The Trouble with the Third Slave

A reflection on Matthew 25:14-31 for St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Trail, BC.

Who amongst us knows
what it is to be enslaved?
to be stuck in a moment,
a situation,
a lifetime of fear or shame
from which we cannot
be freed on our own?

Who amongst us knows
what it’s like
to have systems of oppression
stacked against us…
To be held captive by
another person,
an entire way of being
political or economic system
such that our minds and bodies
are unable to dream anything
beyond our current captivity?

Who amongst us knows
the daily threat of violence
as a result of who we are:
our race, gender, identity,
at the hands of those who do not value us
As the beloved person, people, communities
God created us to be?

Because there is something we often
Miss in this gospel text
the reality of slavery and an
exploitative economic and political system
That ought to inform our reading of it,
And what Jesus might be up to
If he is in fact a prophet
Like John the Baptist before him
Or Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos
And the many others
In whose tradition he walks
There is something we often miss,
But today, I want us to be awake
To the possibility of what might be happening here.

Today we continue our journey with Jesus
On the road towards the big city,
Towards Jerusalem and all that will follow:
Encounters with religious leaders
and political elites,
Disagreements with close friends,
A memorable feast; and
betrayal at the hands
of one of his closest
confidantes

We continue our journey with Jesus.

In the forward momentum of
Matthew’s re-telling, we have just been
Invited, reminded, warned
to stay awake.
This invocation will, of course, be echoed
In the Garden of bitter tears,
Jesus grieved and agitated
in outer darkness
on the brink of betrayal,
faced with another choice—
like the temptation in the wilderness
of who to follow.

He will weigh his choice (as we all must)
and he will choose
(As we’re all invited) to embody God’s dream,
To proclaim and to live into a world where all have enough
And believe that they are enough
Even in the face of
Intentions, practices, and life-denying systems
Designed to crucify many
For the sake of the few,
sending those who resist
to the place of weeping
And gnashing of teeth.

There are many ways into this story, of course,
And yet, in the wake of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter
In the wake of the current civil unrest in the United States
In the aftermath of residential schools
And our country’s ongoing
genocide of Indigenous Peoples
It seems wrong—somehow—not to invite
the current realities of systemic oppression
Into the conversation, and to help
Us to ask better questions of God and one another.
And to seek news that is good for one and for all.

Coming to today’s Gospel lesson,
One question it seems important to ask is simply this:
For whom is this Good News?
For whom is it not?

Does this gospel proclaim good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed? Does it embody this reality in some way?

Or is the message far less expansive?

If the message is about anything less than the redemption of the entire cosmos, the righting of wrongs, and the overturning of unjust structures of society, then can it, I wonder, be the Jesus gospel?

Jesus came to liberate Israel, to liberate all humanity from sin—the ways we wound our lives and the lives of others. Our turning in repentance turns us from violence, and frees our imaginations to dream—with God’s dream—a world of reconciled relationship we never thought possible.

And so, what I’d like us to consider today
Is the possibility that the third slave,
The one who is ultimately cast into outer darkness
by a harsh master
holds the key to the parable.

Because what I see in the third slave
Is one who has played the game for so long
Trying to get on side of his master,
Wanting to be more like his master,
But has realised somewhere along the way,
That it’s not worth it.
It’s not worth it to participate in this system of oppression
That enslaves him, and that enslaves his neighbours,
It’s not worth it to play any longer by the rules of that
Oppressive system, even if it’s going to cost him.

And so I wonder,

What if it is the one who has seen the underbelly of the system,
Refusing to play by its oppressive rules any longer
Who holds the key?

What if it is Rosa Parks or Martin King, rather than
The White Moderate who ought to be listened to?

What if it is the victim of harassment and abuse, rather than
The unrepentant movie producer who ought to be heard?

What if it is the high-school aged climate activist, rather than
The heads of nations who ought to be believed
About the immediacy and urgency of our response
To global climate catastrophe?

This parable brings up many challenges, not least, I think, because I often find myself wanting to be on the winning side.

I want to be one of the ones with privilege. I want to be one of the ones who is close to those with wealth and power. And that’s why I find the third slave so troubling.

What I think the third slave gets—is precisely this—he’s still a slave. He is slave to a way of living that isn’t good for him, for his neighbours, or for the land on which their lives depend.

With that in mind, where is Jesus leading us? And perhaps more to the point, if he goes there, are we bold enough to follow?

In the passage that follows ours today, a King divides the nations.

We may have heard the story of the sheep and goats before. The King identifies those who fed the hungry, offered a drink to the thirsty, befriended the stranger, clothed the naked, tended the sick, and visited the prisoner. These are the ones who will inherit a kingdom that is unlike any government this world has ever seen. It is a kingdom where the people at the centre are the ones who our society has pushed to the margins—cast into outer darkness. This, according to that parable, is where we are to find Jesus.

Which brings me back to today’s story about the three slaves.

How might our faith be transformed, I wonder, if we were to see Jesus in the story of the third slave? How might we live if we resisted the temptation of the first two, choosing instead to go with Jesus to the places this world considers “outer darkness,” but where Jesus appears to take great delight?

__

Sources:

Herzog, William. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994)

Keesmaat, Sylvia C., and Brian J. Walsh. “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God.” Podcast Link.

Myers, Ched and Eric DeBode. Towering Trees and Talented Slaves: Jesus’ Parables. (The Other Side Online May-June 1999, Vol. 35, No. 3). Article Link.

 

Follow-Up:

A Thread on Twitter

Stephens-Rennie, Andrew. Adnan Syed and the Parable of the Talents. A Sermon at St. Brigid’s Vancouver (November 17, 2014). Blog Link

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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