27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Oct. 6, 2013
Luke 17: 5-10Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“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?’” (Luke 17: 7).
The world of servants and masters was the ordinary world in which Jesus and the apostles lived. “Servant” here (the Greek word is doulos, the Latin word servus) may include household slaves, youngsters hired out by impoverished parents, other hired persons like housekeepers and field hands, or long term-term employees who were practically members of a great lord’s household: in more contemporary settings, think of a nanny like Mary Poppins (without the magic of course) or of a gentleman’s valet like Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days. (A couple of you may be old enuf to remember when that was a hit in the movies—1956.) Servants were such an everyday fact that Mary of Nazareth readily described herself to Gabriel as the Lord’s doule, his maidservant, and the gospels are full of stories and references to servants, or slaves, and masters. One didn’t have to be a great lord to have a servant or two, e.g., a young boy or maidservant or a hired worker. St. Mark tells us that Zebedee hired men to fish alongside himself and his sons (1:20), altho Mark uses a different noun that means someone hired for pay.
So Jesus references servants and masters in many of his parables. The passage we heard this evening/morning is a parable—not in the sense of a story like the Prodigal Son, but in the sense of a comparison drawn from life to illustrate a teaching.
He begins by asking a question, to which he expects the answer to be “no one.” In real life masters don’t treat their servants, much less their slaves, as equals and don’t give them deference. The master will order this servant to prepare and serve his meal [evidently we’re not talking about a great lord here with many servants, including one just for cooking and serving].
Then Jesus reminds his listeners that this master probably won’t even say “thank you” to his servant. The servant or slave is doing his job, for which he already receives some sort of compensation—a wage or a place in the household. Nothing more is owed, nothing more required. This isn’t how employers treat employees in our culture, at least not if they value company or household morale, harmony, and productivity. But our culture isn’t very much like that of the ancient Middle East.
Jesus’ point follows: we are the Lord’s servants. If we keep his commandments, he owes us nothing. We’re “unprofitable,” in our New American Bible translation, or “useless” or “worthless” in some other translations, in that nothing further is due to us. We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do in virtue of our status as creatures or as disciples.
[To the youngsters: When you pass your tests in school—you do pass them, don’t you?—does your teacher tell you “thank you” for passing? No? Why not? Because it’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s your job! Does that make sense? And that’s sort of what Jesus is saying here about the master and the servant.]
That God owes us nothing jars us. Aren’t we supposed to be rewarded for obeying God’s law? Aren’t we supposed to hear something like, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy” (Matt 25:21)?
Well, no! Who of us would dare to say to God, “You owe me!” Perhaps if we did indeed carry out flawlessly every last one of the divine master’s expectations of us; if we weren’t sinners who repeatedly display our faithlessness—maybe then we’d be so bold.
But Luke has another parable that offers a very different take on this master-servant relationship, a parable that was part of our gospel on the 19th Sunday of the year (Aug. 11, for those of you keeping score at home). In that parable, Jesus says that the master who finds his servants watching vigilantly when he returns home “will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them” (12:37). The master becomes the servant or slave and waits upon his faithful servants who’ve just done their duty by staying alert to welcome him home.
|The Footwashing, from the Bible of Tbilisi|
Jesus is more than a story-teller in this regard. We all know/do you remember what he did at the Last Supper, taking on the slave’s role of washing the feet of the dinner guests (John 13:1-15)—to their great shock. (Peter wanted to refuse to let Jesus wash his feet because it was beneath his dignity.) And later in that same meal he raised their status from that of servants to friends (15:15), radically transforming the relationship between himself and all who follow him as his disciples.
The wedding banquet is an image used numerous times in the New Testament for eternal life, for the joy and security of heaven. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that image and foreshadow it. Indeed, we proclaim, “Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb,” paraphrasing the Book of Revelation, which reads “…to the wedding feast of the Lamb” (19:9).
And at this great feast, the Lamb, the master of the feast, will serve his good and faithful servants. This service, this reward, however, comes not as something we’ve earned—we are “unprofitable” or “useless “ servants. It comes as grace!
Our status as unworthy servants was the theme of the Collect today: God’s abundant kindness surpasses our merits (what do our sins merit?); hence we beg God, “Pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads”—to pardon all the sins that fill us with dread and foreboding when we think about God’s justice.
The only claim we can make before God is, “Have mercy on me, for I am a sinner”—a confession that figures in another parable that Luke recounts, which we’ll hear in 3 weeks (18:13). That confession stakes no claim to a reward, obviously, but asks for that grace which only the master can give—the master who is abundantly kind and merciful, who calls us into a personal relationship of friendship with himself.