11 Aug 2013
“‘Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.’” (Luke 12:48) In the name …
Every morning a lady wakes up and feeds her dog. The dog thinks to himself, “She must be a god.” Every morning the same lady wakes up and feeds her cat. The cat thinks to himself, “I must be a god.” The dog connects the woman to the provision of food and assumes that she is the all-powerful provider. The cat sees that the woman attends to all of his needs and that therefore he must be deserving of such devotion. The same act takes place everyday, but two radically different conclusions are derived from it.
People can be like that too, and today’s Gospel reading can set us up for this. The exact same words can say two different things to us. One person may hear a message about obligation while another hears of privilege. Today’s Gospel is an extended series of parables that are all based on the slave – master relationship. Jesus begins with a very strange parable called the vigilant servants, but it is really about slaves. The Greek word is doulos, slave. We’re not talking about someone who is hired for a job. We’re talking about someone who is bought as a possession. The practice of slavery was common in the Roman world, and Jesus is using the example because it was so common. People who heard Jesus would readily be able to picture the scene of slaves waiting for their master to return home. But as often happens in Jesus’ parables, the common is only the set-up. The people who are listening begin to imagine the normal and ordinary, and while they’re doing that, Jesus throws at them the unexpected and the strange; and that’s going to be the image and message that stick.
Jesus adds to the common picture of slaves and masters the ridiculous component of the master arriving home and he himself then waiting-on the slaves. Everyone listening to Jesus would have been caught off guard. When the master arrives home, the slaves would be expected to serve him, but instead, Jesus says the master will “‘have [the slaves] recline at table and [he will] proceed to wait on them.’” (Luke 12:37) Jesus’ audience would have been shocked and definitely confused by this turn of events. Once Jesus has them thinking, however, that’s when the parable gets interesting. The world of difference between slave and master disappears in the instant those words are heard. This is Jesus the zealot you may have heard so much about recently because of the FOX interview with Reza Aslan the author.
Some of us may hear Jesus’ message today as one of obligation, of servanthood, and it wouldn’t be out of place to say of slavery. This would be understandable since the parable starts with: “‘Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants/slaves who await their master’s return.’” (Luke 12:35) But these are also slaves who are waited-on by that master. So we seem to have a message here about service, but not necessarily of servanthood. Maybe a better word to use at this point is the church’s beautiful word ministry. The service we give to Christ and to others doesn’t make us servants, or the real word – doesn’t make us slaves. Service makes us the privileged ministers of God’s work. We should reflect the example of Christ in our ministry.
That service is honourable in the eyes of Jesus is reinforced by the second parable we hear today. In the first parable, Jesus says, “Be like servants who await their master.” Their example is to be imitated. I don’t know if we all heard it the first time the Gospel was read, but the second parable is the exact opposite. It’s about failure. “‘If the master of the house,’” says Jesus, “‘had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.’” The servants of the first parable were vigilant and were then served by the master. In the second, the master wasn’t vigilant and his house was robbed. Be like the servant, not the master, says Jesus.
Jesus’ stories show us that the idea of service is the mirror opposite of what is expected. Even though Jesus is speaking to us with images of slaves and masters, even though people will tack their usual assumptions onto those images, Jesus is actually turning this model inside-out if we pay attention. He isn’t urging us to think of our Christian responsibilities as servanthood, as like slaves terrified of the master’s punishment, but as service, as ministry. And the two are really quite different. We’re not only slaves doing what is demanded of us out of fear. We’re co-workers with Christ.
Think now about the third master-slave parable that Jesus shares with us today. The servants are now in charge. The servants in charge is a story of the church as we await the return of Jesus. Ours is now the responsibility of stewardship until He returns. And Jesus ends this parable with a surprising message: “‘Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.’” (12:48) The ones who are asked to do more, to work harder for God, aren’t getting the short end of the stick, they are the ones God has most entrusted. These, in other words, are the ones God most trusts. These are the ones blessed by God with the grace and faith needed to work with God and to labour beside Christ. Once again, service is a badge of honour. Service is not akin to servanthood or slavery. Service is the ministry of those believers trusted by God to do the work of God.
This is a message that we active believers need to take to heart. It can be exhausting and sometimes frustrating to do the work of the church. It’s hard to find the time to give when we’re already drawn in so many different directions. It’s hard to reach into our wallets and purses to donate more when everything costs more. But Jesus wants us to know that to serve the church in whatever ways we can is a reflection of the fact that we are trusted by God. We can look at the work that the church needs from us as servanthood or as ministry. It’s like the little story of the dog, the cat and the women who feed them. The exact same action can be understood quite differently. Let us pray that we may come to better understand however we may serve the church as an honour and privilege given by God to those whom He most trusts. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo