I saw the Downton Abbey movie this week, and it got me thinking about social hierarchies.
The long running TV show recounts the fortunes of the Grantham family, part of the British aristocracy who live in grand manors in the countryside around the time of WWI. Both the movie and the show explore the lives of those who live upstairs, the lords and ladies,
And those who live downstairs, the servants. The lives of the people living in these two distinct social classes intersect in carefully prescribed ways Sometimes with professional regard, sometimes with animosity, and sometimes, with true affection and admiration.
They nonetheless live and breathe the distinctions of class; both the family and the servants know their place, What they can and cannot say, what they can and cannot do.
The stratified social society of Downton Abbey is a good place to begin a consideration of today’s gospel text. For like Downton, there were definite rules of social engagement in first century culture.
In today’s gospel, Jesus references the social reality of slavery:
Unlike American slavery, which was based on racism and was permanent slavery in Roman culture was often temporary--a way to pay off debts. It also extremely common:
Some estimates suggest that as much as 1/3 to 1/2 the population were slaves at any given time. As a slave, responsibilities and behavior were clearly delineated So when Jesus says, “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?’”
The answer to Jesus’ question would have been obvious; The slave’s job was to take care of the belongings of the master and to do the master’s bidding.
The slave would come in from the field, serve the lord, and then take their own meal elsewhere --end of story. But Jesus has a way of invoking social realities in order to challenge them. Jesus invites women to follow him as disciples, including Mary Magdalene; He accepts invitations to dinner at the houses of tax collectors and sinners
And in chapter 12 of Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples about a master who serves his slave at the table, A direct contradiction of what he says here. On top of that, Luke’s gospel recounts story after story of surprising encounters with outsiders—
Samaritans, women, tax collectors and sinners, the poor and overlooked.
In these encounters, Jesus continually challenges the social systems of religion and society
That elevate some and denigrate others, that assign worth to some and not to others.
And so I wonder about this text. Here Jesus seems to be parroting the usual conventions, that slaves are to serve without recognition: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” He seems to call their faithful service worthless:
“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!”
His words seem to echo so many negative messages we hear elsewhere.
How do we square this with the Jesus elsewhere in the Gospel?
I think it is important to note that Jesus here is giving instructions to his disciples.
He clearly has high standards for them: According to this passage, any mistake they make that misleads someone who is new in the faith has dire consequences
They are to forgive repeat offenders who repent, even if the offense happens multiple times a day. No wonder the disciples cry, “Increase our faith!” Surely they would need an abundant supply in order to meet these saintly standards. Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” His response is one of reassurance Jesus had already sent his disciples to do the work of faith, healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God, so he wasn’t implying they didn’t have faith.
On top of that, the mustard seed is a potent symbol. It is small, but that isn’t what Jesus is referring to. The salient feature about the mustard is the ubiquity of the plant—it spreads everywhere, like a weed. Jesus is saying, your modicum of faith may not seem like much, but it is powerful enough to change the landscape. You are enough. It is as if Jesus builds his disciples up and tears them down in the same breath. I think what he actually is doing is subverting the system of assigning worth to people. Jesus commends his disciples for being worthless slaves. He lifts up the worthless seed of a prolific weed as a symbol of faith. He applies praise to things that don’t seem praiseworthy. It’s like a Japanese koan,
A Spiritual saying that doesn’t make intellectual sense such as, ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping,’ But that breaks open the mind to new awareness and ways of thinking.
Jesus wanted his original disciples to rethink their ways of assigning worth to people—
and I think the message is important for us, too It isn’t the Guilded Age, but we aren’t beyond distinctions of class and wealth in our society.
We have our own ways of assigning worth to people: Net worth equals self worth
Products and possessions are status symbols Sometimes worth is found in relationships, caregiving, in titles or academic degrees. Much of our worth is tied up in what we do and what we own. But as Louise’s story pointed out, we can’t count on those things.
Fortunes change in an instant. Even our abilities and relationships can change or slip away.
If our ultimate worth is tied up in those things, we remain insecure We remain under the illusion that we own our lives. When Jesus talks about slaves and masters, he is trying to describe a relationship that is so much better than our do-it-yourself existence, One in which we willingly turn our lives over to the Master, No longer holding vainly on to our attempts to control and produce.
When we make in our aim to be the slave, we find that it is The Master who serves us,
Not because we are worthy or unworthy in any particular way But because of who he is and the relationship of trust and care that he wants to share with us. I find in Jesus’ teaching an invitation to humility. Far from being self deprecation or low self esteem, this humility is freeing. Our value is not found in this world’s social order or status symbols, But rather in being in the presence of our Master who welcomes and serves us.
We are not masters of our destinies, but we receive that as a relief. We surrender like a trusting child to Jesus we have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to shoulder alone.
We recognize his power to ‘work all things for good for those who love him,’ as St Paul says in Romans. His plans are so much greater than we can devise for ourselves. Ultimately, Jesus’ invitation is to let God be God; When we do, obedience is not sacrifice or degradation; it is a sign of our willingness to trust.
I am not sure I will ever have warm fuzzies when I read this passage;
But I know from a broader reading of scripture that we are likened not only to slaves served by their Master But also people who have been adopted through the love of God
We have become valued members of the household
Distinctions of master and slave, worthy and unworthy fade into irrelevance.
We partake in a love that is priceless, and encompasses all.