Gospel Reflection for October 7

Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’
 Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it 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.'”

Reflection

À propos of the “unworthy servant” image in this week’s gospel reading, a friend reminded me of the following passage from Meeting Jesus, by Fr. William P. Sampson, S.J.:

Here is an image that Jesus uses on a few occasions. We can follow him as he varies his use of it:

Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, “Come and have your meal at once”? (Luke 17:7 NJB)

Jesus is letting his imagination play over something that never happens. People are never that concerned about their servants. No, it works more like this:

Would he not be more likely to say, “Get my supper ready; fasten your belt and wait on me while I eat and drink. You yourself can eat and drink afterwards”? (Luke 17:8 NJB)

“Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told?” (Luke 17:9 NJB). Of course not. There is no call for gratitude. The servant is not doing his master a favor. It’s his job.

On this occasion Jesus creates these images to make a very particular point: Do not seek God’s gratitude; do not expect it, do not try and do him a favor; do not try to put him in your debt.

So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, We are useless servants: we have done no more than our duty. (Luke 17:10 NJB)

Jesus elaborates this image to help people understand better how to relate to God. God is seeking not servants but children. Even if you do all you should, you will be at best a useless servant.

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2 Responses to “Gospel Reflection for October 7”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    This Gospel always feels to me like it is missing a few things. The first paragraph, quite obviously, is Jesus reminding us of the awesome power of faith. Then, however, we get this apparent detour about, as Fr. Sampson points out, how we should relate to God and, by extension, how God could, if He chose, relate to us. What is missing is the connection between the two thoughts and, somewhat surprisingly, the obvious point that God, although He could treat us as unprofitable servants, chooses not to.

    Perhaps the connection lies in the starting point of the whole scene, ie the disciples demand to “increase our faith.” I think the image of the mustard seed and the mulberry tree is Jesus’ attempt to remind the disciples of what they are missing out on because of their poor faith. The lack of acceptance by them of a self image as an unprofitable servant is what is blocking from them a faith that could cast mulberry trees into the sea.

    Faith, in many ways, is merely a synonym for trust and trust, of course, requires honesty. If our faith is to “increase” we must first develop an honest understanding of where we stand in relation to God, in justice. Jesus makes quite clear that before God, we are all merely servants. All the good that we do is nothing more than, as St. Thomas would have put it, the fulfillment of our nature. As the servant is required to serve the master, so are we “required” to be just, courageous, temperant and prudent. We are, after all, wired that way and to act contrary to our natures is ultimately harmful only to ourselves. Certainly God could be above all of our struggles and sufferings as He is in no way dependent on us and certainly not on our happiness.

    However, Jesus’ life and death is meant as assurance that God does not act this way. He’s here to point out that, in fact, God is intimately involved in all of our sufferings. All of salvation history is a narrative of God reaching over or, better, smashing through the just master-servant divide to render, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “servants…sons.” It is a narrative of the free and gratuitous gift of the master to invite the servant to table. Therefore, understanding the “factual” relationship between us and God is a prerequisite to understanding the good news of God’s graciousness and is therefore the first step in increasing our trust that God is in fact working always for our salvation. That, of course, is the essence of faith.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Fitz, this is terrific. The apparent gap between the first and second parts of the reading was troubling me. Thanks for the bridge.


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