Ditching that Slave-Talk

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 6th October 2019.

Habakkuk 2:1-4; Luke 17:5-10

A couple move into a new house. Soon after they have moved in, they are sitting in their conservatory, drinking coffee together. The conservatory offers them a view into next-door’s back garden. They see their neighbour putting out the washing. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘how dirty that washing is that they are putting on the line to dry. Do you think they have not noticed?’

A week passes. Again the couple are sipping their coffee, and again their neighbour is putting the washing out to dry. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘their washing looks terribly dirty again. Maybe there’s a problem with their washing machine.’

Another week passes. Again the couple are sipping their coffee, and again their neighbour is putting the washing out to dry. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘their washing is as dirty as ever. Maybe they need some advice on how to do the washing. If it’s not better next week, I’ll go over and say something to them.’

Another week passes. Again the couple are sipping their coffee, and again their neighbour is putting the washing out to dry. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘their washing looks really clean now. They must have figured out how to do it properly.’ ‘Yes,’ says her husband, ‘and earlier this week I finally got around to cleaning the windows on our conservatory.’

We see things differently according to our viewpoint. And when that is revealed to us it might be the time for us to be humble. As the prophet Habakkuk says, ‘Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right within them, but the righteous live by their faith.’ (2:4) Or alternatively, as the song writer Mac Davis put it:

‘Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cause I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can.’[1]

I might like to think that the meaning of a bible passage is clear and simple. In fact, though, what that often means in practice is that the its “clear meaning” is only the one that I, and people like me, take from it. Others see it in different ways because seeing it in the light of different experiences. And if you want a good example of that then consider tonight’s Gospel reading.

The apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. They do so because Jesus has just been talking about those who cause scandal for the church and cause pain and suffering to its most vulnerable members. The ‘little ones’ who they cause to stumble may be those who are young in the faith or may literally be vulnerable children. He tells the apostles that, with sufficient faith, they will be able to uproot such trouble makers from their community. The apostles think they are going to need an injection of new faith to make this happen: ‘Lord, increase our faith!’ (17:5)

Then Jesus illustrates his teaching with an explanation that would have been normal in his time and place, but which sounds obscene to many people in a twenty-first century setting: ‘who among you would say to your slave,’ Jesus begins. Would you give your slave a rest and cook their meal when they come in exhausted from the field? No, says Jesus, you would not. Would you dream of thanking your slave for following your orders? No, you would not, Jesus says. And then he goes on to say that the just as you owe nothing to your slave so God owes nothing to you: ‘So, you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’

None of us are slave owners. Jesus obviously expected some of his listeners to be so. Perhaps they were small-scale farmers or workers who could afford only one slave, ones who had to double up as both farm or field worker and as the household cook. There are other slaves and masters dotted about Luke’s Gospel. A centurion asks Jesus to heal his highly valued slave (7:2); there are slaves in a parable who keep working, remembering that their master might return at any minute (12:43); slaves are sent out to bring the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame into a master’s feast (14:15-24); and, of course, ‘no slave can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth,’ or mammon. (16:13)

All too easily, I can comfortably put Jesus’s slavery language into the background so that I can uncover my “true meaning” of tonight’s biblical text. Slavery doesn’t seem to be the issue here, as far as I am concerned. So I think to myself, “let’s not get distracted by it”. Instead, I concentrate on the underlying message, and that’s pretty simple: we need to be humble, recognising and acknowledging that in terms of our relationship to God, God owes us nothing. God is in charge. Anything that comes to us from God comes as a free gift, something to be enjoyed, and acknowledged as such, and not our right.

Just as none of us are slave owners, however, neither are any of us slaves, nor, I am guessing are m/any of us in this congregation the descendants of slaves. On the other hand, might some of us be the descendants of slave owners or of those involved in the slave trade? Some years ago I greatly enjoyed a contemporary dance show I attended, performed by an American company. I was intrigued to see that the choreographer was called Judith Jamison.[2] Not only that, she actually spells “Jamison” correctly; without any needless “e” in it! This gave me a warm, fuzzy, fellow-family feeling, but only for an instant.

Judith Jamison is an African-American woman. The surnames of many African Americans come to them from enslaved ancestors who were allocated their owners’ surnames. Many Ulster Presbyterians – my ancestors – who emigrated to the American Colonies in the early eighteenth century went to the Southern ones. If Judith Jamison’s surname results from a history of slavery, then it’s quite possible that our connection, if it exists, is that members of my family enslaved members of hers. I wonder how Judith Jamison reads this parable? Is it such an easy matter for her, and for millions of others with a family history or with personal experience of being enslaved, to disregard slavery language in this saying of Jesus?

I still think that what I suggested earlier is tonight’s message to take from this saying of Jesus: we need to be humble, recognising and acknowledging that in terms of our relationship to God, God owes us nothing. God is in charge, and anything that comes to us from God comes as a free gift; something to be enjoyed, and acknowledged as such, but not our right. What I’m no longer so comfortable with is describing the relationship between God and us as being like that between a master and a slave. And that’s certainly the case if I try to read the story as though through Judith Jamison’s eyes rather than Trevor Jamison’s eyes.

If Jesus were here today, starting out on his ministry for the first time, and wanting to make a point about the need for humility, would he do so by way of a question and answer session about slavery and slave owning? I don’t think so. Would he tell us, ‘so you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “we are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’ Surely not!

And Jesus, I believe, wouldn’t change his language simply because it has become anachronistic; that none of us are slaves and that slavery is no longer a common, culturally acceptable phenomenon in twenty-first century British society. I believe Jesus would change his language because he would be talking into a society which has freed itself from the public institution of slavery but only at great cost; with a continuing impact, down through the generations, primarily for those who were enslaved, but also for those whose ancestors benefitted from slavery. Jesus would change his language to acknowledge that reality and to avoid causing needless hurt to others.

So, since I believe Jesus would change his language in describing the relationship between God and us, then I believe that we should do so as well. We would do better to consciously, publicly move away from carelessly describing our relationship with God as being, God is “master” and we are God’s “slaves”. And those whose ancestors were slave owners or who benefitted from the trade have all the more reason for us to be careful with our language.

Will this be easy to do? No, it will not be easy to do. To tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure how to find an alternative image for expressing the deep truth contained in this Bible reading that in our relationship with God, God has nothing for which to thank us, whilst we are utterly dependant upon God. Figuring that out is the subject for another day and another sermon. Until then, let’s sincerely echo the words of the apostles to Jesus: ‘Lord, increase our faith!’

[1] It’s Hard to Be Humble lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Jamison

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