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Jaime L. WatersAugust 01, 2022
Photo from Unsplash.

When we read Scripture, we must be willing to approach texts thoughtfully and carefully, and we must recognize texts that are problematic. Today’s Gospel uses master-slave language and imagery to describe the nature of the divine-human relationship. In one of the parables, we encounter a slave beating slaves as well as a master beating a slave. Although this language may resonate with some audiences, likening God to a slave owner is troubling and envisions a relationship based in fear and abuse rather than love. 

“You must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Lk 12:40)

Liturgical day
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Wis 18:6-9; Ps 33; Heb 11:1-19; Lk 12:32-48

What actions can you take to demonstrate attentiveness to God?

How do you approach problematic texts in Scripture?

What images of God resonate with you?

Reading in light of the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade also makes texts like today’s Gospel unsettling, although there are notable differences and rationales for slavery throughout history. Slavery in the Americas (called chattal slavery) was race-based, built on false notions of white superiority. Slavery in ancient Israel was sometimes a temporary way to recoup debts (called debt slavery). It could also be a permanent state as a casualty of war. In the New Testament, written during the time of the Roman Empire, slavery was commonplace, which helps account for the prevalence of slavery images and metaphors in the New Testament. Despite various rationales, the practice of one person owning another person makes all forms of slavery immoral.

Although this language may resonate with some audiences, likening God to a slave owner is troubling and envisions a relationship based out of fear and abuse rather than love. 

The Lectionary gives two solutions for contending with today’s Gospel. It offers a shorter option that eliminates some of the more problematic verses. The shorter option might be preferred for this reason. Also, the Lectionary translates the Greek word doulos as “servant” instead of “slave” which softens some of the dehumanizing aspects in the text. Other modern English translations follow this practice, such as NIV, RSV and NKJV. NRSV translates doulos as “slave,” which is closer to its meaning: one who is subservient to or under the control of another.

Today’s Gospel has eschatological overtones, as Jesus warns his followers of forthcoming judgment for their actions. Jesus emphasizes the need for attentive anticipation, expectation and preparation for the future. The parables convey these themes by drawing on everyday scenarios to teach the importance of watchfulness and readiness. Even in such difficult texts, we can find some worthwhile principles that we should prioritize over the offensive images. It could be a valuable exercise to develop our own images to teach these important principles.

The shorter and longer Lectionary options include an image of a master who serves slaves that should not be missed: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have the servants recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.”

Within a text steeped in inequality and subjugation, we encounter a reversal of typical slavery imagery. Luke depicts the master serving the slaves who have been watchful and attentive, rewarding the desired behavior and reframing what leadership and power entail. The image of a master who serves is a reminder that people in positions of power should not take advantage of their status. Instead, their power requires them to be of service to those who serve them. 

As we wrestle with this difficult Gospel, we can hold on to aspects of its vision of leadership. The longer Lectionary option ends by reiterating this point: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much.” As we reflect on our lives and strive to live with the attentiveness and preparation that are called for in the Gospel, we should also consider the implications of a service-oriented leadership and consider ways we can implement this principle in our lives.

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