The Grateful Servant

All things considered the disciples were not a very promising lot. There is Peter, whose aspirations often overreached his courage. Thomas the empiricist. Skeptical Philip: Lord, it would take two hundred denarii to buy enough bread to give each person a morsel. Judas the pragmatist: Lord this ointment should have been sold and its price be used to feed the poor. And all this because they were slow to believe firmly and consistently that Jesus is the King of Israel, the Great High Priest, and the prophet sent from God. These men are the future pillars of the church who before Pentecost could not watch for one hour. In their weakness they are not strangers; we know them; they are ourselves, the men and women whom we see in the mirror.

And Jesus knows them, and us, as well. He knew that he who would be called the Prince of the Apostles would betray Him to a maidservant and that only one of these chosen Twelve would follow him to Golgotha. Which is why Jesus treats so harshly their request: “Lord, increase our faith!” Replying, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea’ and it would obey you.”

This is at the least an odd exchange. Saint Paul is remembering a similar figure when he refers to the faith that can move mountains (I Corinthians 13:2). Removing mountains and transplanting trees into the sea are things alien to Jesus’ engagement with nature. These would be dramatic signs. Jesus touches nature with miracles which are always actions that overcome some aspect of the fall, perfecting the situation toward the glorified life of the age to come, in which there is no hurt, no pain, no sea-sheltering Leviathan. So in Luke 17:6 we are in the precincts of hyperbole. Jesus is not proposing a test of faith but letting the disciples know that He knows they are weak and still uncommitted to the mission. And there the matter is left. The faith of the chosen twelve will be weak until Pentecost. Incidentally, this text and others like it argue their authenticity. A spurious gospel would never leave the reader (and the apostles) in an enigmatic condition in which the disciples ask for more faith and Jesus responds by telling them they have none.

The second part of the Gospel for this Sunday, verses 7–10, continues Jesus’ very un-sentimental review of the conditions of discipleship. A servant comes in from the field where he has been plowing, perhaps all day, almost certainly thinking, ‘I have done enough.’ But the master does not invite him to make his own meal but commands that the servant defer his own supper while serving the master’s meal. Jesus poses this question: “Should the master thank his servant for doing what was commanded?” Not so. The servant has only done his duty by obeying the master’s command.

These are words written especially for our own twenty-first century, in which religious duty is often construed as a favor to God. This is of course impossible. The worship of God, the living desire to please Him in thought, word, and deed, and charity toward our neighbor, these are our bounden duty, and when we have fulfilled them we can still say in the light of God’s mercy, “Lord I am unworthy.” Our relation to God is in the most radical sense un-symmetrical. He is our creator, our lover—yes, God so loved the world–and our judge. He owes us nothing; we owe Him everything.

It should always be remembered that our relation to God is not optional. Having known us in the beginning, in our mother’s womb, throughout the course of years and at our last day, He will never forget us or let us go. The doing of our duty toward Him is at its heart a development of our taste for Him and for His kingdom even as we pursue His commands to multiply and to exercise dominion over creation. The very idea of duty, of freely pledged obligation to another is not part of our popular culture. The exposition of duty was the defining characteristic of eighteenth-century philosophy, and if Kant and company were wrong about many important questions, they were certainly right to see the ability to recognize and take up obligations as central to the human condition. The phrase ‘I owe it to myself’ may have some limited and legitimate uses. But if what I owe myself is not rooted in what I owe God, the end will be that moral chaos which surrounds and threatens. And for a Christian, duty will always be founded in gratitude. When we have done all, we will still consider ourselves unprofitable servants.


One Response to Thoughts on the Gospel for Sunday, October 6, 2013

  1. Mary Conces says:

    This was put aside in my “anticipated good reads” “pile” and temporarily forgotten, so my comment is tardy. This time, my delay was providential, I think, for yesterday morning I heard a sermon from a young priest on “participation” [NOT constantly DOING something at Mass] as applied to the Communion of Saints and the fire Christ came to kindle. I guess that doing my duty is or ought to be participation in Christ’s life, Who was “only” doing His duty in obedience to His Father. And I guess that there’s no retirement age for that.