by the Rev. Chelsea Stanton, Deacon: November 19, 2023

Noted theologian and TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes once wrote: “Freedom lies across the field of the difficult conversation. And the more difficult the conversation, the greater the freedom.” So I want to give you fair warning: this sermon will be one of those difficult conversations. 

If I wasn’t trying to give you a warning, I would’ve started my sermon with these words from prophet for freedom Frederick Douglass who wrote: “Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery…I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me…I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”

On pondering today’s Gospel there was one word that stayed with me–slave. Slave or slaves, are words that in an American context point to a great tragedy whose impacts linger to this day. And yet the interpretations of this parable that I heard growing up were all about how I as a Christian was supposed to use my talents–in the sense of natural abilities or skills–to multiply my impact for God. I was supposed to be singing to bring people to Christ or witnessing to my friends at school. That was how I would bring about the increase that my master God would thank me for. But that word stuck with me–slave. These are slaves working for a master. Why was that never brought up by people talking about this parable? Why was it so easy for people to think that harsh master was God?

Robert P. Jones in his book White Too Long casts an image that haunts me now when I read parables like this. He wrote:

“In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries [in America],…it was common practice for slaveholding whites to bring their slaves to church with them. Whites sat in the front, while enslaved blacks sat in the back or in specially constructed galleries above. This was the norm for centuries in white slaveholding Protestant churches, from frontier Baptists to highbrow Episcopalians….In these seedbeds of lived American Christianity…white Christians received instruction in the faith from white ministers with [what Toni Morrison called] a ‘dark, abiding, signing African presence’ literally seated behind their backs or above their heads….this looming presence shaped what could be practiced…and preached…and how white Christians came to embody and understand their faith, generation after generation.”1

I am haunted because this parable read at face value in antebellum American culture–a story of slaves working tirelessly to make money for their master and the one who didn’t being cast into outer darkness–would have played into the hands of white enslavers who were holding other human beings in bondage. They could easily see this parable as divine validation for their actions, and to say that the God of the universe was on their side. This God was the harsh master who said to people who were enslaved that if they disobeyed that even the little they had would be taken from them. This lie says that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and that God is on the side of the status quo.

But then how did I hear about this parable growing up as something that didn’t have anything to do with slaves at all? As having to do only with nurturing my non-monetary talents? 

I wonder if it was white biblical interpretation twisting to support white supremacy in a new reality. Maybe after the Civil War it became no longer socially acceptable (in some circles) to uphold this parable as a validation of slavery. Perhaps the interpretation evolved to remove the slaves and the master and the economic realities of the parable altogether. It bypasses them and takes this flesh and blood, rooted-in-daily-life parable of people who were enslaved and at danger of violence if they disobeyed and makes it ethereal. Just an encouragement for people with little real danger in their lives to try a little harder so they can be called a “good and faithful servant.” The dysfunction of whiteness encourages us to look away from the difficulty inherent in this passage in our context. It encourages us to spiritualize this parable and in the process invalidate the real pain of those held in bondage. 

And all of us in this room are inheritors of the white American Christianity that was formed around the upholding of white supremacy. Not only in who was welcome in the pews or where, but–as the interpretations of this parable illustrate–even in our theology. Jones writes that “White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy….”2

I say all this not to blame or shame but to make it clear that the work we’re doing here with our racial reconciliation Eucharists and trying to bring a justice lens to all of our ministries is not just an effort to be more welcoming–though of course that’s vitally important. Those of us who are white and those of us who by our presence here are inheritors of historically white-dominated Christianity need to uproot the white supremacy within our very theology, in the ways we’ve been formed by our faith to see the world, in our core understanding of who God is and who we are. 

Do we see God as the harsh master who demands our allegiance to money-making? Do we see the stained glass full of white people in our sanctuary and subliminally take in the idea that the only people who matter to God are white? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that everyone in this room believes that God loves everyone regardless of their money-making ability or their race and that our heroes in faith are not all white–as evidenced by Pauli Murray gracing the baptistry and the lectern today. So the question is: how do we move those convictions past our words and into our lived reality? How do we make it so that people know the God we believe in when they walk in the doors? And how can our surroundings and our actions continue to form us into people who live what we claim to believe? 

After all that, I’ve got a different interpretation of this parable to offer that I hope we can live into, that will bring us some freedom. In Malina and Roxburgh’s wonderful social-science commentary on Matthew, I learned something that astounded me and made me see this passage completely differently. 

First, I learned that stories about slaves were everywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world where Jesus lived. When Jesus offered this parable, he was talking about a real thing that was really happening to real human beings around him. We can assume that these people the parable refers to as slaves were treated as chattel–as possessions–because violence could be perpetrated against them if they failed to conform to the demands of their master. The so-called worthless slave in this parable was thrown into the outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sounds pretty violent to me. 

Then I learned the part that changed my outlook. Malina and Roxburgh say that in the ancient Mediterranean world it was seen as immoral for someone to try to get more than they needed. Goods were seen as limited and already distributed–which means that if you try to get more than you need you are inherently depriving someone else of what they need to survive. As a result, people like the master in this parable were seen as exploitative, as thieves. They had no right to try to increase their wealth, even if they had the resources to force people to do it for them. Which means that the so-called worthless slave who is chastised by the master is the hero in this story. The slave buries the money and in doing so refuses to participate in the master’s exploitative scheme.

And I want you to notice one more element: the slaves who do participate in the master’s scheme by making more money are not offered freedom but more work, continued threat of violence, more bondage. I can’t really blame them for doing what their master asked, seeing the consequences for the one who didn’t. But even that didn’t save them from continuing to be exploited themselves. 

Knowing all that I can now see that the master in this parable cannot be God. The master is the forces of avarice–extreme greed and consumption regardless of how it affects others. The kind of disconnection from humanity that allows a person to inflict suffering on others for its own gain. Avarice is comforted by the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer because it allows them to think they are protected from the consequences of their actions. This is the same force found in American Christianity that allowed religious people to keep others in bondage for so long in the name of their faith. 

Then we are left with the cruel consequences for the slave who did not participate in the master’s scheme, being cast in outer darkness. In this interpretation, this parable says that the kingdom of God is like people who refuse to cooperate with exploitative systems regardless of the consequences to themselves. That’s what many of our heroes in the faith have done, including the most notable one: Jesus. 

May we receive the challenge to have difficult conversations that lead us to freedom, following the great Shonda. May we follow our Savior by putting ourselves in harm’s way for justice. And may we truly believe in the One the rite of renaming we will soon participate in calls, “the God who comes among us, reconciles us, and sets us free.”

  1.  Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. 22-23. ↩︎
  2.  6. ↩︎
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