Doing our duty
(Readings: Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-19)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel reading this Sunday the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. In response Jesus tells his followers that one of the first things they have to is to understand properly the nature of their relationship with God, which is in many ways like the relationship between a master and his servant.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Mass...
One of the attitudes held by the Pharisees that Jesus denounced in very forthright terms was their tendency to see themselves as pure and upright - their self-righteousness, in other words. The Pharisees weren't spiritually lazy men: quite the opposite. They were very rigorous and disciplined in their keeping of the Law and we know from the gospels that they prayed and fasted often and performed all sorts of generous and charitable actions.
Jesus' criticism wasn't only that they did this sort of thing to attract attention and admiration. What he also reacted against was the fact that it was seemed to be an important part of their self-image that they were morally superior people - that, in their own eyes, they were emphatically not sinners "like other men" when they placed themselves before God.
Perhaps the modern equivalent would be people who give up some free time to work with underprivileged people or make big donations to charity, not so much to alleviate suffering but to confirm their sense of themselves as generous and morally upright.
Jesus' revulsion from that kind of attitude lies behind the sharp and, in some ways, off-putting remarks which he makes to his disciples in the gospel today.
The image he uses to describe our relationship with God is the relationship between a master and his servant: an unequal relationship; a relationship between superior and inferior, where the inferior party is performing necessary duties, not conferring favours, and where the superior party therefore isn't obliged to register any gratitude. The whole image turns on the ridiculousness of the idea that the master should show gratitude towards the servant simply for doing the work he's supposed to do.
As an image of our relationship with God I think this is supposed to convey a few things.
One is that of course our relationship with God is an unequal one - not in terms of power or social standing but in terms of holiness and love. God is all-holy. His nature is perfect love and truth and justice, with no trace of self-seeking.
Our nature is very far from that, and very far below that. So when we say that we come before God as sinners, and that a bit of humility on our part is in order, we're simply describing the inescapable reality of our relationship with God. It was a reality that the Pharisees believed didn't apply to them, and it was their failure to see their need to acknowledge their sinfulness, just like everyone else, and their need to show some humility before God, that earned them so much harsh criticism from Jesus.
Jesus' second point I think is a point about spiritual maturity: maturity in our dedication to God and in our living out the commands of the gospel. If we take the great saints of the Christian tradition as the best examples of dedication to God and living the commands of the gospel, I don't think we would find a single man or women who would disagree with the image that Jesus uses here.
It might be very gratifying to receive praise or thanks or honour for doing the right thing, in any area of moral life. In fact while we're growing up, it's very necessary, to help reinforce the right values and discourage the wrong ones. But of course part of an adult outlook, morally and spiritually, is that we do the right thing because it's right, because it's "no more than our duty" in Jesus' words - not because there's some kind of reward or recognition attached.
And then there's another factor. The stronger our allegiance is to God, in our mind and conscience and will, the more we come to see our faith as a gift from God, not as some great achievement we're offering to him. It's when we're relatively underdeveloped in our faith that we take a peevish and self-regarding attitude, acting as if God should be grateful towards us for every prayer we utter or every good action that we carry out.
The real sign of progress - and this is where the great saints of the Christian tradition are relevant - is when we start to see ourselves exactly as Jesus describes: as God's servants, doing our duty out of dedication to him and because we come to realise that it's for our benefit, it brings our spiritual life to perfection, and not because it earns us praise or thanks or honour.
Those are the lessons Jesus wanted to get across to his disciples, and those are the lessons Saint Luke faithfully passed on to the members of his community and to us.