Mass readings for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Proverbs 31.10-13, 16-18, 20, 26, 28-31 Psalm 128.1-5 1 Thessalonians 5.1-6 Matthew 25.14-15, 19-21
I found myself reflecting on our current cultural climate, and to be more specific, the conflict over how popular fairy tales, and other stories are told and that there is an accusation that they push stereotypes that are either negative, or limiting. So, entertainment companies like Disney remake Snow White, but leave out the seven dwarves; princesses can’t fall in love with princes, and in fantasy movies, it doesn’t do to have young male lead be the hero. Now, the counterargument is that those who insist on changing ancient fairy tales, or even more recent stories, are getting caught up in superficial aspects of the story telling and missing the deeper meanings; that they don’t understand the full significance of the things they’re getting rid of, and so much of the nuance that literally generations of us had no trouble understanding.
So, when it came to looking at the parable Jesus tells us today, it had me wondering just how it is received. With a hypersensitivity to language, to narratives of oppression, can our society hear what he is saying in a story whose principal characters are a master and his slaves? Are we triggered? Are we able, or rather, willing to hear, and so answer Christ’s very specific mandate to give ourselves to God in service? Or do we prefer the distractions of today’s “controversies” with respect to language and the supposed violence it does?
In recent years there were concerns from some quarters that addressing God as “father” was “problematic.” That’s a misapprehension of what Jesus’ intention is. We know there is no biological relationship between Jesus and God the Creator. Our Lord is using human language to help us understand the nature of the relationship. When it comes to our use of “Father” in addressing God, it’s the same. It’s a characterization based on what we know of relations between men and their children, that they indeed parent differently from mothers, that they often stand psychologically at a distance from their children relative to the mother’s close proximity, all the while being just as dedicated to their offspring; and of course, we are thinking of God as the absolute ideal expression of fatherhood which far transcends our experience of even the best of fathers.
So, what do we make of this parable that casts us as slaves? And this isn’t the only time we are so characterized; Jesus often uses the slaves of a household as an allegory. Are we to understand ourselves as God’s slaves? People in abject servitude to the Almighty?
Well, there are other religions that argue that this is the correct understanding and proper dynamic between ourselves and our creator. These don’t refer to God as “father” but understand him very much as a master to whom we submit.
A key to appreciating how Jesus uses the theme of slavery lies in understanding just how the whole institution of slavery was understood in the Hebrew culture that Jesus speaks from.
Slavery stretches back to the very beginnings of human society and likely began as a consequence of war. Rather than kill all of one’s defeated enemies, a good way to eliminate them as a threat and derive some benefit to offset one’s own war losses is to enslave those of the enemy who survive. Built into that is the justification for enslavement based on the superiority of the masters as better because the slaves are literally ‘losers’ and this proves the inferiority of the enslaved who are suited to serve the ‘master’ race or nation. This was called “natural slavery,” and so, the children, grandchildren, etc. of slaves were equally “losers” and so “naturally” slaves. However, with this horrible idea came along a whole host of assumptions: that the bulk of humanity was truly dispensable, existed for exploitation, and only the strong, the wily, the cold-hearted have what it takes to earn and keep their freedom and dignity.
For us as North Americans, our ideas about slavery are more informed by the African slave trade driven by the plantation economy centered on the Caribbean sugar industry, and later the production of tobacco and cotton in what we know as the American South. The understanding of slavery was different as the slaves weren’t the defeated from a war, but people simply seized by powerful African nations who victimized their weaker neighbors. They then handed over their captives to Arab brokers who sold them on to Europeans desperate for laborers. This dehumanization was then rationalized by theologians and jurists and scientists, along familiar lines of a natural inferiority, not proven by military defeat, but rather according to more modern criteria that gave license to people being reduced to a commodity—the human capacity to justify injustice being boundless.
The understanding of slavery in ancient Israel was very different, like neither of these, and is remarkable for how in its very law, the Torah, it departs from all other societies and cultures contemporary with it. While slavery was seen as part of the harsh reality of human society, slaves remained equal in their humanity – slaves had rights under the law. The Torah prohibits a master from killing or injuring his slave (Exodus 21:20, 21:26-27); in the former case the master receives the death penalty, and in the latter the slave is set free.
Their relationship of master to slave wasn’t one of owner and property, but rather as being grounded in an obligation. The basis of slavery was economic. Slavery was the consequence of indebtedness; the financially ruined having nothing left to sell or offer in barter but themselves. And so, the debt was capable of being discharged; and the Torah actually put a limit on the term of enslavement, six years.
So, I hope this recasts in your minds what is going on in these parables, because a master in this situation is unexpectedly (for us, and in relative terms) a benefactor for those who have no where else to turn. He takes people into his household, clothes, feeds and houses them. Their labour is expected in return, but the prospect of freedom is there. The good slave will be freed. And the bad slave isn’t killed, rather he’s thrown out of the house, chased off the estate into that “outer darkness” we hear so much about.
We know the good slave from the bad according to what they do with the talents the master gives them. Now in our culture today, we often encounter a distortion of this parable’s wisdom, cut off as so many are from the Bible. Talents are now encouraged and developed for their own sake. You see a kid with a good throwing arm, and the baseball-minded think it would be a shame, even a sin, not to help develop that ability. The same with artistic talent, be it in the fine arts or the performing arts; but that motto of “art for art’s sake” is a subtle kind of blasphemy.
They misinterpret that part of the parable where the slave buries his one talent. The sin against God is seen in, perhaps the laziness toward the work of nurturing a talent; or there is a lack of faith seen in the fear of failure and embarrassment, and so again, a refusal to work on a talent. But this is far from the worst of it.
The sin is in not using our talents to enrich our master’s estate; we work for him, and do so gratefully because he has taken us in, saved us. So, it’s not in the developing and use of talent that we please God; it’s in what we apply our talents toward.
St. Gregory of Nyssa suggested that the burying of the talent by the one slave was a metaphor for giving that talent to the world. A talent for organization could be developed and spent in the world, devoted to crime, for example, and that would then yield nothing. A talented musician could write and perform songs that draw thousands, millions of fans to his concerts, and have them downloading his work; but if that music is satanic, or pornographic, if it glorifies violence, or immorality, that talent has been wasted.
And it’s more than avoiding immoral application of our talents. A young man can take his skills on the ice and build them up into an NHL career and in playing thrill the millions who watch the games. A woman, through her business acumen can launch one profitable enterprise after another, employing thousands in good jobs. All good things for which society gives the reward of wealth, fame, other forms of recognition like the Order of Canada, but that is not the purpose for which these talents were given.
We are not given our talents for their own sake, nor for our sake, or for the sake of the economy, or for the sake of offering entertaining distraction from life. It’s to be used for nothing less than the fulfilment of God’s will, to fulfil his purposes, to grow his wealth, his estate, to increase his holdings, and we know he accounts as treasure the saved of fallen humanity. Our talents, whatever they are, are to be employed toward humanity’s redemption.
So, in whatever we do, we are looking to hand over to our master when he returns, something more precious than silver coins, but other people who bring their talents to join with ours in the great work of building up the kingdom. And how desperately we need to bring people into God’s employ in making our nation resemble God’s kingdom more, and less the chaos of a world engaged in a war of all against all.
So, today in our prayer we renew our commitment to enrich our master, please him and so become something more than slaves; adopted children of the household and brothers and sisters of the Son, Christ our Lord.