Today's gospel lesson reads with difficulty. Jesus does not come across as the kind and gentle savior we have come to expect.
Some of this is because Jesus is not the soft and gentle savior we have domesticated through years of watered down theology, the primary focus of which is making people feel good about themselves.
Some of this is because we are two thousands years divorced from the context in which Jesus made his remarks and our own country's history of slavery further colors our understanding of what slavery is. In Jesus day, however, slaves were not individuals abducted from their country, transported across countries and oceans in the most horrific and unsanitary conditions imaginable, to be auctioned off and ultimately "owned" by wealthy, white, land owners in need of cheap, plentiful, and initially disposable labor.
As it regards first century Judaism, slaves were individuals who had voluntarily entered into a mutually beneficial relationship with their employer. This was a legally binding contract in which the slave offered to perform services for the employer who in turn would offer shelter, care, and protection to the employee and after the set term of employment ceased -- a total of seven years, the slave would generally become a member of the employer's household and be treated with the same regard as other family members. This kind of relationship was often the springboard for upward mobility within this cultural context.
The slave, however, had specific obligations during the time of service, however. They were to perform their labor as specified in the terms of their contract. Entering a contractually binding agreement and upholding your end of the contract does not entitle you to special treatment.
This is what is at the crux of Jesus's question, "Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?" The answer is, "Of course not! They have done their job. Period. End of story."
Faith, genuine faith, even faith as small as a grain of mustard, is a contract into which we voluntarily enter. We choose to believe in God and God becomes our master. This faith makes us slaves to God, and we are expected to be obedient as our faith is a choice to serve to God.
We are called by God who offers to become our employer, caring for our needs and treating us a member of God's own household, and in return, should we choose faithfully to accept God as our master, we serve. This call to serve God is a holy calling. We are called according to God's purpose and God's grace. We are not called because of our goodness or righteousness or suitability. We are called for one reason and one reason only: it pleases God to do so.
This is good news! For it pleases God to call us and to partner with us simply because God loves us. God does not love us because we have demonstrated that we are in some fashion good enough to have earned God's love.
God calls us because God loves us. We cannot earn God's love or merit by being obedient. Neither does God's love for us lessen should we be disobedient. When we respond in faith to God's call in our lives then, we choose to be obedient to God, not to earn favor with God, but rather because that is what we are commanded to do when we enter in such a relationship.
Sincere faith is a relationship with God, who graciously gifts us with a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. This means we can do all things God calls us to do without fear of failure, without concern for the outcome, with worry about the end result. So long as we are faithful to God's call, we can stand confident that God's purposes will ultimately prevail, whether we see it in our lifetime or not.
Faith, itself, is an inheritance we pass on. We see that in our epistle -- Timothy received his faith via his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. The same is true of us. Even today faith passes through us to those whom we entrust to God whether we ever see the fruit of our labors or not.
God is faithful and we can have full confidence that what we entrust to God will be guarded until the final days.
Even in Jeremiah's day, almost 600 years before Jesus, we see the prophet's trust in God's faithfulness. Jeremiah mourned greatly for Israel, for God's people. Seeing their faithlessness, Jeremiah prayed for them and strongly warned them that they would reap the fruit of their faithless labors.
God, however, is bigger than our mistakes or failures or disobedience. God's steadfast love never fails; God's mercies never come to an end. God, who is faithful, showers us each morning with new mercies and enduring love.
The love and faithfulness of God is most clearly demonstrated in our salvation.
Salvation comes through a God who loves us no matter what; salvation that is life and immortality.
Our choice to be obedient to God may never win us accolades or reward in this life. In many ways, it may invite the scorn of others.
We can hold to a promise, however, that at the end of our days, having fulfilled our duties as slaves of Christ, that we will be welcomed into God's household as a member of Christ's family. Our reward comes at the end of days in the resurrection and in eternal life.
A clear example of this can be found in Saint Francis of Assisi who, in the influence he had on others, continues to live on even today. Francis, who endeavored to respond obediently to the call of God in his life, following the example set forth by Christ.
We, too, will live on in the influence we have in the lives of others. Let us seek to be obedient to the call of God in our lives, let us seek to follow the example set forth by Christ, let us seek to influence others in love.
Though not written by Saint Francis, the Prayer of Saint Francis sums up this idea beautifully:
- Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
- Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
- Where there is injury, pardon;
- Where there is error, the truth;
- Where there is doubt, the faith;
- Where there is despair, hope;
- Where there is darkness, light;
- And where there is sadness, joy.
- O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
- To be consoled, as to console;
- To be understood, as to understand;
- To be loved as to love.
- For it is in giving that we receive;
- It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
- And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.