Luke 17:5-10
Unprofitable Servants
by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino.
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.'"

In the works of J.R.R.Tolkien, author of "The Lord of the Rings," the separation between good and evil often occurs in the response of living beings to their status as created beings.  The good are those who accept joyfully the nature they received from their creator, working and sub-creating in harmony with things as they are.  Among these we might count the humble hobbit farmers, the elves who use the natural world creatively rather than dominating it, and the good wizard Gandalf, whose power enlivens hearts from within.

The wicked, in Tolkien's works, are those who refuse to accept their nature, seeking to create only that which is their own, entirely separate from their creator, their own achievements and legacies.  Among these we find not only characters such as Saruman and Sauron, but the greatest of Tolkien's villains, the demonic spirit Morgoth, who began as a mighty help of the creator, but who in pride sought to add something entirely of his own to the work of creation.  In doing so, he brought about not beauty but discord, not so much cooperating in creation as mocking it and disfiguring it.

For Tolkien, humble participation in the life of the world, according to one's own given nature, yields beauty, creativity and joy, while the prideful desire to contribute beyond one's nature and accomplish for oneself leaves only violence, decay and ugliness.

It is in this spirit that we might understand the Lord's words this weekend: "When you have done all you have been commanded, say,  'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'"  Upon a first reading, these words might seem like a rebuke, as though the Lord wants us to know our place, to know that he has no real need of our help, though he will demand it anyway.  Certainly, we may admit that Christ is checking our pride here, reminding us that as creatures, there is nothing we can do to profit the almighty God who is already the source and destination of every good thing.  No matter what we do, we cannot add to his eternal happiness.  Yet, it would be a mistake to stop here, bow our heads quietly and put our "unprofitable" noses to the grindstone in resignation.

In actual fact, to be a humble creature in relation to a perfect and almighty creator is an invitation to joy.  While it is true, we can give God no profit by our service, labor is not only for the sake of profit.  Labor is also for the sake of love. Just as the works of the good in Tolkien's books that most move the hearts of the characters to courage and joy do not so much add to the natural world as they cooperate with it, so also, our labors here in this life acquire their value from the very fact of our cooperation with God rather than from our accomplishments.  God does not command us to love him and one another for some bare practical end, as though by creating enough charitable or educational institutions, for example, we might accomplish ourselves what God himself did not, or could not.  Rather, he commands us to join him in his act of loving, because cooperation in the good is what friends do.  In this case, if we leave concrete results, it comes from the fruitfulness of love rather than from the determination of practicality.

Yes, we are unprofitable servants, and even if we were to live perfectly, we would only have accomplished what was commanded.  Yet, in fulfilling those commands unprofitably, we remain together with the one who created us, and find a much more beautiful thing than any accomplishment, result or legacy: eternal love.