When (Worth)Less is More
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Luke 17.5-10
The passage above was the assigned gospel text for today, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. It's a little odd, isn't it? You'd think that Jesus might say to a slave who had just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, "Come, sit, take your place at the table and let me serve you!" But instead he tells the "slave" to prepare supper and put on an apron and serve him, and then "the master" forgoes any notion of thanks for what the slave has done and then Jesus suggests that the apostles think of themselves like this: as worthless slaves who have only done what they ought to have done. Nice. Thanks, Jesus.
Three words from the lips of the Apostles in first verse of the passage (Increase our faith!) make a bit more sense if you read the preceding verses in Luke's gospel where Jesus is asking his followers to forgive those who sin against them, over and over, as long as the perpetrators of that sin, every time they sin, say: "I repent." That's like asking someone to forgive an alcoholic every time they get sober and promise to quit. Not an easy task and one that would lead all of us to say, "Jesus, increase our faith!"
But alas... In the Core Curriculum, an Adult Formation series that my colleague Deborah and I have been working on for a few years, there's a segment where we discuss Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle. In the assent of faith and discipleship in Christ, as Teresa describes it, there's a moment when after the early stages of clearing out the initial clutter that keeps us from considering God and actually moving toward being more faithful, a danger lurks. The danger is that of becoming self-righteous when we ought not.
The analogy in the Core Curriculum that we use is this: Setting aside the issue of "being polite" and saying "thank you" (I think here of Abraham Heschel writing "even divinity does not connote decency"), are we surprised when the car mechanic can actually fix our car? Are we thrilled when the CPA we have hired actually completes our taxes on time? Are we thrilled when Christians actually behave like they ought? Are we there yet?
I don't know how inspiring it is to strive to be a "worthless slave" but if we take Jesus' words as gospel then striving to be something more than we already are is good news. Striving to be more than we are is good news because you and I can be more than we are and as the old words in the beloved Rite I liturgy of the church would have us confess, "Most merciful God... we have sinned against thee... in what we have done and in what we have left undone."
When we have done all that we have been called to do, or when all that we have to do is done and not undone, we will have only just begun.
In the meantime, Lord, increase our faith.