The 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Habakkuk 1:2-3;2:2-4 + 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14 + Luke 17:5-10
Catechism Link: CCC 144
October 2, 2022
“… bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
Today’s Gospel reading consists of two connected passages. The first, briefer passage is Jesus’ response to a petition from His apostles: “Increase our faith.” To the apostles’ asking for faith, Jesus answers by discussing works.
In this first passage Jesus shows how the works of an authentic Christian are rooted in the divine virtue of faith. The passage also reveals the power of faith: this power is shown by the disproportion between “faith the size of a mustard seed” and the great work of a mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea.
Often Catholics can find themselves in debates with separated Christian brethren over the relationship between faith and good works. Perhaps one problem in understanding the connection between these two is that our faith is so meager that we’re content to carry out merely “good works”.
In fact, Christ calls His disciples not only to carry out good works that can be accomplished by natural human abilities alone, such as the corporal works of mercy, which in fact can be carried out by persons who do not believe in God. In addition to good works, Christ calls His disciples to strive to carry out great works. If we Christians carried out great works, we’d have less reason to ascribe such works solely to our own human efforts, since we’d be forced by common sense to realize that such great works are only possible by means of a power greater than ourselves.
However, the Gospel Reading’s second passage offers another way to reflect upon the connection between faith and works. It’s not quite a parable. We might instead call it a guided reflection. Through it, Jesus illustrates one of the necessary motives of those whose works are animated by faith. This motive is certainly not the only one that a Christian needs in order to produce authentic works. But its absence in a Christian’s soul inevitably leads to the chief vice of the Christian spiritual life.
Servanthood is the focus of Jesus’ guided reflection. Servanthood, or servantship, is similar to stewardship. Servanthood and stewardship are both demanded by those who follow Jesus. They have much in common, but each has its own unique characteristics.
The image of servanthood sharply focuses our attention upon the relationship between the master and the servant. It focuses upon the radical dependence of the servant upon the master, and in particular, upon the master’s will.
By contrast, the concept of stewardship implies a distance between the steward and his lord. The steward is independent, at least for whatever period of time the lord chooses to be away. The steward acts in the name of the lord during his absence, whether that lasts for days or years. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, the stewards of Gondor reigned for centuries while the heirs to the king’s throne lived in exile. In the case of the steward Denethor, such lengthy independence resulted in consuming, self-destructive pride.
Pride is the target of Jesus’ preaching in today’s Gospel Reading. The humility that Jesus calls for is reflected in His final words: “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.’” Of course, humility is a virtue that both stewards and servants are called to exhibit. What particular quality, then, does Jesus’ image of a servant demand, and how does that quality work against pride?
Given that servanthood focuses on the radical dependence of the servant upon the master’s will, servanthood demands the virtue of obedience. Obedience motivates and directs one’s works in accord with God’s providential will.
Many Christians might be surprised to learn that the word “obedience” is derived from the Latin infinitive “obedire”, which can be translated as “to listen”. Naturally, a servant can’t obey his master unless he first listens to his master’s command. This demands being ready for the master to issue his command, which in turn demands attentive listening: not to stand at attention, but to listen at attention, humbly waiting not for the master’s return, but for his word; not at the end of time or even at the hour of my death, but here and now and at every moment that I live.