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Politics of Scripture

The Written-out Slaves

When Dalits write, they contest these misrepresentations and objectifications, and provide a sub-version of the texts. When Dalits write, they experience liberation. A decolonial reading of this given text calls us to offer our support and solidarity with #Blacklivesmatter and #Dalitlivesmatter, recognising an agency of liberation in our Dalit and Black bodies, lives, and texts.

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)

In the context of #BlackLivesMatter, there are many people in the public spheres who are arguing that the rhetoric should be “#alllivesmatter.” They insist that in the ambit of ‘all lives’ mattering ‘black lives’ will anyway be there. However, with the reality of ongoing, unabated violence against Black people, and their torture and killing, it has been revealing that ‘Black lives’ did not and do not matter at all. Therefore the cry and demand has been #BlackLivesMatter, which is a cry for justice for the oppressed communities. 

On a similar note in the context of caste system, the cry for justice has been #Dalitlivesmatter, again for the similar reason that ‘Dalit lives’ and ‘Dalit bodies’ have not mattered and have been battered for centuries, for their bodies are raped, killed, tortured, disappeared, erased and even forgotten. The logic of empire destroys bodies by killings, scatters bodies through terror, unjustly crucifies bodies, disappears bodies by torture, disintegrates the bio-politics of life and conveniently writes out the stories of people on the margins. Dalit lives and Black lives have not only been ‘hidden transcripts’ in the face of empire today, but are also ‘forgotten trans-scripts,’ where their lives are consciously forgotten and if otherwise are forced as ‘no-humans’ in our public spheres today.

The gospel writer Matthew, in his reworking of Mark’s account, has replaced the parable of a seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29) with this unique parable, which the NRSV titles as ‘the parable of weeds among the wheat,’ to communicate about the kingdom of heaven’s mysteries. Matthew records both Jesus’ narration of this parable to the crowds (24-30 verses) and its explanation to his disciples (36-43 verses), so that Matthew’s audience would clearly understand the parable. Matthew took note of every detail in Jesus’ explanation of the parable including the sower is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed are children of the kingdom, the weeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age and the reapers are angels (37-39 verses). With such a fine detailed explanation of the parable, the audience of the first century Church and also the readers today will appreciate Matthew for his detailed recording of Jesus’ parable. 

However, as I read it, I recognise a colonial episteme of #alllivesmatter in Matthew’s recording in those details.

There is a stark distinction between Jesus’ narration of this parable and his explanation of it, where the slaves who are mentioned in the narration (27, 28 verses) are missed in the explanation. Such a conscious omission in the explanation of the parable demonstrates slaves’ lives did not matter, which mirrors the reality of first century Palestine living under colonial Roman empire.. 

While the rest of the characters in the parable got attention and an explanation, the unrecording, the unrecognition and even erasure of who these slaves are and who these slaves represent in the explanation of the parable expose a deep hermeneutical problem. The slaves existed in the original story of the parable but are forgotten in the interpretation, which is only symptomatic of the then society’s reality. They are forgotten in the worldview of the society as ‘no-bodies,’ for the slaves are treated as property, tradable goods, ‘sub-humans,’ ‘de-humans’ and ‘no-humans.’ The slaves, their bodies and their lives are the ‘forgotten trans-scripts’ of both the texts and the society, for they are overlooked and are taken for granted as their existence is recognised in their non-existence. Many commentators chose to explain about judgement and fire in this text, lest they forget that by erasing the lives of the slaves in the interpretation, they have already (mis)judged that the lives of the slaves do not matter to the story of this parable. 

A decolonial reading of this text, therefore, challenges us to recover and reclaim the forgotten lives in the text and the context. A recovery of these forgotten lives is by ‘hearing to speech’ their voices, which is an affirmation of their existence in society. #Slaveslivesmatter, #Blacklivesmatter and #Dalitlivesmatter.

Applying decolonial hermeneutics to this text, I attempt to narrate this parable from the perspective of the forgotten slaves, particularly from a Dalit perspective, for such writing is liberative and therapeutic for our communities. For decolonial hermeneutics, an engagement with the question of “what is Jesus doing today?” takes precedence to the questions of “what would Jesus do? (WWJD) and “What did Jesus do?” for any given text. The hermeneutic of “what is Jesus doing today?” allows us to reflect on the work of Jesus beyond a textual evidence, in a way that God works mysteriously and differently than what God has always done. This hermeneutic provides a space to recognise God’s creative ways of revelation, different from the paradigms we have always known like God’s word is only available in the written texts, by deconstructing the coloniality of texts, what Sugirtharajah calls “scriptural imperialism.”

As we are reading this text today, Jesus encourages the forgotten voices of the slaves in this text to speak, for in ‘hearing to speech’ their voices Jesus wants to join them and the movement for justice today. Here is Annamma, my grandmother, a first-generation Dalit Christian woman, whose family worked as agricultural labourers narrating this parable from her perspective:

For many generations, we as a family have been working under a dominant caste landlord as agricultural labourers. One fine day, we are commanded by our master to sow the seeds in the field. We worked day in and day out in getting the field ready, and as is our practice, with song and dance we collectively worked in sowing the seeds. We guarded the field day and night from the pests and took extra care of the field. One night when we were all asleep, the rival group of our landlord, who were from another dominant caste, came, attacked us and sowed weeds in our field. We resisted them but could not stop it. In that fight one of our uncles died. As the plants grew, we noticed weeds growing along with grain. At that moment I garnered all the strength in the world, stood up and repeated the words of Ambedkar, “It could be your interest to be our master, how could it be ours to be your slaves?” We told our master should we gather the weeds and the enemies? He did not encourage us to do it. Finally, when the crop came to harvest, we first cut the weeds and bundled it and then reaped the harvest of the grain, gathering it in our master’s barn. When the harvest has come, our master called us all as a family, confessed for keeping us as slaves for several centuries, and for sacrificing our lives for the cause of land. In response to his repentance, he offered retributive justice by distributing the grain equally among us all, and made us to own equal proportion of land along with him. From then on, we all lived in equality, dignity, and justice, sharing and caring for one another without any discrimination.

When my grandmother Annamma writes this parable, she explains that it is not the master who has sown the seeds but it is them, Dalit labourers, who do that work. It is their family, who collectively works and guards the field from enemies. It is their family that receives attacks and even lost a life of one of their family members in protecting the field. Grandma Annamma stood up and spoke truth to the landlord, which was costly, yet necessary. It is their family that cuts the weeds and then reaps the harvest. Through their acts of care for the field and resistance to the enemy, grandma Annamma and her family challenged the master to repent and offer retributive justice by sharing that land with them.

When Dalits write their own stories, they represent themselves, explain themselves and celebrate the agency of liberation in themselves. For over the years, the colonial hermeneutic worked based on the epistemology of the powerful, where they ‘represented others stories,’ in which process there was not only a ‘misrepresentation’ of Dalit lives and ‘objectification’ of Dalit lives, but also locating their version of God within this framework to which they sought Converts. When Dalits write, they contest these misrepresentations and objectifications, and provide a sub-version of the texts. When Dalits write, they experience liberation. A decolonial reading of this given text calls us to offer our support and solidarity with #Blacklivesmatter and #Dalitlivesmatter, recognising an agency of liberation in our Dalit and Black bodies, lives, and texts. Never to forget, erase, overlook, and take for granted the lives and stories of the people on the margins, for the divine is working in and with them. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!    

I would like to conclude this reflection by offering a title to this given text as “The parable of written-out slaves” for 24-30 verses and “Slaves lives did not matter: Forgotten and Erased” for 36-43 verses. Such a titling of these passages invites us to expose the ‘forgotten trans-scripts’ of the texts and commits us to stand and strive for the liberation of all oppressed communities in our localities.

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