One of the candidates for the highest office in our land, recently claimed that his not having paid federal income taxes for years was a smart thing to do. Just to give you all a shock this morning, I believe that to a certain manner of thinking, he’s statement was correct. As a business person in a capitalistic society, your primary goal is to maximize your income while minimizing your expenses. The goal is to get as much as you can for as little as possible. To that way of thinking, a man who is able to avoid paying any federal income taxes, while maintaining an astronomical income, is a success, he is a smart businessman, he is a good capitalist.
Jesus was not a very good capitalist. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus adhered to communism or socialism or some other economic system developed centuries after his birth. What I mean to say, is that in our capitalistic society, Jesus’ values and teachings often appear nonsensical at first glance. Because we all to some degree or another accept and internalize the values of our capitalistic society, when we are confronted with opposing value systems, they seem counter-intuitive at first, they seem silly.
The sayings of Jesus that we heard from Luke this morning can be difficult to hear. First century Palestine was a slave holding society, as was the rest of the Roman Empire. We no longer live in such a society, over 160 years ago, this nation decided that slaveholding was immoral and cruel practice that damaged all involved. So when we hear about the practice of slaveholding, we are immediately put off, as we should be. We expect swift and stern condemnation of this practice anywhere that it should arise. Jesus’ use of slave labor in a story that does not directly condemn the practice, is troubling. But I don’t think we need to read this saying as an endorsement of slaveholding. In fact, I believe there are many parts of the New Testament as well as the Old that do explicitly condemn slaveholding. In his teaching Jesus typically used familiar examples from the world of his audience to illustrate a spiritual truth. In this case, his disciples would have been quite familiar with the expectations regarding the treatment of a slave.
So what is Jesus trying to say in his use of this example of a slave returning after a long day’s work? “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table?” You and I may want to respond, “Me, I would do that.” But that is because you and I are not slaveholders, and we are not familiar or comfortable with the expectations of a slave holding society. The job of the slave was not finished when he was done working in the fields, serving his master dinner was also an expected part of his job. Jesus continues, “Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” To invite the slave to dine with the master, would be to reward the slave for doing half a day’s work by giving him the other half off. It would be to reward him for doing the absolute minimum. This is the point that Jesus is trying to make with his slave illustration, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” Jesus’ is saying that if you only give the bare minimum to your life, to that which you value and pursue, if you only give the minimum to the kingdom of God, you cannot expect a great return.
As I noted before, this idea does not make Jesus a very good capitalist. As this presidential campaign has illustrated, in a capitalistic society you can make an incredible amount of material wealth, by doing the absolute minimum for others, the absolute minimum that is required of you by law. So why would you want to do more than the minimum? What kind of slave would ever go above and beyond? What is in it for them? What is in it for us? Why try harder, why give more of ourselves, if we can become wealthier by doing less?
My mother told me a story about the first church that my Dad served in Bayshore, Long Island. There was a man in his sixties, a lifelong member of the congregation, whose wife had died. As such a tremendous loss has a way of doing, it sunk the man into a rather deep depression. He was dis-enchanted with life, and with his church. He felt that the he had been cheated, that his wife had been unfairly taken from him. My father was a young pastor, and though he was doing his best for the man, he was at a loss as to how to help him out of his depression.
One day, my mother decided to plant a row of flowers along the side of the parsonage where they lived. The next day, the man rang the doorbell at the parsonage, and when my mother answered he asked if he could talk to her about the flowers she had planted. So the two of them, walked to the side of the house, and the man began to explain all of the errors that my mother had made in planting these flowers. They were not the right kind of flowers for this sunlight. The soil had not been properly prepared or fertilized. They would need a good layer of mulch. My mother tried her best not to be offended by his numerous criticisms, but when my dad returned that day, she complained to him about how the man had critiqued her flowers. My father, listened, and then said, “Give em the flowers, Leigh. I haven’t seen him interested in anything since his wife died. If he cares about those flowers, let him have them. Let him fix him however he want.” Sure enough, the man started to fix the flowers at the parsonage. After he had them how he wanted, he asked my father if he could work on some of the flower beds at the church. For the next year, this man worked hard beautifying the outside of that small church. And as he did, he came to care more and more about the church. At first, he cared about the flowers. Then he cared about the bushes, and the grass. Then he cared about the children who began to help him outside. Then he started to care more about what the church was doing, its ministry in the community, and how it would sustain it. By the end of a year and a half of his constant gardening the man had returned to his former place in the congregation. He stepped up to serve on the council once more. He again became an admired and valued member of his church.
There is no doubt in my mind that the man stilled missed his wife, that he still grieved for her. But he was no longer trapped in his depression. Those flowers had given him a way to get outside of himself. They gave him the opportunity to do something for someone else, to serve a purpose greater than himself and his own interests. No one had asked him to care for the flowers. It was not a requirement of church membership. His work on the church grounds was above and beyond what was required, and he reaped no financial reward for this hard work. But in giving freely of himself to a greater cause, he found healing. He found a way to move through his grief. He built relationships and re-built a sense of self-worth. He rediscovered a purpose to his life, he heard again God’s calling to him. He gained all of these things, by giving freely of himself, by going above and beyond what was expected.
This is what is to be gained from giving freely of yourself to others. This is what is to be gained by going above and beyond the service that is required from you. Healing. Community. Connection. Relationship. Love. A sense of greater purpose. There are preachers whom I believe get the values Jesus and the values of capitalism a little mixed up. There are those who preach a “prosperity gospel.” Who assure you that all of the financial gifts you give to the church, will come back to you ten-fold. I’m not going to make such a promise, nor do I believe Jesus would have made such a promise. But giving freely of yourself to the church, is not without its reward. I am asking that each of give freely of yourselves to this congregation. I am asking that you prayerfully consider this month what financial contributions you can pledge to this church for the following year. But finances are not the only way to give. It is my hope that each of you will consider a special way that you might be able to go above and beyond in serving others through this congregation. Because that is what St. Paul’s means to be. We aim to be a congregation that seeks to follow Jesus Christ by offering opportunities for people to serve one another in love. And though I will make no promises about you gaining material wealth from so doing, I have faith that through your giving you will gain incredible gifts. You will find love, mission, community, God. That is what is to be found through giving freely of yourself.