Who Deserves the Praise?
Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year (C) | Fr Simon Francis Gaine asks if our good works are deserving of praise or not.
Here we have two short sayings of Jesus. One exalts the power of believers, the greatness of what they can do. The mulberry tree was regarded as one of the most deep-rooted trees there was. So if you could uproot such a tree and cast it into the ocean, you were mighty indeed. Such acts would have great value, demanding respect and praise. And Jesus says to the disciples, ‘If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’ The mustard seed was regarded as the tiniest of seeds, so it only needed the tiniest faith to perform the strongest deeds. Jesus is exalting the mighty power of believers.
But what Jesus says next makes our acts of no value at all. At the end of a hard day’s work for God, all we can say is, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty,’ deserving no thanks or praise from our Master. Just as Jesus made his point about the impressiveness of faith by drawing on people’s ordinary ideas about mustard seeds and mulberry trees, so his saying about how valueless our works are relies on the reality faced in his time by slaves, who could not expect their efforts to be valued or rewarded. So after one saying exalting the value of believers’ works, the disciples are told that their works have no value: they deserve nothing.
So what does Jesus really teach about the value of believers’ works? Are they deserving of praise or not? Now what really matters in faith is not its size or power – it can be as small as a mustard seed. What matters is the infinite power of the one we believe in, the Creator of the world. We are creatures and God is our Creator. By this we mean that he is the source of all the good we have and are; every good thing comes from him, even the good we do. There is nothing we have of ourselves that can impress him, or require his praise. When we praise him, we acknowledge this truth in worship, a worship we owe in justice. God deserves our worship; this is our duty, which is part, but only part, of why we go to Mass, giving God what is his by right.
But we also hear of God rewarding us for the good we do. Remember Jesus’ promise that for every cup of water we give to the poor, we shall not lose our reward. All of a sudden it sounds like our actions do deserve a reward from God, even things like feeding the poor, which would seem to be demanded by justice of those of us who have more money than we really need.
The wonderful truth is that by the grace of his Holy Spirit God makes us pleasing to him and deserving of heaven’s reward. While we have nothing of ourselves that can impress him, there is a gift from God that elevates our human acts and makes them somehow divine. There is a gift that transforms our good works and makes them into acts worthy of eternal life. That gift is something even more powerful than the gift of faith that uproots mulberry trees. It is love, divine charity, the greatest of gifts, which makes faith a living force. Even the value in our good works, then, is a gift of God. If we are at Mass not only out of justice, but also out of love, then we are performing greater acts than uprooting mulberry trees.
So when Jesus characterises us as ‘unworthy servants’, he is not yet telling the whole truth about his brothers and sisters, but is telling an important part of that truth. Because in the end the praise goes not to us, but from us to God. At bottom all goodness goes not from us to God, but from God to us. It is ultimately not any greatness in our faith that counts, but the greatness of the God in whom we believe; it is not ultimately even the greatness of our love that counts, but the greatness of the God who loves us and fills us with his blessings.
Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the Holy Spirit descending from the doors of the Basilika St. Clemens in Hannover, Germany.