Thursday, September 29, 2016

What We Are Obliged to Do

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

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Jesus speaks to us often in metaphor when He wants to convey a truth about our relationship with God. Sometimes they may be relatively easy to understand, like the story of the prodigal son, telling us of God's mercy and desire to forgiving. But then there are times, as in this week's gospel reading from Luke 17:5-10, when we may be left scratching our heads.  What is Jesus trying to tell us here?

He asks if a master would ever tell his servant, just in from doing his job tending the sheep or plowing the field, to sit and dine at the table?  The answer is no.  The master would tell the servant to prepare a meal for him and wait on him while he ate.  Only when the master was finished would the servant eat his meal.  Jesus asks whether we would expect the master to be grateful to the servant for simply doing his job.  The implied answer is no.

To understand what is going on here, we need to get past our modern day notions of equality and affirmation.  Today, there would be nothing unusual about a boss thanking an employee for a job well done.  In fact, we expect it.  We'd consider an ungrateful employer to be a poor excuse for a boss.  Likewise parents routinely thank their children for completing household chores.  Teachers thank their students for turning assignments in on time.  We routinely give thanks to others and expect thanks in return.  

But this mutual exchange of gratitude is only possible between equals.  An employer and an employee in a company may hold different ranks, but they share an equal human dignity.  Not so with us and God. He is farther above us than the stars are above the earth.  We are not His equal, and this is the key to unlocking the metaphor.  

The servant in the story doesn't expect thanks for simply following his master's commands. So should be our attitude toward God. Christ tells the Apostles, "So it should be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10).

God is our master and we are His servants. Is Jesus just telling us that God is an ungrateful master?  No. He's telling us something true and important about our relationship with God. Even though we are called to serve Him, it is we who should have the attitude of gratitude, and not of entitlement.

This parable is told in response to the Apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus is telling them that if they want to grow in faith, it cannot be because they expect recognition or reward.  If we serve God because we think it will earn us accolades, then we are not really serving God; we are serving ourselves.  No matter how faithfully you serve God, there is nothing you can ever do that will earn favor before Him.  At the end of our lives, at our Judgment, it will always be us who should give thanks to God, not the other way around.

So then why serve Him at all? Why toil away doing the work of God if it won't earn us even a simple "thank you?" Why bother following the commandments? Why bother spreading the good news of salvation? Why bother working for peace and justice?

The only answer is because it is right.  The word justice comes from the Latin word jus, which means "right."  To do justice is to do the right thing. To follow God's commands is to do the right thing. To serve God, our Master and our Maker, is to do the right thing. We serve Him because it is good and right to do so; not because we expect any reward.

If we can learn to do this -- if we can learn to love and serve God, and by extension love and serve our neighbor, not for any praise our good works may earn us, but simply because it is the right thing to do -- then we will have increased in faith, and increased in true holiness.

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