The Unprofitable Servants

The 16th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 17;5-10

People today are constantly searching for the truth, about Life, Death, about relationships with neighbours as well as the truth about God, Jesus and the Spirit, and how to make sense of it all. Well-meaning Christians often urge the reading of the Bible to help. Yes, the Bible does have a lot to say about loving our neighbours; but not the details for implementing this. When it tells us to “feed the hungry” it doesn’t give us cookery, or dietary lessons, or by giving a starving man a good square meal, we will probably kill him! Not what God wants us to do to him!

Icon Museum Recklinghausen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

St. Luke, “the gentle gentile” in the preface to the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel of his Gospel, says that he specifically wants to enlarge, and explain what Matthew and Mark had already recorded about the work and teaching of Jesus Christ, “That you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” [Acts 1;4] Our reflection continues taking us through the subject of Christian discipleship with its many nuances for implementation.

Many people think St Luke’s Gospel, written later than Mark and Mathew, is the ‘easiest to understand’. He wrote it in Greek as a Gentile, for a largely Gentile readership, whilst he was travelling in Asia Minor as St Paul’s companion. He was a poet (and perhaps an artist), and we owe to him such gems as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and Parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. But Luke also has passages still not easy to understand. One of these occurs in our Gospel reflection “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty”. [Luke 17;10].

The great problem Luke and Paul had, was to deal with the issues raised by Judaism and the strictures of Hebrew Law. Jesus was most insistent that so far from contradicting the law, his mission was not to destroy the Jewish Monotheistic beliefs but to fulfill them which implies that there may well be “more to come” to complete their “full-fill-ment”. But the problem with the Mosaic Law, was that it had become the centre of faith, an End-in-Itself, not just the Means-to-the-End. This gave rise to many problems, especially between Christian Jews and Gentiles, especially for St Paul in his missionary work. For many Jewish converts, the Faith was the Law and anything that suggested otherwise was simply unthinkable.

This is the context in which the first disciples having heard many parables and stern teachings which make them feel unworthy, ask the Master to help them increase their faith. “Lord, “Increase our faith”. Faith he says begins like a mustard seed in a very small way but given the right support will grow into a large tree with a secure root. The faith that Jesus teaches by his words and deeds, is based not on rules but attitudes which go further. Disciples are to think of themselves as servants of God who owe Him everything as a servant depends upon his master.

Both Jews and Gentiles thought that keeping the laws were very important, as indeed they are. But ‘doing Good Works’ isn’t at all the same thing as ‘having faith in God’ upon whom they depend completely for forgiveness and ultimate Salvation. Thus Jesus adds that having done everything the laws require, his disciples will humbly recognize that they are never worthy of the mercy they receive, so there is more to come, “when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

This is yet another of those ‘Hard Paradoxes’ (which Jesus used so often in His teaching on earth). It is so much at variance with the Gentle-Jesus-Meek-and-Mild, which some still think of, but what a difficult conclusion for the modern mind with little interest in humility while believing more in entitlements and human rights to which the World of today has become addicted.

Fr. Francis Gardom

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