To modern people the mere mention of slaves without any moral indignation whatsoever sounds strange to our ears, but they were such an omnipresent feature of life in the ancient world and Jesus always drew his examples from life to make them relevant and recognizable to his audience so they are included without embarrassment.
This is not to condone slavery of course. As I’ve said before, a parable usually just has one main point and the rest of the story is there to provide colour – to make the lesson memorable.
So what is the main lesson here in this parable? Last week’s parable was about how to treat the poor. This week’s parable because it is addressed to the apostles, when translated to a modern context might best be seen as a lesson to church leaders.
Just because you work for the church and have achieved a high position within it, don’t think for a second that this entitles you to any special treatment, or special favours or preferment at my table. In a sense it is an extension of last week’s parable that reveals God as showing no partiality – and working against the grain of the world’s values.
In the world we live in, the normal thing, the normal expectation, is that position and power buys influence and preferential treatment. That’s how it works in the world. But the Kingdom of God turns these normal rules upside down. Position and power in the church might buy you some deference and respect from others here on earth, but not from God.
In your service of the faith, you are doing no more than is required of anyone – to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That is simply what is required. In fact the same commitment is required from all followers of the way of Jesus no matter where we see ourselves in relation to the church. The same demands, the same responsibilities extend to all people who call themselves Christians, whether they be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, me, you, or anyone else sitting in church on a Sunday morning. If we identify in any way with the aims of the way of Jesus then the responsibilities are common to us all.
We talk often don’t we about the balance between rights and responsibilities in our society, mostly that the balance has been tilted too far in one direction. Nowadays it is said that everyone knows their rights but are unaware of their responsibilities.
In the church that balance is tilted in exactly the opposite direction. We all have the same responsibilities, and none of us have any absolute rights. Certainly no right to preferential treatment. God is the God of all or no-one.
Which brings me to the first part of today’s reading that sees the apostles asking Jesus to give them faith, or to increase their faith. I have always had a bit of a problem with the word “faith”. I’ve never really been able to grasp exactly what it means. It has long since stopped being for me a list of beliefs, doctrines and creeds that I am required to believe in before I can qualify to call myself a Christian. For me, faith has become synonymous with the word Trust. Do we trust that God, however we understand that concept, truly loves us? Do we trust that he wants the best for us – to flourish in our life – this gift of life that we have been given? Do we trust that God wants the best for us, and that in the way revealed by Jesus this is the way to achieve fulfilment? Do we trust that the way of love is the best way the God given way to approach life?
Well, sometimes on this measure my faith is strong, but also, quite often my faith can be weak. My levels of faith fluctuate, and I’m sure yours does as well.
Thankfully as a human being Jesus knew full well that this is the case, and he makes the point that with even a tiny bit of trust you can do amazing things. And to ram home the point he gives a deliberately ludicrous example.
Our faith, our trust might well be wavering, it may currently be strong or perhaps currently lost because of a personal trauma, but even then if you dare to step out with what little faith you can muster, as a co-creator with God you can do amazing things.