I have been a serious Anglophile since holding a season tickets to a small theater’s Shakespeare series when I was in high school. Pretty much anything on television with a British accent gets my attention. Naturally, when “Downton Abbey” premiered on PBS a few years ago, I was in. Just in case you somehow missed it, “Downton Abbey” was a series about an aristocratic English family in the early 20th century. After turning their estate house into a hospital during the first world war, the family must navigate changes in the social and economic fabric that threaten the long-standing estate system.
The series was wildly successful, and a feature film opened last month. I had mixed feelings. The production was lavish and well done, but I frankly I had a hard time feeling any sympathy for the characters – that is, the characters who weren’t servants. I guess I have a hard time feeling too sorry for someone who has inherited multiple generations of wealth who is just exhausted because they have had to change clothes four times in a day.
This week’s gospel was a little hard to swallow. There is something about Jesus’ comments about slaves and masters that really rubs me the wrong way. Particularly irritating is his suggestion that you do not thank a slave for following orders and that they should reply, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” Am I supposed to declare myself worthless? I am reminded that Martin Luther referred to himself as a “poor stinking bag of maggots.”
Wrestling with the slave and master metaphor, I return to the demand of the disciples that touched off the whole thing: “Increase our faith!” At first it seems like a reasonable request, but the more I think about it, the more I understand why Jesus seemed so irritated. First, what makes them think faith is quantifiable? Come to think of it, an awful lot of us seem to think the same thing. Second, if faith is quantifiable, does that mean there is a faith economy in which a few have more, and many have less?
Maybe Jesus is irritated because the disciples want a faith economy and they want to be the faith aristocrats. It is easy to imagine that they would, the faith they have known was structured in just such a way with religious elites ruling over the religious serfs. For some, Jesus represented an inversion of the order; they could become the ones in charge; the ones living lavishly. No, it is not hard to imagine, in fact it is still happening among today’s preachers of what has been called the “prosperity gospel.”
This is the Jesus who said, “I come not to be served but to serve.” Worthless slaves? By the world’s reckoning, yes. But then, this is also the Jesus who said that it is by holding on to life that we lose it, and by giving it away that we gain life eternal.
October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi who died in October of 1226. Here is a quote:
“God could not have chosen anyone less qualified, or more of a sinner, than myself. And so, for this wonderful work He intends to perform through us, He selected me-for God always chooses the weak and the absurd, and those who count for nothing.”