Thirty Third Sunday of the Year
In a talk in 2013, Pope Francis urged students to develop the virtue of magnanimity ‘It means having a great heart, having greatness of mind, having great ideals, the desire to do great things in response to what God asks of us. It means also to do well the routine…daily actions, tasks meetings with people—doing the little everyday things with a great heart open to God and to others.’ The woman in Proverbs exhibiting compassion, generosity, hospitality, devotion, and commitment shares her gifts generously with family and the wider community. Her actions were done ‘with a great heart open to God and to others.’ Though some misogynistic interpretations downplay it, she is presented as a ‘woman of power’ where her work is affirmed as examples of strength, not subordination. All people are called to be like the woman of power.
Today’s parable a very abused text. It is interpreted to motivate people to develop their resources. Matthew resists this interpretation. Jesus’ first hearers would have reacted negatively, unlike many in modern capitalist societies, to the extravagant amounts of wealth in the story. In the face of obscene wealth accumulation in the hands of a few and ethically dubious acquisition of wealth in certain airline and electrical appliance companies whilst many struggled during the recent pandemic era, this parable is a powerful critique. The doubling of the ‘investment’ and extortion and fraud through tax collecting, lucrative trading, and money lending at high interest rates which characterised the greedy rich and powerful would have disgusted Jesus’ audience. The confiscations, appropriations, taxes, compulsory labour, and the payment of rent still causes the destructive cycle of indebtedness and poverty in or world – in families and in the developing countries. So many workers in the Global South labour on land and in factories to enrich oligarchs and landlords.
Though often considered as a call to use our God given talents to achieve and get ahead, it is often used against people who are poor, unemployed, people with disabilities, people out of prison, or single mothers. It can also be used against anyone who refuses to buy into a ‘capitalist’ system that condones ruthless and hardhearted business practices with bad outcomes and rewards the smart and diligent. This parable is a critique of the oppression and exploitation of the workers who labour to enrich the landlords and big business owners. The two servants collaborate with a system of exploitation and work hard for the landlord’s benefit. The landowner must be seen for what he is: a modern, clever, greedy businessperson whose wealth is accrued at the expense of others. The third steward is like a whistle-blower, a dissenter, who speaks the truth and confronts injustice. Though fearful he courageously refuses to participate in this exploitation by taking the money out of circulation. So, clearly Jesus is not endorsing this mercenary economics.
Today, numerous peace and justice activists are persecuted and branded as terrorists for their advocacy in exposing and opposing the injustices perpetuated by the so called ‘masters’ of our society. This is the case in the Philippines and many countries in Latin America. Church people, members of the civil society and ordinary citizens who express their ‘dissent’ could easily be ‘red-tagged’ as terrorist by these ‘masters.’ In Australia, several courageous people are on trial for blowing the whistle on crimes committed by our government and the military in places such as Timor Leste and Afghanistan. Clearly, such crimes must never be reported. To do so has consequences. Being thrown into the outer darkness – like prison for life -for being a traitor
The third slave is often presented as the unreliable and hopeless one, a failure, lazy or incompetent is one with a place in God’s reign because he had no place in the ways of the world - a system that dominates, controls and rides on the back of the poor; that treats people as disposable; where old people sleep in cardboard boxes and children scavenge on landfills. His actions must be seen in the context of Mt 23:24, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed.’ Like the third slave, Francis refuses to invest in or support a system that widens the gap between the rich and the poor. He repeatedly urges action to secure the basic rights and entitlements the poor deserve such as land, housing, work, unions, and social security. In the Joy of the Gospel (2014), Pope Francis identifies the unfettered markets (and ‘trickle-down’ ideologies) as homicidal (# 53), ineffective (#54) and unjust at their roots (#59). Unlike most world leaders, he calls us away from worshipping the market and money. This is the world of darkness, weeping and grinding of teeth. The landowner cannot be equated with a merciful God who would throw anyone into outer darkness. This does not fit Jesus’ image of God. It is the third slave who best represents Jesus who courageously denounces injustice and exploitation and thrown into outer darkness by the system.
This connects with next week’s gospel – in the story of the sheep and the goats. We find Christ outside the centres of power, in the marginal areas; on the peripheries; in places of pain and marginality; the places of ‘outer darkness’. This is where the hungry, the sick, prisoners, the strangers and the naked are; this is where the indigenous people, the asylum seekers, the mentally ill, the street people, the drug affected, the vilified gay and lesbian people, the whistle-blowers are. This is where we mysteriously meet Christ. The slave who was cast into the ‘outer darkness’ stands in opposition to the dominant system and culture and is brought close to the one who is at the Heart of the Universe and who lives with the poor and the oppressed.
Gospel living and loving require courage and risk taking. We are reminded today that peace, justice and equality are God’s intention for our lives. They come about by taking the risk of being thrown into the ‘outer darkness’. If we understand the third slave’s actions from a peasant’s worldview, then the actions of the first two slaves come under scrutiny as well. On the other hand, the third slave remained true to his peasant value system and, though still afraid, was willing to denounce the unethical and greedy character of his master. The outcome of such defiance was predictable: The master rewarded those who aligned themselves with his desires and methods (regardless of the ethics) and demonised and punished the one who dared to challenge him.
So, through a series of parables Jesus instructs and encourages his disciples to be prepared for life after he leaves them. They need to be vigilant, not just because Jesus will return at an hour they do not expect, but to distinguish between what is of God and what is of this world. The shocking revelation towards the end of the story of the master’s true nature echoes Jesus' warnings elsewhere, about not falling for false prophets or wolves in sheep’s clothing. And as we see in the following parable, the so-called judgment day, dramatically reveals what is truly pleasing to the true ‘master’. So we come back to the woman of power. We are all called the strength, resilience and connection with others as she did.
Someone asked me today, ‘whose side are you on?’ I answered, ‘ I am on the side of LOVE and LOVE is on the side of Humanity.’ We ALL are ONE. There are no ‘chosen people.’ LOVE thy Neighbour.