SLAVE MENTALITY

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Note: This homily was delivered on 14 May 2013, during the Feast of St. Matthias (John 15:9-17)

Today’s gospel passage from the Last Supper Discourse is a veritable banquet of quotable quotes, where almost every line is a sound bite. They’re all so familiar, but also all so rich for prayer.

What struck me when I was praying over this passage was the quote on slaves and friends. Our Lord tells his apostles: “I no longer call you slaves; I have called you friends.” He goes on to explain what he means: He confides in us the way most people confide only to their friends, rarely to their servants. Because our Lord loves us, he has offered us this new status: We are no longer slaves, but his friends. And as we know, he takes this even a bit further by himself taking on the role of a slave when he washes the feet of his disciples earlier on.

But how do I make sense of this new status as a friend of the Lord? How do I feel about it? When I allow the passage to question me, I realize that while I know in faith that the Lord regards me as a friend, more often than not, I continue to act and think like a slave. Now, what does that mean? What does thinking and acting like a slave sound like?

I think the Gospels can give us a few examples, of just how slaves sound like…

When the Lost Son in that most familiar parable returns home to his father, he delivers a speech he has been rehearsing all throughout the return trip: “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

This talk of unworthiness—that’s slave mentality because the son calculates his worth based on what he’s good for.

We all know how the father responds: Even before his son ends his speech, he dismisses the request and fawns on him—bringing him ring, sandals, and robe. And of course, he orders that the fatted calf be slaughtered for the feast. In other words, he doesn’t care what his son’s good for–even if he’s “good-for-nothing.” What matters is that when the father looks at his son, he sees that he is good, period.

How many times have I caught myself using that language about myself–insisting that what matters in God’s eyes–and my own–is what I’m good for, not that I am good, period.

The younger son is not the only slave in the parable. In the elder brother, we have yet another example of someone who thinks like a slave—although in a slightly different way. As we know, when the elder brother comes home from the fields and sees the ongoing partying, he grows resentful and virtually throws a tantrum, refusing to join the party. He accuses his father of favoritism: “All these years I have worked for you, and I never disobeyed you; yet you never gave me a kid goat that I might feast on with my friends. But when this son of yours came, after devouring your money with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”

The elder son compares himself with his brother, calculates all that he has done for their father, and feels entitled to better treatment. He is no less a slave than his younger brother because like his younger brother he bases his worth on what he is good for, not what he simply is. Given all his hard work and good behavior, he must deserve much more than his good-for-nothing brother!

Again, we know the father’s reply—probably one of the loveliest lines in the gospel: “Everything I have is yours!” he assures him. In other words, don’t count loose change with me! You’re not a slave!

This resentment, sense of entitlement, habit of calculation and comparison, and most of all, reducing who we are to what we do—that’s typical of servants and wage-earners–not friends. So I ask myself again: How many times have I caught myself doing just that?

Friends don’t talk about unworthiness or entitlement. Based on my best experiences of friendship, a true friend gives freely without regard for what you’re good for or useful for. Talk of “I’m unworthy” or the opposite side of this coin, “I deserve” doesn’t—or shouldn’t even—come up.

The elder brother in the parable also reminds me of the workers in that other parable who file their complaints upon learning that the latecomers have been given exactly the same wages as they have received even if they have worked much fewer hours. They feel entitled to better wages because they’ve worked more.

And of course, there is Judas, who in that one gospel scene doesn’t conceal his resentment over the woman who has broken the alabaster jar and lavishly poured out the expensive ointment on Jesus. “Why not use the money for the poor?” he complains loudly.

We don’t really know how Judas ended up betraying the Lord. The evangelists seem to think it was his attachment to money, so we could say he was, in that sense, also acting like a slave. But what’s clear is that he never was quite able to respond to Jesus’ call of friendship. Our Lord kept reaching out in friendship to him till the very last minute—offering him bread at the Last Supper, even washing his feet!—but till the end Judas couldn’t be the friend Jesus was inviting him to be.

Today our Lord invites us to stop acting like slaves and accept his invitation to begin really thinking of ourselves as his friend. For me, this means to try dropping all that thought and talk about unworthiness and entitlement, to change that habit of comparing myself with others and calculating my worth based solely on what I’m good for.

Coincidentally, of course, today we remember Matthias, the apostle who was picked by lottery to take the place of Judas. Maybe the message for us today is that we do the same: It’s time to replace the Judas in us, that part of our selves that despite our Lord’s call to friendship, resists acting and thinking like his friend.

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