Pentecost 20: 6 October Luke 17:5-10
We enter the world of slavery and servitude. You don’t treat slaves as equals; you treat them as subordinates and so they should be! Don’t thank them. Their role is to serve you. The problem is that we may assume that many who heard Luke’s story would have nodded their heads in agreement. Slaves are slaves, servants are servants. Some listeners could have perhaps added: and if you are nice to them it will give them ideas above their station. You have to keep them in their place! We don’t want them getting illusions about their worth.
This is all very odd and seems to have more to do with what the gospel of Jesus was trying to counter than what it was trying to promote. We are perhaps more conditioned to think differently, but these have been dominant values throughout much of Christian history. The best exponents were probably the Stoics who helped develop the idea that society must be ordered and preserve its order. Those passages which enjoin wives to obey husbands, slaves to obey masters, and children to obey fathers, reflect this kind of influence. It may also be Luke’s view.
The effect of the story on most hearers of the day would have been to win wholehearted agreement, especially among those who had power or who saw having power and control over others as a goal, even if they couldn’t achieve it. By the time hearers had heard what had been said in 7-9 they were well into the comfort zone of finding their own prejudices affirmed and ready to sigh: how insightful! Good stuff! Then comes verse 10. We are so used to hearing it that it is hard to appreciate its effect. It turns the prejudice back on the hearer: so you, when you have done all you needed to do, don’t make special claims! You have done only what ought to have been expected!
The sudden shift would have been unsettling, shocking. There we were enjoying the profound, shared insights of the movers and shakers, and now we are being reduced to the status of slaves! It is not unlike the tension created in Colossians and Ephesians in the passage which affirms slavery. It includes the stark reminder that masters will be called to give account for themselves: they have a master! So the story works by subverting the self satisfaction of the superiors. It brings everyone down to the same level. It deconstructs hierarchy or it can.
It debunks the idea that we achieve value by achieving the good, as though we deserve a bonus for being decent, caring human beings. It does not let us play the game. We can’t claim: you ought to love me, because look at how good I am! Look at what I have done! The passage is probably deliberately offensive in flooring aspirations to human worth based on achievement capital. It is annoying and frustrating, and even seems mean. It gives us no credit.
Read in the context of the whole gospel story, the passage cannot mean: grovel! Nor can it mean: go round saying you are useless as a kind of ploy of humility because then God and others will like you! Nor can it mean: we must be convinced that we are useless. Yet all of these have been ways of expounding the text - often with disastrous consequences for the individuals and communities involved and those around them. Conversely, the passage has reinforced notions of God as ‘the master’, who is heartless and unengaged - which, then, in turn, helps reinforce this kind of power and its exercise among human beings. Why, God won’t want to invite us to sit down at table with him! No place at the divine table. This flies in the face of the tradition. The gospel is about God’s invitation for us to take our place. It is about a Jesus who washes his disciples’ feet and intimates that he is expounding God’s character in the process. Inverting this story to make it the basis for theology is a disaster.
What is our value if it is not in what we achieve? This is a question which goes to the heart of being human. It is crucial for us all, particularly crucial for those who are able to achieve little, whether through disability linked to illness, age or constitution. When we make achievement the measure of worth, some people will come out very low on the scale. Jesus’ comments subvert that system. Not so long ago in Luke, Jesus was telling us a stories about the stock God seeks and the currency God values in response to criticism that he was mixing it with the worthless. Jesus was doing theology with human intuition and compassion, suggesting God is like a caring parent, who never ceases to love. We are valued because of who we are. The more we become convinced of that the less we need to play the other game and the less it will matter. Then, the less we are preoccupied with making ourselves deserving the more value we can give to others, the more energy and time we have for others.
Did Luke have a sense of humour when he placed the saying about transplanting trees before this theme? The proverbial tiny mustard seed will do to effect the change. It is not about vegetating the sea, but about encouraging seemingly impossible visions. In part it is about thinking outside the square. Things do not have to be the way they are. It is also about assertion against what appear to be overwhelming odds. Change is possible.
A new approach to human dignity and value is a huge ask in a world where the poor are exploited and where anger explodes in terror which callously disregards human life. We are surrounded by many systems and structures of violence. Sometimes like the hearers of this story we find solidarity in our superiority and wisdom about our preferred order. Jesus crashes our pretensions to the ground and, if we make it, we find ourselves reaching out and touching the hands of all whom terror violates, whether in the barbarism of bombings timed for maximum viewing on the TV screen or in the creeping disadvantage of marginalised groups, victims of corruption and economic exploitation. Seeds of hope and change are scattered here and there. Mountains wait to be moved. The world does not need prized achievements so much as an assertion of humanity, of being what are made to be and reflecting in that the true image and glory of God, which is its own reward.
Epistle: Pentecost 20: 6 October 2 Timothy 1:1-14