This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 17:5–10:
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 not rather 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 an odd way, this passage reminds me of a very funny and sharp subplot in a well-known film, Office Space. Joanna, the waitress at Chotchkie’s, has to wear a minimum of 15 pieces of “flair,” which she does but does no more. Her boss Stan tries numerous times to passive-aggressively push her to wear more, until finally she rebels and walks off the job in memorable fashion. The film highlights a real tendency in companies to set minimum performance standards that they don’t really like, making the whole exercise a bit hypocritical. “If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flare like your pretty boy over there,” Joanna erupts, “why don’t you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?”
Think of today’s Gospel as the flip side of this scenario, but where the stakes are much higher … and the standards clearer. The Office Space exchange is a humorous understatement of our relationship with the Lord, and our own inclination towards legalism rather than caritas love and real commitment. Perhaps we can even call this Disciple Space, with a twist.
The apostles express their desire to come closer to the Lord in faith, which produces what must have sounded like a rather shocking retort. The mustard seed is very small, hardly worth noticing, and Jesus tells them their faith doesn’t even add up to that much despite their sacrifice and dedication thus far in Jesus’ mission. If they had that much faith, He explains, they could do the impossible.
Why? The parable that Jesus tells should sound familiar. A servant is commanded to produce food, and does. He does exactly what he is told to do and no more. There is no cause for gratitude, and more importantly, no reason for the servant to hope for any expression of gratitude. The servant has not committed himself any further than doing what he was told to do, and thus has added nothing of importance to his role. That is what is meant by “unprofitable,” in this sense; there is no added value to the servant’s efforts. Almost anyone else could have done what he did.
Put this in the context of the Israelites and God’s plan of salvation. At that time, the Pharisees and temple power structure put great emphasis on the legalistic interpretation of Scripture. Merely following the law was good enough, even if it was only an outward sign of obedience that didn’t touch anyone’s hearts. Most followed the Mosaic law as an end to itself, not as a way to increase their devotion. Their obedience was mechanical, a way to stay out of trouble, rather than a path to greater service and devotion to the Lord.
This was a lesson that the Judeans in particular should have learned before. Our first reading comes from Habakkuk, a prophet to the southern kingdom as the third wave of the Babylonian exile began. Jerusalem, the city of the temple, was falling to a foreign power despite the presence of the Lord. The Judeans had arrogantly believed that the Lord would not allow this as long as they kept up the sacrifices, no matter how else they had behaved; in effect, they turned the temple itself into an idol. Rather than rely on the Lord and repenting of their ways, the Judeans repeatedly repudiate the prophets and try to rely on outside alliances with Egypt, leading to the eventual destruction of the southern kingdom and the first temple.
All is not lost, however, as the Lord tells Habakkuk. After lamenting on the violence and destruction in the third and final wave of Babylonian attacks that will lead to the fall of Jerusalem, Habakkuk wonders why the Lord allows this. In answer, He tells Habakkuk to record all of this, because “the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” The Judeans have to learn that rote obedience is not enough — they must give their hearts to the Lord and learn to have faith in Him, and Him alone.
And so it is all too often with us to this day. We become the “unprofitable servant,” following the laws of the Lord with our mind and will, but not with our heart. We hedge our bets; we want to have faith in the Lord, but we have a reserve that we keep for ourselves. Sometimes that comes through in an attachment to sin, and sometimes in a grudging and sullen obedience that all but negates the reason for service in the first place — to join in the joy of the Lord.
If we really had faith, the bare minimum would be unknown to us. That mustard seed would flourish, as Jesus teaches in another parable earlier in Luke (Chapter 13, and also in Matthew 13 and Mark 4), into a tree rather than an herb, one which gives a home to “the birds of the sky.” To put it in Office Space terms, we wouldn’t need to be reminded to wear “flair,” because we would finally recognize that we aren’t serving an arbitrary and flawed human being only interested in our transactional value, as Stan is. We serve God the Father, who loves us and wants us to grow in faith so that we may fully join in His love and joy. With that true realization, we would quit treating Him as a transactional figure to whom we owe only so much and no more.
Paul writes to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” We have the power to fully embrace faith if we so choose, and therefore become not servants but children of God.” Abandoning that reserve and putting our trust in Christ is how we put aside that spirit of cowardice, and how we plant the mustard seed and watch it flourish.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.