Thursday, September 29, 2016
I am a white man from Alabama, which means that slavery is a part of my past. I don’t know my particular family history—whether my ancestors were ever slaveholders—but I do know that I am part of a society that has the evil of slavery as its legacy. Our cities, our families, our churches were built by slaves. I know that. I accept that. I repent of that. So, when I read Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 17:5-10), in which Jesus likens his disciples' work to slave labor, I want to be careful that the image he chose doesn't get mistranslated.
Jesus tells the apostles, "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?'" It's tempting to hear the words of the one who came to set the captives free as a direct challenge to an evil institution. Remember that Jesus is the one who came not to be served but to serve. Jesus has a complete reorientation of society in mind. And the early church knew what it meant for masters and slaves to gather around the Communion table as equals. Because of that, it's tempting to think that the implied teaching of these questions is, "You might want to tell your slave to serve you first, but, verily I say unto thee, those who would be my disciples must welcome even a slave to the dinner table and serve him before eating his own meal." But that's not what Jesus meant.
I cringe a little bit whenever I confront the magnitude of the evil that slavery represents and my own participation in that evil. I cringe and cry and want to turn away. Because of that, I want Jesus to make a clear and definite break with that horrible practice so that I can know what I already know: that slavery was wrong--always and everywhere wrong. But Jesus doesn't give us that. Chalk it up to the mystery of the hypostatic union of fully human and fully divine natures, but Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, did not fully see past an evil institution that was the accepted practice of his day. The image he uses to teach his disciples about faithfulness is built upon the foundation of slavery. It may not be the same institution that 18th- & 19th-century American slavery represented, but it's still slavery. If we are going to hear what Jesus intended to say to his disciples, we have to listen to him as one who is not attempting to overturn an evil but who uses that evil to make his point.
This passage isn't about slavery; it's about discipleship. Discipleship is a thankless job. It's a duty. It's a compulsion. It is, as Paul wrote, a life lived as a slave to righteousness. Jesus said, "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!'" There are various racist sayings about exhausting and difficult work. Their root lies in the prejudiced belief that only slaves or their direct descendants or their modern-day counterparts would take on that kind of manual labor. Jesus wants his disciples to know that that kind of work--that hard, exhausting, never-ending work--belongs to us. We do it not to be thanked. We do it not by choice. We do it because it's who we are. It's a hard image to hear. It's a hard image to embrace. But we are slaves to Jesus. The freedom he promises doesn't come until the work is done.