The Second Reading today contains maybe my favorite one-liner in Scripture: “The weak eat only vegetables.” I don’t care if someone is or isn’t a vegetarian; I just find it funny you can find a verse out of context for something like that. We need some context. That verse gives context to everything Paul says in the rest of the passage, and the Second Reading, as usual, gives context to the other readings.
What does Paul mean, “the weak eat only vegetables?” Paul writes to a Roman church made up of Jewish Christians (who abstain from certain meats), who had been exiled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius and who are now back, and Gentile Christians, who never left Rome. The Gentile Christians are “strong” in that they remained, led the Church, never had to live as exiles or refugees; the Jewish Christians are “weak” because they came into a situation where someone was socially stronger. Paul’s not putting anyone down: he is describing a situation in which the socially weaker are keeping kosher. He is warning the groups in the Roman church not to compete over who is holier, who is better at faithfulness. There are different ways of being faithful, and Paul wants to embrace them. He wants the Church not to worry about society’s distinctions like class, race, or gender. The Christian gets her worth from Christ alone. That’s the thrust of the passage, and it is the issue facing the servants in the Gospel story.
The so-called “ungrateful servant” does not want his value to come from Christ. His debt is an obscene amount: 10K Talents. To give you an idea of scale, when Rome conquered Palestine in 63 BCE Rome imposed an annual tax on Palestine of 10K Talents. This guy has lost the annual tax revenue of Indiana. The king forgives it. The forgiven servant displays an all-too plausible response: he attempts to regain some status by lording himself over someone.
Being forgiven is humbling. You admit you were wrong. You make yourself vulnerable to someone. The forgiver mercifully sends away your guilt. You did nothing. You have no power. You have no status other than “forgiven.” You are “weak,” as Saint Paul might say. We Americans are not as concerned with social status as people in Jesus’ world were; we are a lot more concerned with it than we like to admit. And I think I understand how powerless this guy feels. He wants some power back. Maybe he figures he will get it by making someone else feel as guilty as he does. Maybe he just figures he has legal standing against this other servant so here’s an easy person to pick on. Whatever the specifics, he wants some measure of status greater than that of at least one other person. He doesn’t want to be humble. He doesn’t want to depend on Christ for his value as a person. He is the opposite of Joseph in the First Reading.
We read the end of Joseph’s story today; the end refers to the beginning. Joseph’s story…well, it starts out calling itself “the story of the family of Jacob,” Joseph’s father. Right off the bat, this is bigger than just Joseph. Jacob loves Joseph more than he does his older sons. This upsets those sons. When Joseph is 17, he has a dream, and rushes to tell his brothers: “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly mine rose and stood upright, and yours gathered around mine and bowed before it. Isn’t that interesting?” His brothers said, “Yeah. Hey, we got an interesting hole in the ground over here we’re gonna shove you in. Isn’t that interesting? Oh, look! Some interesting slave traders. Let’s sell you to them. Isn’t that interesting?” This is the act for which his brothers beg forgiveness. Joseph, however, addresses them today as Prime Minister of Egypt. His road to this position was long and included his wrongful imprisonment, but it also included his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. Because of Joseph’s dream interpretation, Egypt was prepared when famine struck, and Egypt’s bread became bread for the world, and especially bread for “the family of Jacob.”
This moment today is not the first time Joseph’s brothers have begged forgiveness, nor is it the first time Joseph has given it. There was this whole dramatic scene where he revealed his identity to them and forgave them. They’re coming today because their father has died, and they worry that Joseph was being kind to them out of respect for Jacob. Like the unforgiving servant in the Gospel, they came to Joseph looking to reestablish some sort of status in their relationship with Joseph. They attach their father’s name to the plea that they be saved. Joseph responds: “Am I in the place of God?” It is not for Joseph to lord himself over his brothers; nor is it for them to claim any sort of status in competition with him. They are equals, given life by God who planned-it-over for good. Joseph’s brothers are still worried about their power; Joseph can see that all of this—from his dream of bowing sheaves of grain until now when he is grain master of the world—all this was really about food.
It makes me wonder if the unforgiving servant’s refusal to accept forgiveness keeps him from seeing just what his king is trying to do. I mentioned that 10K Talent debt was the annual tax bill on Palestine. What if God is trying to forgive a tangible, real life monetary debt, and nobody is listening? The tax system in Palestine was brutal. Julius Caesar reformed it—said the tax was too high—by putting the tax bill on prominent local citizens, who sold tax rights to local collectors, who in turn got you for whatever they could—selling goods, moving goods. The tax collectors had to pay their own salaries, so they collected enough for the Romans, for the local gentry who sold the tax rights, and for themselves. The tenant farmers, who tilled the soil and grew the grain that made the bread for the Empire, were usually in debt to tax collectors, so they borrowed money to pay the tax, so they were also in debt to money lenders. Nice reform, Caesar. Thanks.
Maybe the king in the parable is, allegorically speaking, saying “what if I cancelled that 10K Talents bill? The bread of the empire isn’t getting to my people, so I am going to eliminate the debt that causes this whole system, a system that puts bread out of reach.” What would happen? Would we rejoice that the debt is forgiven? Or, would we, humbled and powerless, rush to exert ourselves over others? Would we continue collecting the tax, keeping the bread from the hungry? Would we continue trying to derive our worth from our actions, to claim value based on our being above someone else in the system?
Jesus, for his part, gives himself away as bread for the hungry. Jesus, who tells this difficult parable, uses himself as bread for the world. He who is God, creator of the universe, does not lord himself over others. The only time Jesus is over anyone is when he hangs over them from a cross. Whatever choice we would make if forgiven the 10K Talents, Jesus has already chosen what to do: the Son of God will die and rise for us, as one whose value comes from God. He will operate within that Roman system, even to the point of death on a cross, but he will do so to feed the hungry.
We live in a hungry world, spiritually hungry and physically hungry. And this parable puts to us the question: what will we do? In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Blood of Others, the protagonist, Jean, becomes furious with a friend who has decided to sell his Parisian newspaper to the Nazis who now occupy Paris. Jean storms away upon hearing the news, yet quickly asks himself, “What is the difference between me and him? I am walking about in Paris, and every step I take sets a seal upon [my] complicity [with the Nazis]; I eat the bread [the Nazis] give me, the bread they refuse to [my Jewish neighbors] Lina and Marcel, or to starving Poland.” Jean asks himself how he can eat the bread the Nazis deny to others. He realizes he can only eat ethically if he uses what he eats to resist. He will eat Nazi bread…as a member of the French Resistance.
We are not living in Paris in 1940, nor are we in Jerusalem circa 30 CE, or Egypt during Joseph’s premiership. What we share with all of those times is a world in which people are kept hungry, and a God who consistently works to figure out how to feed them. That God, Jesus Christ, dies and rises for us, makes each of us valuable, makes each of us worthy to stand before him, and makes each of us capable of feeding him to the hungry…in prayer, in advocacy, in welcome, and in bread. May the bread we eat today, the Body of Christ, give us the strength to share that bread and ourselves with God’s hungry world. Amen.