Kathleen Rushton discusses the slave parables in Luke 12:32-48.
That the universe is expanding has yet to permeate deeply into Christian understanding. Our devotional life, worship, biblical interpretation and theology are still based on presuppositions of a static cosmos. The Church continues to focus on longing for the perfection lost in the Garden of Eden and is weighed down by working towards salvation in an other-worldly heaven.
Yet science has shown beyond all doubt that our universe is unfinished and is still coming into being. The natural world is a work in progress, and so are we human beings. We are prompted to think about God and our faith in new ways — and we need not lose any of the great treasures of tradition in doing so.
Abrahamic hope is the hope of living into a future that will come into being by God’s grace and human participation. Abrahamic hope permeates Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. In Luke 12:32-48, Jesus invites us to live with hope into the promise of God’s unfolding future.
Jesus tells two parables (Lk 12:36-38 about the night shift and Lk 12:42-46 about faithful and unfaithful managers) and gives two brief descriptions of incidents which need to be read as parables (Lk 12:39 the thief in the night and Lk 12:47-48a the well-informed slave and the badly-informed slave).
Three applications to the situation of the disciples are clearly stated: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” (Lk 12:35) and “be ready” (Lk 12:40). The third, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Lk 12:48b), follows Peter’s question: “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or is it for everyone?” (Lk 12:41). The word slave (doulos) does not appear in these applications even though the images are drawn from the life of slaves.
Enslaved in the Roman Empire
To be enslaved in the Roman Empire was a matter of daily experience. These parables brutally depict that reality and the absolute power of slaveowners. After becoming prisoners in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, many Jewish people were enslaved. Christianity spread as a house-church movement so it is likely that there were Christian communities with enslaved members.
The hymn of Philippians 2:6-10 tells us that Jesus “took the form of a slave” which makes him a companion of slaves. In being crucified, he died the death of a slave. This made the Christian movement suspect to slaveowners.
In Luke’s Gospel, we hear of God’s great promise which is for slaves both male and female: God’s anointed One is sent “to proclaim release to the captives” (Lk 4:18). Included would be not only prisoners of war or debt slaves but all enslaved people. Jesus proclaimed the Messianic year of release which like the vision of Mary in the Magnificat is comprehensive and worldwide. The humiliation of the lowly, which Mary embodies, has “been regarded with favour” by God. Mary calls herself God’s “handmaid” (doulē), the term for a female slave.
The power and arrogance of the masters of the world will come to an end. Even if the parable is only a fictional story, in this context, the slaveowner’s lowering of himself in Lk 12:37 is a sign of hope.
Relationship with God
New Testament and feminist scholar Luise Schottroff suggests that the Gospels apply the slave parables to a relationship with God which the Old Testament described as "ebed". This word “does not mean being subjected to other human beings. It is the idea, unique in antiquity, that slaves of God reject all subjection to earthly masters.”
Following this tradition, Luke’s Gospel describes the children of God as God’s slaves. Jesus teaches that God liberates women and men from subjugation and gifts them with the spirit of prophecy. The metaphor of “slave” of God is the opposite of Roman slavery. The basileia of God is the opposite of the basileia of Rome. As God’s slaves, disciples live into God’s new future having the great task of hearing and doing the word of God.
“Let your loins be girded” (literal meaning Lk 12:35), “be ready” (Lk 12:40) and God has entrusted a great task to you (Lk 12:48b) is the message of liberation and hope for the future. This message is linked to the Exodus, and addressed to us, the community of the disciples of Jesus. We are to be like the Hebrews whom, on the eve of the Passover, God instructed to tie up their robes in order to be ready to travel into a new future (Ex 12:11). A similar expression for us might be “to have our boots on” ready for action and work.
Passover and Eucharist
“Let your loins be girded” evokes how the Hebrew people were to eat the Paschal lamb while remembering their journey from slavery in Egypt. To “have them sit down” (Lk 12:37) means literally to “make them recline” on the dining couch where people ate their meals — as, for example, in the Upper Room in John 13:3-8.
For Christian communities today the Paschal Mystery of the life and death-resurrection of Jesus is celebrated at the Eucharist which not only remembers the past and empowers the present but anticipates the future and is the foretaste of a future event into which we live. Our participation in the Eucharist in the present can transform and empower us.
Reading these parables with Abrahamic hope — the hope of living into the future — invites us towards the horizon of fuller being to which God is calling us. Internally and outwardly, many Christian Churches are in crisis. American theologian John Haught is convinced that “at the bottom … the problem is both cosmological and metaphysical.” Because the Church is anchored in a “worldview that lacks sufficient hope for the world’s future, it clings to a sense of being that has yet to face the fact of the world’s becoming.” As long ago as 1919, Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “God is as vast and as mysterious as the Cosmos” and any God who seems smaller than the world revealed by science is unworthy of our worship.
Imagining God’s Alternative World
Imagination plays a vital role in our understanding of reality — ourselves, the world, the universe and God. Our imagination is the means through which we participate in reality as whole. Our understanding of the “world” is rich and multi-layered. We are missioned to the good world. We confront the evil world, resisting “all subjection to earthly masters” who exploit the Earth, human beings and the other-than-human. We seek the alternative world of God’s new unfolding future into which we are called to participate with Jesus in God’s work of ongoing creation.
Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 273 August 2022: 24-25