Thursday, February 02, 2006

Useless Servants

Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:7-10 used to bother me a bit, though it doesn’t anymore. It’s about a servant who, after coming in from his day’s work, cooked his master’s supper and waited on him until he was finished. Jesus said that after all that, the master didn’t even thank his servant, yet Jesus did not reproach the master for that. Here is his conclusion, for us: “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are useless [or unprofitable, or worthless] servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

My former reaction was: “Gee, they’re not exactly useless, after having worked all day and then cooked and served their master. And what’s so useless about doing one’s duty? Many people don’t even do that!” Well, that may be true as far as it goes, but it misses the point of the parable.

Our worth does not reside primarily in what we do, in our labors or accomplishments. The Pharisees did good things (and weren’t shy about letting others know!), yet they were rejected by God. They did formally keep the commandments, except perhaps the most important ones, the two Great Commandments. However, they were not only useless, but also corrupt and hypocritical. Let’s leave them aside for now, though, and see what might be closer to home.

Hopefully we are not as arrogant and as blatantly in contradiction to the Gospel as the Pharisees were. But what about those of us who are trying to do our duty, to do what has been commanded by God, and perhaps even do it well, yet still end up being useless servants? What are we doing wrong? Probably it is not a matter of performing commands but a matter of the heart. Are we bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit through our duty? Do we manifest love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc, in the work we do for the Lord? Or are we perhaps impatient, complaining, irritable, or simply angry that we have to serve at all? The same work gets done, but some of those who do it are useful and profitable in the Lord’s sight, and some are not.

Or perhaps we do our duty out of fear or anxiety. Do we do what is commanded merely because we fear the consequences of not doing it? Do we serve God only because we’re afraid of what will happen to us if we don’t? It’s not very pleasant to work with a sword over our heads. We may be getting things done, but we’re not really bearing fruit.

We are indeed servants, but the Lord has indicated that He would like us to be friends as well. We have tasks to accomplish, but it would go much better for us if we did so with love and with a cheerful acceptance of whatever is required to serve the Lord. If we view our service to the Lord as irksome drudgery, it profits us nothing. I think it was St John of the Cross who said that all of our efforts and ascetical acts and hardships are as nothing before the Lord; only love is what matters, and that’s all He takes into consideration. So that’s why the master didn’t thank his servant for working and serving. The servant did his duty, but in a loveless manner, perhaps “longing for the shade,” as Job said, not concerned with the joy of his master but only with getting the job done, getting the unpleasantness out of the way, and then having a little free time for himself.

So it is with us, says the Lord. If we’ve put in our time and punched the clock and said good riddance to our service, it doesn’t matter if we’ve done our duty—we are worthless servants or hirelings. But if we make an offering of our labors to the Lord, out of love and gratitude and a desire to please Him, our duty turns into profitable and useful work. Then He says: “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your Lord!” If we put ourselves at the service of his joy, we will share in it. If we do our duty half-heartedly, selfishly or without love, then we receive only the reproach of useless servants. It’s not an easy teaching, but life isn’t easy, either.

It’s up to us. Our duty has to be done, one way or another. We can be worthless servants, or we can serve with love and hear the Lord say: “I no longer call you a servant but a friend.”