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“We are but worthless slaves…” …But are we?!”: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Another enigmatic parable from Jesus in the this Gospel we’ve been working through. It’s not particularly motivational, or inspiring. I don’t think it would really play well to the crowds. We’ll never seen it inside a Hallmark card. It’s not printed on big banners displayed at our church friends’ baptism or confirmation (nor piped in icing onto the cake — imagine what would go through the head of the baker!) And it’s not really a reading I’d pick for the time when people are visiting churches, or getting back into going to church after the summer. Jesus said some tough things. Geniuses, pioneers, artists, and leaders sometimes saw things that are wild and unfiltered (and unsettling).

I have a feeling that if we come along for the ride with this tough saying, we do so just because it’s Jesus talking. We trust Jesus enough to go along with it. To trust that there’s something good and edifying in the message: “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!'” But we wouldn’t take that from anyone else. We wouldn’t treat our volunteers or employees like that. We wouldn’t teach our kids to engage with others like that. And we’d be wary of religious leaders talking that language.

One of the most popular podcasts [internet radio series] of the past year was called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. About a self-made pastor, Mark Driscoll who built a church (and eventually a network of churches) from scratch. From a handful of people to Sunday congregations in the thousands. And it was very much a story of rising and falling, because eventually his narcissism and authoritarianism (and anger, and skewed view of human relationships, especially between men and women) caught up with him. And listeners (especially from struggling liturgical traditions) might revel in the schadenfreude of the situation. But that is kept in check by the many interviews with former congregation and staff members dealing with the loss of faith, or friends, or with PTSD resulting from his volcanic outbursts, shunning, or scheming. Here is one quote from this pastor: “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, [he chuckles] and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t going to stop!” Behind this ecclesiology [theology of church/community life] was his thinking that he was God and everyone else were his slaves, unworthy to question anything, who should just feel lucky for being along for the ride.

Just the other day, on a different podcast, I heard an American Anglican cleric who slowly grew into the liturgical/sacramental tradition. And, looking back on his past in that mega church context, he said something like ‘there was always a feeling that our pastor would get discovered, and that we’d then get discovered [which is rock start language], and then everything would be great.’ And there was a freedom in eventually finding that in the liturgy and the sacraments, even if things seem ordinary and even boring, there is a quiet confidence that God’s grace is very much present, even when two or three are gathered. We don’t need to wait to be discovered for real life, real worship, real church to begin. Even in situations of what looks like failure and loss in a worldly sense, God is present — maybe specially present. The book of Lamentations is a testament to this: real grief, real loss, and yet at the core of it is a trust and a hope. And the compilers of the Bible, and the communities that received it, seemed to have no problem accepting this book into the canon, our compendium of sacred texts.

There’s a famous Anglican prayer, said before receiving communion that we can trace back to the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 (and started being used a year or so before its publishing), and it’s also on page 246 of the green book (we used that version a bit last Lent). “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” [We’re coming up for communion not because we can depend on our goodness, but because we are depending on your compassion.] “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.” It evokes that parable — you know, another one of Jesus’s sayings that tends not to sit super-well — about the little dogs that aren’t fit to receive the food intended for the children, but they do get to eat the crumbs that fall on the floor. And what that parable seems to imply, and what’s being said here is that even if we’re not worthy, we trust that God is merciful and generous beyond what we might deserve (“whose property is always to have mercy”).

And that prayer was, we think, inspired by another one that was part of the Roman rite, and I still hear some clergy saying it before receiving communion to this day: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” — which, like ours, evokes a gospel story. And there’s that theme again, of unworthiness. Part of it might sting, but from knowing these stories, we know that Jesus always does end up going to, affirming, and healing these people. Another teaching of Jesus we heard in the last few weeks comes to mind: about not taking the seats of honour, but instead taking the lesser seats, and then finding yourself surprised to be welcomed and moved up to the best ones at the head table. There is an element of that ethic here. Because there is tyranny and unhealthiness to the opposite ethic that runs rampant, of people asserting their worthiness, their virtue, and their dominance. (I think at the root of it, ironically, a deep but hidden sense of unworthiness, and a desire to present as ‘good enough’ to be loved by others, and by God.)

So as much as some of these ‘unworthiness’ passages might bristle against us, and that thinking can be unhelpful and even destructive in the wrong hands (thinking of that megachurch celebrity Mark Driscoll), our faith in Jesus keeps us there with open ears, taking in, and listening for, the truth undergirding Jesus’s words. And not just that; we don’t like Jesus enough to put up with this somewhat troubling parable. We know that Jesus walked the walk. In Philippians we find a hymn or creed that he is probably taking from early Christian worship, that goes:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    
did not regard equality with God
    
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    
taking the form of a slave,
    
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    
he humbled himself
    
and became obedient to the point of death—
    
even death on a cross.

The theology or ethic here isn’t that people are terrible, or people need to blindly follow alpha dogs like Mark Driscoll. The theology is that of the cross. Of dying and rising (taking the worst seat, but then being surprised to find yourself moved to the head table) — which, when you think of it, is the exact opposite of “rising and falling.”

And, as we heard, remember the mustard seed: the tiny speck that grows into a huge plant. The seed that needs to go into the ground and die, in order to realize new and greater life. That, says Jesus, is what God is able to work with. And precisely how God works.

Our experience of God in Jesus has thoroughly expands our understanding of God, and of God’s glory. With the sovereign that rides in not on a war horse, but on a donkey. The king that accepts a crown of thorns. We realize it has more to do with love, with service, and self-giving (not suffering as good in itself)

And so behind today’s difficult parable is nothing less than the mystery, and the paradoxical glory, of the cross. That is the way we are to follow, as counter-cultural as it may be. And as we sit with the parable we may find that Jesus is not so much to be identified with that cruel and demanding master, but with the one who served.

Jesus, who tied his robe around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet. And who calls us into this same service, that we might find real freedom walking the way of the cross.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter