Thursday, October 3, 2013

No rest for the weary ... not yet

Twenty Seventh Ordinary Sunday Year C

Every culture has its own set of beliefs concerning entitlement. Ours is no exception though we may often be unconscious of them and their implications for others. Generally, most people feel entitled to some reward, some form of positive appraisal, provided they’ve put in a good hard day’s work. ‘We deserve this; we deserve better; they owe us!’ I guess most people who have sacrificed time and effort to serve in ministry would expect no less than some form of gratitude and acknowledgment from their Parish Priest or a little blessing from God thrown their way.

If this is what you’ve been expecting, you’re in for a major surprise. The alternate title for today’s parable might read like this: “No rest for the weary.” When the disciples of Jesus have worn themselves out serving the needs of the kingdom and its members, Jesus reminds them that they should not expect reward or even recognition. After all, the parable teaches, that is no more than your duty! The master doesn’t owe anything to the servants for their tireless service. Painful as it is to contemplate, shocking as it is to our cultural sensibilities, entitlement based on self-interest is not a given. So, don’t expect remuneration for doing what you are obliged to do, or even a pat on the back!

This seemingly cold and heartless message may appear out of place in the gospel but we can better understand its meaning when viewed against the background of the periscope’s larger context. Jesus Christ had been teaching his disciples that if their brother should sin against them seven times a day, and seven times a day turned again to them, saying, ‘I repent’, they were to forgive him. Upon hearing such stringent demand which were the very minimum to be expected of them as followers of Jesus, the apostles were prompted to ask, “Increase our faith”. They conceived it to be so hard a duty incessantly to pardon and constantly to forgive, that they felt unable to accomplish it without a large increase of faith.

Jesus’ response here is typically Semitic - He uses a hyperbolic parable to emphasise the point being made (another e.g. of parabolic speech – ‘If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out’ or a modern equivalent, ‘I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse’).  With vivid and extreme language, he indicated that even a tiny and minute amount of faith can accomplish great things. The mulberry tree is renowned for its extensive system of roots. Therefore, the idea of uprooting one posed an extremely difficult task, what more without the assistance of heavy machinery and modern equipment. Moreover, the idea of a tree transplanted into the sea added to the unlikeliness of the situation.  Obviously, a literal or fundamentalist interpretation of Jesus’ saying would fall ridiculously short of its intended meaning. Jesus is really arguing that a little faith can do surprising things.

By referring to the tiny mustard seed after being asked about increased faith, he deflects the attention away from the quantity of faith to the object of faith – God; it is God who uproots mulberry trees and move mountains. The point made by the hyperbole is simple but often forgotten: it does not depend decisively on the quantity of our faith, the tenacity of our resolve, the sweat on our brow, the strength of our muscles, but on God’s power and wisdom. In knowing this we are helped not to fret and worry about what we can accomplish through our own efforts, whilst inspiring us to trust God’s free initiative and power. The crucial issue in accomplishing great things is not the quantity of our faith, but the power of God. The disciple’s main duty is to trust God. 

Faith, therefore, is not a means by which we control God and push Him into a corner and force him to produce a sensational show which will enable us to make headlines. Faith is therefore not power to move mountains but a humble recognition of one’s powerlessness and the acknowledgment that only God can do so. Genuine faith is a response to God’s initiative in the context of a personal relationship; faith is willing cooperation with God’s action. Such a response to God would enable the believer to reprove and to forgive readily, to be a model and not scandal for others. He can accomplish all these things only by the grace of God. These actions should not be thought as exceptional feats that merit reward, but the ordinary duty of every faithful disciple. The service of God's servant is not a matter for negotiation but is a duty.

It is significant that the servant featured in the parable was performing double duty. He worked all day in the fields as a farm hand and then after that he served his master in the home as a domestic servant. But even with the heavy load, the servant was doing no more than what was expected of him; therefore, he should not and did not expect a reward or even the expressed gratitude of his master. There is no selective obedience here, no bargaining to do something for the master if he does a favour in return. Servants display humility and know their position. The servants of God know that God is not obligated to them, as if they were his equal, but they are obligated to him, because he is their Creator and Redeemer. Committed service is the disciple’s privilege, not his burden.

For Jesus’ disciples the implications were obvious. Salvation is not guaranteed by fulfilling the minimum requirements imposed by duty. No amount of service, however well performed, could merit the gift that was God’s alone to give. Therefore, even outstanding human actions should not give rise to boasting. Rather, the true disciple recognised himself as a useless servant. To be ‘useless’ implies that nothing had been gained by those to whom nothing is due. That God does not need man’s service is not the point. The point is that man can make no just claim for having done more than was due. No matter how much a person does in God’s service, there is still a sense in which he is still an unprofitable servant, i.e. one to whom no favour is owed.

I guess the final parable we hear in Luke’s gospel serves to deflate our pride and self-importance. We are reminded that as disciples we must always give our best regardless of the cost, and regardless of whether we receive approval, recognition or reward from our work. It all boils down to ‘duty’ – what we ought to do.  There is no thunderous applaud awaiting us at the end of the day. No word of affirmation in a world starved for constant positive appraisals. Duty is anything but pleasurable. It sounds hard, but we must always remember that when we have done our best, we have simply done our duty. God can never be indebted to us. We have no claim on him. We only have our mustard seed offering to show, but the real work is grace. The real work belongs solely to God and we can never hope to outdo God. All that we can hope for at the end of our lives journey, when we stand before his judgment seat, is to be able to claim in all honesty: “We are merely servants; we have done no more than our duty!” And in reply, we hope to hear these comforting words: “Well done, Good and faithful servant!” “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.