Unprofitable servants profiting
by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." The Lord replied, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
"Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here immediately and take your place at table'? Would he rather not say to him, 'Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished'? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'"
What to do when Bible passages seem to contradict one another? Critics of Christianity might just shrug and conclude that all of Scripture is just a jumble of contradictions anyway. Believers, of course, should not trivialize the difficulty of squaring one text with another. But neither should we think that they cannot be explained. In fact, reflecting and meditating on such seeming contradictions often bears great spiritual fruit.
Take for example two different parables. In that of the unprofitable servants (Lk 17:7-10), the master welcomes his servant not by saying, “Come here immediately and take your place at table” but rather, “Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished.” Now this seems to run afoul of another parable — also about faithful servants — in which the master will in fact “gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them” (Lk 12:37).
So, which one is it? Will the servants do the serving or be served? Do these parables contradict each other? Or is there another way of looking at them? Indeed, if we trust in the divine Author’s integrity, then we will see that these passages do not contradict but complement each another.
First, the parable of the unprofitable servants teaches our basic status before the Lord. We are ever dependent on Him. We must therefore be, as He commands, poor in spirit: that is, acknowledge that we have nothing of our own to contribute. No amount of service or fidelity empowers us to make a claim on Him for anything. If we are faithful, it is only what we are supposed to do — and we can only do it because of His grace. So He reasonably commands us to say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do” (Lk 17:10).
The severity of these words shocks us into remembering what we so often forget: He is God; we are not. He owes us nothing; we owe Him everything. It is strong medicine against our entitlement mentality. We tend to reverse the order and think that we have put God in our debt. We then resent Him when life does not go as we think it should. The parable and its conclusion jerk us back to the right path of spiritual poverty.
Now if the lesson of the unprofitable servants emphasizes our poverty before God, then the parable of the vigilant stewards highlights God’s generosity towards us. He pledges to reward His faithful by girding Himself as a servant and treating them as special guests. We have a right to nothing from Him — and yet He promises everything.
More to the point, His liberality depends on our poverty. It ceases to be generosity once we have a right to it. And the more we realize that we are paupers, the greater His generosity appears. Only when we first understand our nothingness can we then appreciate His liberality. Only when we understand our sinfulness can we understand His mercy.
So these two parables support one another in revealing our poverty and God’s generosity. Without a strong sense of our nothingness, we run headlong into presumption and entitlement — that most obnoxious of vices characteristic of the Pharisees. At the same time, without a trust in God’s mercy, we fall into despair — that most debilitating spiritual malady. A strong sense of both helps us appreciate the greatness of our faith: that to us who have no claim on Him, God has indebted Himself.
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