Frances writes :- In this weeks readings our relationship with God is presented in something akin to a contractual sense, one in which we gain somehow or other by the amount we ourselves contribute or ‘put-in’ to the relationship. It might almost serve as a metaphor for our understanding of the Mass in which armchair observers; couch-potatoes ‘don’t get much out of it.’
This is beautifully illustrated in our gospel (Luke 12:32-48). We are speaking here of the slave to master relationship, so not one ever of equality; and it is fundamental to the understanding of the story and the point I am making that we appreciate this. Most Roman citizens owned slaves, indeed as did many throughout the Greco-Roman Empire. Owners of slaves frequently lived in apprehension of their slaves, especially since the huge slave revolt in the first century BC under Spartacus. Owners had learned to control and get the co-operation of slaves, especially those in urban and domestic situations, by the promise of giving them their freedom. Trusted household slaves, noted for their fidelity to their owners and the family; their careful management of their resources; or as tutors; financial managers; or even managers of their estates (stewards as in our story) could ultimately gain their freedom, and were frequently set up in business by their former owners, now patrons, of whom they now became clients. Ex slaves without a patron were likely to have a very hard life. The threat of being sold and having your family split up was the safety device by which owners often secured the loyalty of their slaves.
The good slaves therefore in our Gospel are those who remain on the alert, waiting for the master’s return in the small hours; or those who guard his property against burglars and those with oversight of estates who manage them diligently and well. Conversely, those who abuse the system can expect harsh punishment, and all would have been well aware of the score. The benefits of obedience and loyalty were well known and could pay dividends, and so Jesus uses this pattern of living as a very pertinent illustration of the relationship between the believer and God. The trustee would be ensured of enormous rewards and the idle slacker or dishonest severely punished. In short, the Christian only reaps what he/she sows.
The picture in the Letter to the Hebrews (111-2.8-19) is not dissimilar. It almost speaks of faith as an investment in the future, one in which the investor makes a calculated commitment to an as yet uncertain future, but in the conviction that he/she is doing the right thing. The writer of Hebrews, clearly addressing converts from Judaism to Christianity, is at pains to stress the continuity of the faith in the God Abraham, the Father of the Jewish faith, discovered and worked at so long ago. He is convinced that Jesus is the final and culminating manifestation of the God of the Hebrews, indeed God with us in the person of Jesus. The writer therefore appeals to these new converts to follow Abraham in a similar and powerful act of faith, and cites other heroes of the past as back-up. For Jews, turning their backs on the long traditions of their fathers and the laws, circumcision and sacrifices which Christianity rejected, this re-interpretation of their founding fathers and their faith could only have served as an encouragement in what were uncomfortable and difficult times. Placing your faith, and therefore your religious actions, in something, rather someone, uncertain, and leaving behind what was so sure rooted, took nerve and real conviction. The writer of Hebrews really made this well known material work for the Christian cause, and indicated that, like the founders of Judaism, it required a lot of hard work.
The Book of Wisdom (18:6-9) is the work of a writer of the first century BC at a time when Palestine was under Egyptian occupation. Although ascribed to Solomon, it is of course almost a thousand years from that ‘wise’ king, and is rather a piece of propaganda designed to boost the morale of the people under Egyptian rule and harshly exploited. Our passage in particular reminds the people of the Lord God’s defeat of the Egyptians, and the great Exodus event which brought the Jewish nation into being. It speaks of a divine pact, almost a treaty, between God and his people under which they would be rescued in return for their loyalty to the God of Judaism. It is a great praise-song to God in which the downtrodden place all their faith and hope in God, and trust not in their own power or force of arms, but in the saving grace of the Most High.
So we have been talking about acts of trust (faith) and their acknowledgement in behaviour in all three readings. There are pacts made, but never between equals, rather between those of huge inequality. For us moderns today, all this talk of being like slaves, or the occupied and downtrodden, in relationship to God may well grate. What we have to remember is that however we choose to express our relationship with God, somehow or other we must attempt to capture the enormity of the difference between us and God, yet realise the offer of grace held out to each of us and the invitation given – that we can participate, that we are never simply the objects of divine benevolence but are responsive too. That is God’s invitation to us. We are not mere puppets on his string, but players in the game.