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No Man Can Be The Slave Of Two Masters

horsey horseyThe American sociologist Charles Wright Mills once wrote that ‘many whips are inside men, who do not know how they got there or indeed that they are there.’ He is alluding to the whole array of forces, both internally and externally, that shapes our behaviour. ‘No man is an island’ as the old saying goes and none of us are untouched by the world we live in. Even our Lord Jesus was influenced by the society he lived in. He spoke a particular language and adhered to certain political, social and religious norms.

If as Mills suggests, there are many whips inside of men, the question of who is cracking them needs to be asked. Who or what is cracking the whip in our lives? What person, thing or habit are we slaves to? That we have masters is undeniable. Who those masters are can be challenged. Jesus says ‘no one can be the slave of two masters.’ By situating himself as Master among masters, He acknowledges the whole plethora of forces acting on us. Those who say ‘I am my own master’ fail to appreciate this. Many in our time reject all authority, seeing it as an imposition on their freedom. They plough ahead, enslaved by a flawed and unattainable notion of individual autonomy.

However, in a very real sense, we are like that horse St. James speaks of. We have the bit in our mouth, directing all our subsequent movements (James 3:3). The question is who do we want to be at the reins, guiding us to our end? Who can we trust with the unique and delicate gift of our lives? This is where we exercise our freedom, our agency. The stakes are high. Jesus is challenging us to let Him lead. It is the pagans of today’s Gospel we are told, who are slaves to all sorts of temporal desires but we as believers are told that life is more than this. Elsewhere in the Scriptures Jesus teaches that ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). In a similar way in relation to today’s Gospel passage it can be said that food and clothes are at the service of people, not the other way round. The course is for the horse, not the horse for the course.

There are so many whips working on us in our modern world, lashing tirelessly, desperate to prevent us from looking beyond creation to the Creator. So many people think of life as a given and yet strangely, not as a gift. Of course, whips are nothing new to the people of God. Did not the Israelites escape their tormentors in Egypt to enjoy the freedom of the Promised Land? Did not Christ endure the scourging of His tormentors and die on the cross before rising to new life on Easter Sunday? This is our journey today also. It is a journey through the Red Sea, by way of the cross of Calvary, from death to life. Let us cast off the yoke of our oppressors, whoever or whatever they are in our lives, and shoulder the load of Him whose ‘yoke is easy and whose burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). It is only in this gentle mastery of Christ that we find true rest for our souls.

Gospel Reflection for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 6: 24-34)

 

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

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In 1841, Solomon Northup is a ‘free negro’ working as a skilled carpenter and fiddle player, and living with his wife and two children in Washington. Two men offer him a two-week job as a musician, but they drug Northup and he wakes up in chains, about to be sold into slavery. He is shipped to New Orleans, and is re-named ‘Platt’. Beaten repeatedly, he is sold to plantation owner William Ford. Northup manages to stay on good terms with Ford, a relatively kind master. However after a fight with his foremen he is sold to another plantation owner named Edwin Epps. Epps believes his right to abuse his slaves is justified by the Bible, and encourages the slaves to accept their fate by frequently reading to them fraudulent pro-slavery Bible verses. Epps also requires each slave to pick at least 200 pounds of cotton every day, or be beaten. He repeatedly rapes one of the slave-girls named Patsey, who asks for Northup’s help in committing suicide, but he refuses. Northup meets a Canadian carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt). He asks for help in getting a letter to Washington. Bass, risking his life, agrees to do it. The plan works. After being enslaved for 12 years, Northup is restored to freedom and returned to his family.

 

On watching ‘12 Years A Slave’ I found it hard to believe that it is a true story simply because there is so much cruelty in it. I found myself asking the question, ‘How can one human being treat another like this?’ It also reminded me that such cruelty is still going on in the world today especially in developing countries, but also in Ireland where, for example, many girls are forced into prostitution.

 

On reflecting on the film I was reminded of the great Dominicans, Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas. Montesinos was a Spanish Dominican friar on the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) who, with the backing of his Dominican community preached against the enslavement and harsh treatment of the indigenous peoples of the island. Montesinos’ preaching led to the conversion of Bartolomé de las Casas and his subsequent entry into the Dominican Order. According to de las Casas, Montesinos said in his famous sermon ‘Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day?’

 

The sermon outraged the conquistadors, including Admiral Diego Columbus (son of Christopher Columbus) and other representatives of the King, there present. The hard work of Montesinos and de las Casas eventually led the king of Spain to convene a commission which promulgated the Laws of Burgos, the first code of ordinances attempting to protect the indigenous people, regulate their treatment and conversion, and limit the demands of the Spanish colonizers upon them. Today we need brave people to continue the fight against the cruelty of slavery throughout the world. Here’s hoping that ‘12 Years A Slave’ will spur the consciences of its audience, perhaps even producing 21st-century counterparts to Montesinos and de las Casas.