October 6, 2019 at Saint Peter and Saint William Parishes in Naples, FL
Habakkuk 1, 2-3 & 2,2-4 + Psalm 95 + 2 Timothy 1, 6-8 & 13-14
Luke 17, 5-10
This gospel parable is very important to me personally, and it has helped me greatly in the past few years as I moved into “retirement.” When I was stepping out of parish administration, which is really what I retired from and left behind on purpose, people would wish me well and often say, “Father, enjoy yourself now. You deserve it.” I was always very uncomfortable with those words even though they were meant kindly, because I never felt as if retirement for a priest was a reward. It simply meant I had out-lived my usefulness or my patience. So, there is a word in this parable that jumps out at me, and I think it should for all of us. That word is: Duty. It isn’t a word people use much these days, and it isn’t even an idea some like to consider. This parable will not allow that.
As the word and the idea has slipped away, it has been replaced by ideas of merit and entitlement, and this does not harmonize with the Gospel and the faith in which we live our relationship with God. This parable of a man who worked all day in the field and then, when the master comes home continues to work into the night for the master’s dinner doesn’t feel right in the days of merit. He doesn’t get to eat and rest until the master is comfortable. Never once does this master pat him on the back and say “Good Job” or “Thank you”; and why should he? In the days of duty that’s just what you did. There was nothing extra ordinary about it. The days of duty and the days of merit are now in conflict, and Jesus has something to say about it.
There is a story told that might make this clear. It was late in the afternoon on a raw winter day in Dublin. Everybody was in a hurry to get home. Suddenly a cry arose: “There is a man in the river.” People rushed to the wall and looked down into the muddy, uninviting water. Sure enough, there was a man down there thrashing about in the dark water. His desperate cries for help could be heard above the noise of the traffic. Then, with a screech of brakes, a car swung out of traffic, and came to halt at the curb. A young man jumped out, took off his coat and shoes, climbed on the wall, and dived into the water. He grabbed the drowning man and hauled him to shore. A crowd gathered around the rescued man as they waited for an ambulance. A reporter came thinking there was good story here fishing for information, but the rescuer had vanished. Far from seeking praise or acknowledgement, he just left, and that is the kind of spirit we must bring to the service of God.
In the days of merit people sometimes think that God might “owe” them something revealing a sense of entitlement. After all, they think, I deserve a place in heaven because we have been faithful here on earth. Apart from being misguided, this introduces a mercenary attitude into what is supposed to be a love affair between God and us. At the time of Jesus, the Israelites were stuck in that thinking that God owed them because they kept the rules. The merit system was going strong, and Jesus came to reject that thinking and that behavior. It still needs to be rejected today in these days of entitlement and merit.
God does not owe us anything, and we cannot put God in the position where he is in debt to us. To put it more simply, God does not say, “Thank you.” We say that. We do great and even simple things faithfully because it is our duty. We do not do them out of hope for a reward. We do them out of love and commitment to God’s service. The most generous and heroic deeds are never done out of hope for recognition or reward. They are done out of pure love.