“When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;we have done what we were obliged to do'” (Lk 17:10).
This closing line from our Gospel reading today can be a hard verse to digest at first glance, especially with our track record of slavery in the U.S. We need to remember and recognize that this was a teaching that Jesus shared in a different time period, in a different culture, and in a place far removed from any clear modern context. The master/slave relationship is also a theme that Luke returns to often.
Another important point to touch upon when reading the Gospels is that when Jesus made the statement that, “we are unprofitable servants; we have done what we are obliged to do”, we are not to read this verse in isolation from the full context of Scripture. Jesus himself modeled service at the last supper when he washed his disciples’ feet (cf. Jn 13:1-17). This was the lowest of menial tasks. St Paul wrote to the Galatians informing them that in the Body of Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male nor female (cf. Galatians 3:28). The ultimate point is that God is God and we are not and we all have a part to play in participating in promoting the kingdom of God by following his lead.
As a disciple of Jesus, we are not to seek adulation and glory. We are to serve God and one another without hesitation. We are not to ask in the words of James and John, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (Mk 10:37). We serve God because he is the director and we are the directed. He is the master and we are the servant. In aligning ourselves in this way, we also experience the intrinsic joy of following his will.
When I oversee students in our cafeteria during retreats and other opportunities, as they finish eating, instead of telling them to pick up after themselves, I begin to pick up some of their plates and trash. I serve them. Some are quite happy to receive the service, some will say thank you, while others will join in to assist. It is my hope to model for them acts of service that they may respond in kind as well and experience the joy of serving themselves.
May we be open to serve God and one another today. No task is too menial or beneath us, nor do we need to be concerned about doing big and grandiose things. We just need to be obedient and act as God leads us. Each chance we have, to smile, to hold a door, to acknowledge a prejudice and be willing to interact with someone who we have considered as “other”, to be patient and present instead of losing our temper, and/or to listen with understanding, are all opportunities to say to someone that they have dignity and worth and that they matter.
Pope Francis said in a homily on June 11, that we are to: “Serve and give freely that which you have received freely. May our life of holiness be permeated by this openness of heart, so that the gratuitousness of God – the graces that He wishes to give us without cost – may enter our hearts.” As our hearts expand through small acts of kindness we are moved to serve and to love even more. As St Mother Teresa said, we are to be a pencil in God’s hand. In our willingness to be moved by God to serve, we and those in our realm of influence will be better for the effort. Our country and our world are in desperate need of some unconditional acts of kindness and service.