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So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say “We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!” Luke 17:10
A video catalogue that came to our house offered a complete DVD set of Upstairs, Downstairs from Masterpiece Theater. It reminded me how much we used to enjoy watching that classic story about the life and manners of a British household around the time of World War I. This household had one set of rules and values for the family who lived upstairs and another set for the family who lived downstairs. The men of the Bellamy family were free to come and go as they pleased, while the women of the servants’ quarters were given only one free afternoon per week.
The upstairs family selected the menu for elegant dinner parties and were always served first, while the downstairs family waited on table and ate the leftovers. The tensions amused us in part because they seemed quaint–the way it used to be in England, but a way that we in North America have since left behind. It’s not that we claim to have a classless society, but we prefer to think of status as something we can earn. We like to tell Horatio Alger stories about our immigrant grandparents, those poor but earnest people who pulled themselves up by the boot-straps of education and diligence. We prefer acquired status to assigned status.
That is probably why this parable from Jesus is so easy for us to overlook and so hard to hear. Jesus says, “Remember your place. It is God’s universe. You are the slaves. So do your duty and don’t expect to be thanked for it.” The harsh language about worthlessness seems out of character for Jesus. Unless, of course, he’s aiming this story at people who used to be slaves but who have now moved up in the world. Or perhaps for those citizens who used to be resident aliens but who now complain about the need for immigration reform. Jesus may be referring to that refrain in the book of Deuteronomy:
Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there.
These words offer a reminder to people who are recipients of grace that they have not earned their place in the world, however prominent and successful they may have become. They have been rescued; their status with God is a gift.
Earned status doesn’t seem to carry much weight with Jesus. His table companions shock our sensibilities. He accepts invitations from tax fraud artists and ma- fia types. He sits down in the bus station waiting room and shares his lunch with people who have never owned a car. He frequents soup kitchens, listening to the lives of the homeless. And then, to those of us who still think we must be entitled to a little something because of our hard work, he gives this line: “We are only poor slaves, doing our duty.”
Very few of us have any experience of servitude, let alone slavery. This makes it very difficult for us to say the words with any honesty. Yet we follow Jesus, who gave up all of his privileges and entitlements to come live with us. He invites us to a kind of humility that is very difficult to find and even harder to maintain in our culture. Can you imagine a marketing campaign, or even a stewardship drive, based on the theme of this parable? Worthless slaves, doing what we should.
Christ is preparing the world for a great and glorious gathering. It will be like a wedding feast, a victory party, and a homecoming reunion all rolled into one. There won’t be an upstairs table and a downstairs table at this banquet, because every one of the invited guests will be a slave. From all over the world, from every time and place, rescued slaves will be gathered around this table, celebrating their freedom.