A Servant Found at Work – Br. Sean Glenn

“Br.Hugh of Lincoln

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. […]Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if the gospel writers had left us a few more details about the delivery and reception of Jesus’ parables, and this morning’s lesson piques my curiosity. We know, for instance, that they would have been markedly longer than the forms in which they come to us and the form itself—the parable—would have elicited from the crowd objections and almost certainly some good, old-fashioned heckling.[1] While we know this would have occurred, we have no record of the content.

If you’re anything like me, you may be inclined to heckle Jesus over the parable he tells us today. In fact—and I’m outing myself here—these words of Jesus do not always come to me as “good news.” They may even bring up dread, anger, and even incredulity. And so I heckled Jesus this week.

Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. “Of course,” murmurs the crowd—many of whom doubtless lived lives of involuntary servitude to earthly masters—“of course, perhaps in the eye of the master! The masters are the ones who,” to borrow a charged word from contemporary discourse, “extract from our labor and toil the very surplus they claim for their own. Do you really expect this tone-deaf beatitude to meet us as ‘good news’? Naturally the masters will bless one such as this, who, for a little security, maintains the iniquity that keeps us enslaved.”

As I acquainted myself with the life of St. Hugh, whom we remember today, the heckling bore an unanticipated fruit. In the life of this twelfth century saint—a life that evidences how poorly we might misunderstand Jesus’ summons—we find a living icon of this parable; of a servant ready and alert, working not to fill the coffers of an earthly oppressor, but to serve the life renewing love of Christ, blessed, whom his master found at work.The Rule of our Society speaks of such readiness:  “The triple-cord round our waists is an ancient sign of readiness that can summon us to be prepared to meet Christ whenever he should come.”[2]

Hugh was born to noble parents at Avalon, near Savoy, between 1135 and 1140. A novice of the Benedictines by age 15, his gifts for ministry would not go unused. By age 19 he was likely a deacon, shortly thereafter a priest, and eventually joined the Carthusians at the Grande Chartreuse, known for their austerity, where he rose to the office of procurator. In 1179 his surroundings changed, and he was sent across the English channel to become the prior of Witham Charterhouse in Somerset (the first Carthusian house in England), established by King Henry II as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. Hugh found the monks living in long huts and without plans for a permanent monastery, and he petitioned Henry for royal patronage, securing it on Epiphany, 1182, but not without guaranteeing full compensation from the King for any tenants who faced eviction to make room for the building. Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.

Hugh’s life in England took him all the way to the episcopate, and from there his work for the Kingdom took on its distinctive boldness. Once appointed bishop of Lincoln, he established his independence of the King, excommunicating a royal forester, refusing to seat one of Henry’s nominees for the prebendary of Lincoln, and admonishing the King for keeping dioceses vacant in order to syphon their income for the royal chancellery. It is noted that Hugh, as bishop, was exemplary, always either in residence or traveling within his diocese, careful about the appointments he made, and generous in charity. His work in Lincoln improved the level of education throughout the diocese.

Hugh also happened to live at a time of open antisemitism throughout Europe. At the beginning of Richard I’s reign, England saw a tragic series of violent pogroms. As a timely example to Jesus’ followers today, Hugh did not hesitate to step into the fray, working to protect the Jews in his diocese and putting down popular violence against them. Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.

This vigilance, this love, this readiness to meet Christ whenever he might come, is the mark of the servant Jesus describes in today’s parable. If you’re like me, and you find yourself heckling Jesus when you hear this story, or if you receive it with some trepidation, remember the life of our brother Hugh. A servant found by his loving master working not for the profit of an earthly oppressor, but working in love for the Kingdom of God, working for the master who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.[3]

Blessed Hugh, whom we remember today.

[1]See the work of John Dominic Crossan.

[2]The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, chapter 15.

[3]Titus 2:13-14.

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