How many years is it since the Declaration of Independence?
How many since slavery was ended as a legal practice in these United States?
And how is it that after all this time, we read a parable that includes a king, or a slave-master, and our first thought is, “Well, that must be God”?
Two centuries since we claim to have outgrown these modes of authority and outright oppression, we still make God in their image. Two thousand years since the birth of the Christ, we still struggle to see God as God is most clearly and intimately revealed to us: which is in the person of Jesus; a nobody from Nazareth,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7)
Taking the form of a slave. So, who represents God in this parable again?
You know how in folk tales and fairy tales, it is always the third son or daughter, the most humble and least likely to succeed who is the only one to get it right?
What if the kingdom of heaven will be like this:
There once was a rich man. Never mind that he had built his fortune on dubious business practices and upon the backs of slaves – families and generations of people unfree. He was rich, and successful, and self-satisfied. So he decided he deserved to go on a nice, long vacation.
While he was gone, he chose three of his slaves to make some more money for him in his absence.
The first slave was, let’s say, connected. He did some wheeling and dealing, a few unsavoury favours, and he was richly rewarded. Never mind that some of his business was not strictly legal, let alone ethical; he made his master money, even after the percentage we can assume he kept for himself.
The second slave knew that the easiest people to make money off of are those who don’t have any; desperate people. He used his stake to open a payday loans and cash-checking business, unrestricted by government regulations, and it turned out to be a nice little earner, too.
The third slave looked at the money his master had given him.
Do you remember in the temple when Jesus had the Pharisees hand him an unclean coin, and he saw the face of Caesar in it?
The third slave looked at the money in his hands and he saw the labour of the slaves who had built his master’s fortune, and the lives of the unprotected, unrewarded masses over whose graves this money had been minted, and he felt a little bit sick.
So he went to the slave cemetery, and he dug a hole in the ground, and he buried the silver, and whispered into the earth, “This belongs to you.”
When the master came back, he and his first two slaves were well pleased with what they had done. Then came the third slave.
“I know,” said the slave, “that you are a harsh man, and a thief, reaping what you didn’t sow and harvesting where you never planted. I will not participate in such an economy of corruption and greed, which buries the poor in debt and undermines the grace of God proclaimed through the dignity of every person.”
The master was furious, not because of the money, of which he had enough, but because the slave had dared to tell him the truth about himself, and to demand his repentance.
“Oh no,” said the master, “let the rich get richer and the poor go hang. And you can get out of my sight.”
And he threw the slave out of the privilege of his presence.
And that is where Jesus met him, and called out to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you good and faithful servant. Enter now into my joy, and enjoy my inheritance.”
Now, I don’t want to push the parable too far. In particular, I am concerned that I might be unfair to the first two slaves, who never asked for their position. Perhaps they were not, after all, seduced by the corruption and greed of their master. Perhaps, knowing that he was a harsh man, they were simply afraid to disobey, or perhaps, never having known freedom, it never occurred to them that they could choose a different way.
But if they knew the God of the gospel; if they knew the gentle authority of Jesus and the loving commandments of God; then it would have been a whole other story.
And if the slave owner had known and obeyed God – well then there would have been a revolution, in which
the hungry are filled with good things,
and the rich sent empty away.
the powerful are brought down from their thrones,
and lowly lifted up;
and the proud are scattered in the imaginations of their hearts. (Luke 1:51-53, para)
A far cry from a system in which those who have plenty get more, and those who have none have what little is left taken from them.
You can apply this parable to any number of things that are going on in our world right now: from tax reform to Puerto Rico, racial inequality to healthcare, or the status of women and others who tell their stories of men who try to take what does not belong to them. We live in a broken system.
Two centuries after the Declaration of Independence, a century and a half since the Thirteenth Amendment, and after two millennia of preaching the birth, death, and resurrection of the Christ, we are still prone to fall back on familiar figures of authority, and to forget the revolutionary promises of the gospel.
Whether out of fear or seduction, we still get sucked into the ways of the world, instead of standing up for God’s economy of grace.
The third slave knew a better way. He was a leader in Christian ethics and proclamation. He was not satisfied with the corruption of the flesh, but he held out for justice.
He believed the stories of the women who poured out the pain and humiliation they had been hiding inside. He opened the coffers of the rich and wasted their money on the disinherited, on the poor, on the unprofitable dead. He sowed love in the ground, and watched it grow in the people who had nothing better to hope for. He was a one-man Magnificat. And he had the courage to call for repentance from the rich and powerful, from the man, who was not impressed.
But that is where Jesus met him, and called out to him, “Enter the joy of my inheritance.”
Enter the joy of an inheritance where all are loved and find their place; where all are fed and found worthy of mercy and of grace. Where there is no more male or female, slave or free, founding father or foreigner, but only the family of God come together around one table to give thanks, to find grace, to enter into the joy of our Master.