In 2017 an author called Melody Briggs published a book called “How Children Read the Biblical Narrative: An Investigation of Children's Readings of the Gospel of Luke”. To put it in non-academic language, she read the gospel of Luke to a group of children and then recorded their responses to it. It sounds like a fascinating experiment.
In that book, she describes the reactions of a little boy called Fishy when this parable was read to him. According to Melody Briggs, Fishy declared that this story was a part of Luke that he “didn’t think was right” and protested, “I think the servants should be treated well”.
Fishy’s reaction reveals the difficulty of the parable for modern readers. It also reveals just how vastly different the socio-political context of Luke’s Gospel is from our own today.
The social world of the parable reflects a very different world from the world of a modern human rights based western democracy. It reflects a stratified, hierarchical social world that many westerners would find not just alien but also unjust and reprehensible just as wee Fishy did in Melody Briggs’s book.
By the same token, it would have to be admitted too that not so long ago that some of our own ancestors would have interpreted the social world described in this parable as being quite socially acceptable.
It is quite a shock to consider that slavery was still legal according to UK law until 1833. That is really not so long ago.
This parable would almost certainly would have been used by many a Christian slave owners to justify slavery. It would have been seen as justification not only in their owning of slaves, but also in justifying a stratified and hierarchical society where they believed that God had ordained that some were born into a life of privilege and other human beings were born simply to be servants and slaves.
In reading this parable we therefore need to be sure not to gloss over too quickly the real dangers and difficulties this parable poses in reinforcing some of our unhealthy and unjust social systems.
But it also poses some real theological difficulties. If one takes the parable as a description of how God relates to human beings, then it certainly paints a pretty stark and grim picture of God as a domineering, uncaring, authoritarian slave owner. In the NIV version, the Greek word Doulos is softened to mean: “servant”. But the word actually means a bond-slave, someone who belongs to another; without any ownership rights of their own. Is God really like a slave owner? Does God really regard us as worthless and unprofitable slaves?
The image of the slave-owner in this passage stands in stark contrast with the image of God that Jesus paints in the parable of the prodigal son, where God is pictured as a loving father who takes great joy in us as his children and even gives us freedom to make wrong choices.
The parable is also in fact quite contrary to the image of Jesus himself. Christians call Jesus Lord and Master, and yet in John’s Gospel, Jesus, the Master takes off his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist and takes on the role of a common servant in washing his disciples feet before a meal.
This parable even stands in stark contrast to another of Jesus parables earlier in Luke’s Gospel chapter 12:35-37 where Jesus speaks of a master who returns and finds his servants watching for when he comes. Truly I tell you, says Jesus, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.
Luke 12:35-37 describes an almost polar opposite scene to our own parable today.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians Paul writes that We are no longer slaves, but God’s children, and since we are God’s children, God has made us God’s heir. We are heir’s to God’s throne! In other word’s, God does not treat us like an authoritarian slave owner would treat worthless and unprofitable slaves.
In almost every way, the life and example and teaching of Jesus and the witness of Paul challenges the social structure and values of this parable. Modern industrial psychology would also suggest that the best way to get the most out of labour force is do do so with praise and encouragement, making people feel valued and valuable, as indeed we are.
Probably for all these reasons, there are some Biblical scholars who would dispute whether this parable really was a parable of Jesus.
Having been critical of the social values reflected in the parable, I would like reflect on the core message of the parable itself. In the end the real point of the parable is not about reinforcing unjust social relations. Whether the parable came from Jesus or whether it came from the writer of Luke’s Gospel himself, heart of the parable is about fulfilling one’s duty as a follower of Jesus.
We live in a culture that highly exalts freedom, breaking free from whatever restricts our freedom. While the concept of fulfilling ones duties might have been an important one in previous generations, today the word has largely fallen out of favour. Is there still value for us today in this concept of fulfilling our duties and obligations in life. Or should our absolute freedom in life trump all other values?
As I wrestled with the question, it struck me that there is strangely also a freedom that can come to us when we fulfill our obligations and when we do our duties without expecting thanks and praise in return. There is a reward that comes to the parent who does his or her duty towards their children when on the inside it might sometimes feel like a burden. There is a reward that comes in life when the piano student fulfills her duty and obligation to practice. There is a reward that comes in life when we fulfill our obligations and duties towards our employer by showing up at work day after day and putting in an honest days work.
There is a reward that comes in life, even strangely one might say from paying our taxes. We receive the benefits of living in a well functioning country.
While duties and obligations may sometimes feel like they are a hindrance to our freedom - family duties and obligations... social duties and obligations... duties towards friends and our communities, our countries and even our world, even towards the environment – and while at times these duties and obligations may even make us feel like worthless slaves, there is also a strange freedom that can come from fulfilling our duties.
I have an uncle who was oozing with talent. He had been blessed with an amazing sharp mind and amazing musical abilities. If he had applied himself and led a life of even moderate discipline, he could have achieved great things in his life and would have been in quite a stable position in his life right now. But unfortunately in his own words, he saw himself as a free spirit and as such, he lived a life without much of duty or obligation except to his own freedom. My uncle is in his 70’s now. He doesn’t have great relationships with any of his children because he was never really there for them when they were growing up. By contrast, my parents, like many parents in this congregation sought to take seriously their duties and responsibilities in life. Duties and obligations to their parents, to their children to their church communities and to their jobs. I can imagine that many times it must have felt like they were living their lives a little like the slaves in this passage. But when compared with my uncle who sought to live his life as a free spirit without any duties and responsibilities, I would suggest that paradoxically they have found a much greater freedom in their lives than my uncle has ever experienced.
Getting back to this parable... I don’t believe that God regards us a worthless slaves. The Christian message is meant to communicate to us the good news that we are God’s beloved children. And yet, at the same time, being a Christian, a follower of Christ means that we have freely taken on extra duties and responsibilities... in a strange and paradoxical way, even though we are God’s children, beloved sons and daughters, as the apostle Paul suggests, we have also freely made ourselves into slaves of Christ. We have of our own free choice agreed to take on the duties and responsibilities of being followers of Christ, which is perhaps what this parable is trying to express. And somehow, paradoxically in the end, that is where true freedom will lie. When we allow ourselves to become seemingly, (in the eyes of many others), worthless slaves for Christ, we discover the joy and the freedom of being the precious sons and daughters of God.
Maybe, one day, when the Master welcomes us home with the words “Well done good and faithful servant” it will be we who respond with the words: But we have only done our duty.