is full of rich veins of calls for distributive justice.
Distributive justice is what the prophets called for.
Distributive justice is what Jesus also called for.
Distributive justice is the choice that lies before us still today.
Distributive justice calls us to become a people-oriented society. John Dominic Crossan writes in The Greatest Prayer:
“[Jesus’ distributive justice] vision derives from the common experience of a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or, to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much? It is that vision of the well-run household, of the home fairly, equitably, and justly administered, that the biblical tradition applies to God. God is the Householder of the world house, and all those preceding questions must be repeated on a global and cosmic scale. Do all God’s children have enough? If not—and the biblical answer is “not”—how must things change here below so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world? The Lord’s Prayer proclaims that necessary change as both revolutionary manifesto and hymn of hope.” (p. 3)
Today, we live in a global society right now where six men have as much wealth as half the world’s population. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (Beyond Vietnam, April 4, 1967)
Jesus called us into a relationship with each other in a way that makes a tangible difference in how privilege, power, resources, profits, property, and anything else we need for survival and thriving are distributed justly. Jesus’ worldview was one where God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on all alike (Matthew 5:45). Today, we must learn to recognize, name, and work to reverse systems that prevent “rain” and “sunshine” from reaching some people while being funneled off to others.
Our passages above also unequivocally end quite violently and I find it troubling. I don’t believe in a God who is going to “cut people into pieces” if they don’t do what that God says. I do believe Jesus was reasoning from cause to effect in parable form.
What history now tells us is that the exploited poor of Jesus’ day did violently revolt against the elites in Jerusalem, and they went on to take up arms and revolt against Rome itself as well.
The Roman backlash was merciless. Jerusalem in its entirety was destroyed: the entire “household” was laid waste. If Jesus saw this coming, I can understand his trying to warn them.
But here is the catch. The catch wasn’t that the poor were finally able to take back what had been taken from them. No, poor and the rich alike were annihilated by Rome in 70 C.E., so threats of violence didn’t motivate those who dominated them to change.
What motivates me today to live into the teachings of Jesus is seeing my interconnectedness with others and heeding the call to engage in a relationship with others. Compassion is a far greater motivator, for me than fear of future loss or hope of gain.
And this may be the point, I believe, of these passages: We are all in this together. The choices we make affect us all. And although they affect us differently, we all have to share this planet we call home. As a dear friend of mine once said to me, “We all get clean air or we all get dirty air.” We all inescapably share space with each other. We have the choice to share this space in a way that makes sure everyone is taken care of.