“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”- Luke 17:7-10
These are tough words for a modern world.
Just listening to the words, “unworthy servant” and “duty” sounds oppressive and manipulative. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. It is enough to send anyone running away from Jesus and Christianity. Once again, the gospel proves itself that it is serious about the Truth. If it wasn’t, these verses wouldn’t be it. There is nothing apparently positive and joyous to say about these verses. However, it is still the gospel. The good news still embedded in these tough words. We cannot just ignore and discard them. They have something powerful to say to us. Perhaps even more so in this modern culture in which we find ourselves.
We live in a world that is starving for compliments. They represent recognition and honor to us. However, we don’t like it when others receive them instead of us. It seems to provoke feelings of jealousy in most of us. I remember song in the eighties by a British musician, Morrissey, called, “We hate it when our friends become successful.” It might as well be the secret anthem of many people like myself in our private thoughts. I am not sure if compliments and recognition create unity but I am sure that they generate a spirit of competition within us. Maybe this is their purpose in this world. They exploit the weaknesses of people and make them work harder against each other.
The words of Jesus are meant to liberate us from the world of competitiveness where we must try to prove ourselves better than others. They help us to see the Truth about ourselves. We are “unworthy servants”. It sounds harsh but the Truth is grounded in Love and meant to liberate us from lies. It is a lie that we can prove our worth because we are unworthy. However, this doesn’t hinder God from choosing us to be His servants.
Every Thursday, there is a kind and devout man who goes to the cathedral for the afternoon mass. He comes up to us without fail and shakes our hands and tells us what a wonderful work we are doing in the streets. Most of the time, he does this in the presence of our children. We usually feel a little awkward and embarrassed mainly because we know in our hearts that we don’t deserve his compliments. There is something wonderful happening in our midst. However, there is nothing that we can honestly take credit for. It was God who made this into a reality for us. This is God’s project that He has allowed us to participate in. We could not have even said, “Yes” to God if it wasn’t for His grace. We are here because of His grace. The so-called success of our time in the street does not depend on us alone. It also depends on the children and teens. They make the choice to spend time with us. We cannot be there doing anything worthwhile if there is no one to participate in our activities. The children and teens are just as gracious and generous with their time as we are. One can argue that we chose to be there instead of being elsewhere. The children chose to be there with us too. They could be doing other things with other people. Instead they chose to be with us. Behind all our choices is our Heavenly Father who bestows upon us all good things. Therefore, none of us deserve any compliment for doing something that is beyond our control.
At this point, I would like to do something that I don’t usually do. I am going to tell how not to read this post. Please don’t confuse it as a thinly disguised testament of humility. It is anything but this. It is a reflection on the text above. I found much joy and peace in knowing that we are just unworthy servants doing something which is beyond our capacity and yet, we are given the privilege to be part of this. It is this joy that I would like to share. Actually, it is not just for us but everyone who wants to live their lives as a testimony to the gospel. It is a joy to know that we are all unworthy of serving God and yet God still include us in His ultimate project in this world.
One of the joyous things of knowing that we are unworthy servants is that the burden of success or failure is not dependent on us. First of all, there is nothing to gauge success in this world. Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world. Therefore, there is nothing in this world that can be remotely compared to His standards. Our present ideas of success are based on principles of the reality. There are no possible graphs and charts that we can conjure up to determine what the Holy Spirit considers as success. The change and modification in our personal attitudes towards our neighbors is the essence of the fruits of the Spirit. Those who try measure the performance of their ministry through the means of this world have failed in the Kingdom of God. Even though they might prove themselves to be successful in the world, they have allowed worldly standards to contaminate their calling. All because they think in their hearts that it is necessary to show that they are worthy servants of God. In reality, no one is worthy and this is why we are in constant need of His grace. There is freedom that comes with this awareness. We are liberated to serve willingly and joyfully even when nothing apparently happens because our self-worth is not based on results. It is based on the privilege of being part of God’s actions in this world.
In this world, everything is geared towards reward. According to Jesus, there is no reward for the unworthy servant. The servant shouldn’t expect one. No rewards means no competitive spirit. This does not mean that there is not a goal. To the contrary, the goal is quite perfectly clear; it is to be a faithful servant. When we do this, we will discover that no reward is necessary. Service in itself is sufficient. I know a friend who has been a priest for many years. He never considered himself a charismatic leader or successful pastor of a large congregation. He was faithful in visiting the sick and widows. He was always available when someone needed spiritual guidance. He did exactly what a priest is supposed to do. Whenever he left a congregation to serve another, he always left people in tears. They did not want to lose the pastor that helped them see Christ clearly in their lives. This very pastor once told me that doing the right thing is reward in itself. I will never forget these words because they are God’s words to me. I have found them to be a living reality as we participate in God’s project here. For Mary and I, the reward is being on the steps of the cathedral and waiting for the children and teens. Knowing these children and learning to discern God’s presence in their lives makes life splendid and beautiful for us. We believe that this awareness is mutual. The children seem to enjoy being with us too. This is because we are all where God wants us to be. This is the reward. Being exactly in the place where God wants us to be. Willing to be God’s unworthy servants is enough. God will make the rest happen. I believe that there are countless number of people that will testify to this Truth.
This seemingly heartless and tough saying of Jesus is actually a most powerful and liberating Truth for us today. The desire for recognition and honor has left many tired and depressed in this world. People are forced to prove their self-worth and end up losing their dignity in the process. Knowing that we are unworthy servants of God has the opposite effect because our unworthiness doesn’t stop God from including us in His service. The only possible reason for this is Love. It gives God great pleasure to include His children in the things that He is doing. We don’t deserve this and there is nothing we can do that would prove our worth for the task. God just wants to give us the privilege to be part of the things He is doing. He wants us to share in the good things He is doing in this world like a father who wants to share special moments with his children. He will give us the grace and strength for us to fulfill our duty. However, we should never confuse His grace with our own personal merit. There is no room for meritocracy in the Kingdom of God. There are just room for unworthy but faithful servants.