The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      6th October 2019
Worthless Slaves
Jan Rushton

Habakkuk 1.1-4; 2.1-4;  2 Timothy 1.1-14;  Luke 17.5-10

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded of you, say:
‘We are worthless slaves’.....     
“We are worthless slaves; we have done  
only what we ought to have done!” ’   
Maybe you already realise that, personally, I have great difficulty with the conclusion of our gospel this morning.  Over the summer months not a few of our gospel readings from Luke have been difficult.  And for me, this the most difficult of all. 0More difficult than our repeated reminders: to take care how we hold our possessions, how we choose our attitudes towards wealth, more difficult than Jesus’ seeming commendation of the dishonest manager; more difficult than Jesus’ declaration he has come to bring fire to the earth - and not peace.  Though maybe, that last one ranks with today’s gospel. We have been asked to engage seriously with the complexities of Scripture - which reflect the complexities of life.

What for me is so difficult about this gospel, is not the challenge to humility - a right understanding of what it is to be humble, indeed matters. It is rather, the very notion that Jesus could ever wish us to think, to abase ourselves, in such a way.  The complete antithesis of how I understand what the gospel is all about. What can I say about it?  And does it bother you? Do come back to me over coffee.   I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My objections are encapsulated in Jesus’ Summary of the Law: Love God with all your heart.  Love your neighbour as yourself. But can we love our neighbour if we have a demeaning attitude towards ourselves? For surely, at an unconscious level we would resist our neighbour being anything other than a slave too. An astonishing and astute early psychology runs through the Scriptural text.  Jesus has taken this second commandment originating in Leviticus 19, and with the first of the Ten Commandments, made it a pithy summary of the essence of what it is he wants to teach us. It recognises that we are not able to love our neighbour if we have not first loved ourselves. A measure of self-assertion is essential, not only to our own well-being but to that of our neighbour as well. For if we are afraid to fulfil our own needs, neither will we have the will to establish the well-being of anyone else. To achieve all that we are capable of, all that God has made us capable of, we need to be growing in a healthy self-esteem - rooted in our faith in our Creator God. 

Again and again and again and again - this is precisely what happened wherever Jesus was present. He raised the people up.  He healed not only their physical needs, he brought them spiritual, and psychological, emotional well-being. He gave each one, and especially the outsider,  a firm knowledge of their worth before God, an assurance of God’s love for them - whatever place they had come to in life.  

It was this growing self-confidence amongst impoverished communities which prompted Jesus’ followers to so wildly celebrate him as ‘king’ on that final entry down the Mount of Olives and on into Jerusalem. It is this impact which made him politically dangerous. Which scared not only the Jewish elite sitting on the Sanhedrin, his charisma scared the Romans too, enough to do away with him as a political agitator on that tree of execution reserved for rebels. And incidentally, particularly, rebellious slaves.

While Jesus spent much time in prayer to his Father, sought to know his Father’s will, and to follow it, nowhere do I read of him being anything other than in full command of himself, clearly asserting himself, his own needs and perceptions, even as he took time to listen, sought to bring love and practical care to those around him. Jesus called some to literally follow him, join him on his travels, but he never used manipulation to persuade a follower. He is our model of what it means to be fully, truly, a lively human being. Thus we seek in our Christian pilgrimage, the power of the Holy Spirit to be transforming our lives into his likeness.

So Jesus’ instruction:  Say ‘we are worthless slaves’. Whatever is this all about? When man and woman emerged from egalitarian, nomadic, hunter-gatherer communities, moved into settled lifestyles with the development of civilisations, the ‘natural’ order of things, of life, appeared to be hierarchy. Hierarchical social structures, with the wealthy and powerful at the top - served by slaves at the bottom.

The Doomsday Book tells us that at the time when William ‘conquered’ in 1066, a third of Britain’s population were slaves.  Something our histories tend not to dwell on. The desire, where wit and strength offer opportunity, to make others do our work for us, the desire to establish domination and hierarchy, would seem to be deeply embedded in the human psyche.

We know from Paul’s letters, in his repeated declaration that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free; all are equal, we may know that in the earliest Christian communities, hierarchy had been dispatched with. We also know from later epistles attributed to Paul, from their christianised Roman household codes, that this radical equality in the community of the early Church did not survive in tact for very long before hierarchy crept back in. If we look closely at our text this morning we will see that Jesus is not addressing his followers.

The gospels were written in the 80s and 90s, and naturally address, not only the story of Jesus,  address the needs of their contemporary communities - the growing Church with expanding leadership structures. Look carefully and you will see, it is the apostles, the leaders of the Church whom Jesus tells to ‘know their place’.  Me, Ayla, Jeremy, that is!  It is we - and not you - we who are - metaphorically speaking - to consider ourselves ‘unworthy slaves’. We are not to have any high regard for our position. Jesus’ repeated assertion: the first shall be last and the last first.  

We can only speculate as to the circumstances which prompted the call to such self-abasement  among the Church’s leaders as Luke writes his gospel.

The classical historian, Tom Holland, had for many years considered his life values to be based on his knowledge and understanding of ancient classical civilisation. In recent years he has been shocked to recognise that this is far from so. Fascinated by dinosaurs as a young boy, he considered himself to have cast off Christianity with his discovery of evolution. Now, he saw that far from having thrown off his Christian heritage, it was indeed Christianity which formed the bedrock of his own personal value system.  In his latest book recently published: ‘Dominion - the Making of the Western Mind’, he writes: ‘If you’re looking to explain... Christianity as a historical phenomenon, the incredible dignity that it gives to every human being must be central to its enormous .... and continuing success. A concept and value that wasn’t present in Greece, or Rome, or ancient Persia.   

When we have faith in God as Creator who, knowing every aspect of who we are, wherever we have arrived in life, holds each one of us in such tender loving care and regard, when we live seeking to grow into the stature of Christ, then we shall be growing into the self-esteem 
which enables us to truly forget self - which is what humility is all about, to leave behind our desire for power over others, and rather, filled with God’s love for our neighbour, genuinely to seek their honour above our own.  Amen.

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