Worthy Servants

Worthy Servants

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)  |  Fr Dominic Ryan considers the servanthood of Christ who we are to imitate with faith.

Today’s gospel uses two images to address the nature of faith. The first compares the disciples’ faith to the size of a mustard seed. If the disciples’ faith were the size of a mustard seed so we’re told, then they would be able to move a mulberry tree just in virtue of the power of their command. Now mustard seeds were tiny, about the size of a pinhead in fact, whereas mulberry trees had extensive root systems so getting one to move would be no easy task and therefore the point Our Lord is making is that one only needs a small bit of faith to accomplish mighty deeds. The disciples, however, don’t yet appear to be able to do mighty deeds therefore we must conclude there is something wrong with their faith.

But what might be wrong with it? Well we use the term faith in a number of ways. It can mean the content of what we believe, the articles of faith, as say we recite them in the Creed at Mass on Sunday. But faith can also refer to the attitude we have towards those articles; we believe them, rather than know them. Applied to the disciples then at this stage of their ministry their faith is deficient in both respects. First, with regard to the articles of faith, the disciples simply weren’t aware of all of them at that time. They couldn’t be because at this stage of Jesus’ ministry not all the articles of faith had been established. Jesus hadn’t yet instituted the Eucharist, he hadn’t yet died, he hadn’t yet risen from the dead and so on. Admittedly the disciples were not at fault for this deficiency. Nevertheless the content of their faith was still incomplete and to that degree deficient.

It’s the second sense of faith though, the attitude one has towards the articles of faith, where the disciples’ culpability starts to emerge. Belief considered as an attitude admits of degrees, of more or less, and hence one can have a stronger or weaker faith according to how strongly one believes in these articles. Probably what Jesus had in mind was how fickle the disciples could be at this stage of their time with him. We know, for example, that Peter would deny Christ three times during the Passion and that at times the other disciples were not much better. Indeed not only would the Lord have to die and rise from the dead before the disciples became aware of all the articles of faith, but the Holy Spirit would also have to come at Pentecost to finish the Lord’s instruction and to solidify their faith. So at this stage of their time with Jesus the disciples could have done better. Yes they had their impressive moments, but from time to time they also stumbled quite seriously.

But where does this leave the disciples’ faith? Well it’s helpful to turn to the other image Jesus employed: that of the unworthy servant. Here our Lord suggested the disciples would agree that a servant shouldn’t be praised or rewarded just for doing what they were told to do. Likewise the disciples, who are Christ’s servants after all, should not be praised or rewarded just for doing what they are told to do, at least whilst they understand themselves to be servants in the way our Lord describes. This qualification is important though. When Jesus takes the example of a servant he introduces his remarks by asking the disciples “which of you with a servant”. In other words Christ is focusing on how the disciples understand servants. So the point is as long as they understand servanthood in that way, they will just be unworthy servants.

Must we leave things here though? Might it be possible for the disciples to move beyond being just unworthy servants? Perhaps after Pentecost for example once their faith has solidified? Well, yes, if they can begin to understand servanthood in the way Christ does. This requires a dying to self, a putting God first in one’s life, a putting God above all other things. In this way then, and only in this way, servanthood goes beyond the requirements of strict equitable justice and starts to be meritorious.

Of course the disciple can’t do this for themselves – no one can. Rather it needs the infusion of God’s grace which Christ made available through his death and resurrection. However once the disciples receive this grace and begin to act from it then they start to become worthy servants, just as we can as well if we follow the same path.

Readings: Hab 1:2-3, 2:2-4  |  2 Tim 1:6-8, 13-14  |  Luke 15:5-10

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a mosaic in the church of St Aloysius in Glasgow.

fr Dominic Ryan is Subprior and Bursar of the Priory of the Holy Spirit in Oxford, and Prefect of the Studium Library.