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Friday, October 4, 2013

No more than our duty (C27O)


When you have done all you have been commanded, say,
'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'
There you have it. In a gospel chock full of uncompromising, disturbing, world-reversing statements and indictments of church life, it's one of the most chilling of all. Right up there, for me, with "Don't the pagans do as much?"

There is a theory in biblical interpretation when evaluating the historicity of a story or saying in the gospels that is sometimes referred to as the criterion of embarrassment. What this theory suggests is that the more likely it is that the event reported in scripture would have reflected better on Jesus or the community if it were left out, the more likely it is that it actually happened. The baptism of Jesus by John, for instance, falls into this category, and the slowness of the twelve to understand the messianic mission, especially in Mark. I believe that these sayings, the ones quoted above, fall into that category too, though I don't say that because I've checked with the Jesus Seminar. It's just that they are so difficult to hear, they ring so true to my experience of life with other believers in community, that they must have come from the mouth of Jesus himself. Jesus knew peoples' hearts, and it seems hearts don't change that much in a couple of millennia.

Sunday's gospel starts with Jesus' remarkable statement about faith, which is probably the core of what the liturgy of the word is "about" today. 
"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."
The first reading and psalm, and happily the letter to Timothy in the second reading, all orbit around an axis of persevering faith. Habakkuk tells the people that no matter the violence and darkness around, wait for the fulfillment of God's promise, because it will come. Psalm 95 recalls the impossibly thirsty trek of Exodus, again urging the singer to look to today's manifestation of divine presence, and expect deliverance without falling into the trap of grumbling and despair. St. Paul exhorts his young protégé to courageous faith, to claim the gift that is his by the laying on of hands.

When we begin to feel a sense of entitlement, like the rich man, for instance, in last Sunday's gospel, faith becomes irrelevant. Certainty, whether it arises from religious affiliation, wealth or health or good fortune, is the opposite of faith. Certainty begins to fashion a claim on God's goodness, "I have a lot, so God must love me." Or, "I am baptized person, so God must love me." Well, yes. God's love isn't the issue. But the manifestation of God's love isn't the accrual of strength, happiness, or money. It is the impetus toward becoming like God, that is, giving away the self for the safety of others. It is becoming creation and salvation for the other, not for the self. The rich man of last week's gospel can't even see the need of the poor man right at his gate. His entitlement renders him blind. He is not "blessed" in any permanent way. Even in death the rich man continues to ignore Lazarus by speaking to Abraham, telling Abraham to "send Lazarus" to his father's house. His sense of entitlement follows him into the grave.

Maybe that's what Jesus is getting at in the parable about the master and the servants. Do we make God into a servant whose job it is to wait on us, making life for us easier because we think we have God figured out? I absolutely count on God's love and forgiveness, but my faith in them has to take the form of service of other people, and the gospel is a gentle warning to me. when I've done everything that I've been commanded to do by the gospel, loved my enemies, forgiven a kajillion (77) times, sold all that I have and followed Jesus, I've done no more than my duty. 

Entitlement seems to be an act of the mind, drawing from the benevolence of current circumstance the conclusion that one is blessed by God. This inevitably distances me from those whose circumstances are dire, because the tempting conclusion is that they are not blessed and loved by God. Real faith, the lief in "belief", is love, is agape. It is action, a way of living, participation in God's being by doing, saving, creating, empowering, uniting, freeing. 

It is that kind of love that separates real faith from its counterfeits, especially entitlement. And I think it could help keep us from getting too full of ourselves and our parishes and programs. The criterion for judgment is fairly simple: are we doing what we do for ourselves, or for the weak and unprotected? If it's for us, "don't the pagans do as much?" And we have that mulberry tree, and Mark's mountain, by which to measure our real faith. If that damn tree or mountain is still in our way, we are probably praying to the wrong god.