Often, when we read the Bible, we just take it for granted that we understand what its saying. We can often become so familiar with texts that we gloss over what we read without really thinking about it.
For me, the Gospel Reading for today was one such passage:
The apostles said to the Lord: Increase our faith.
And the Lord said: If you had faith like to a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be thou rooted up and be thou transplanted into the sea. And it would obey you.
But which of you, having a servant ploughing or feeding cattle, will say to him, when he is come from the field: Immediately go. Sit down to meat.
And will not rather say to him: Make ready my supper and gird thyself and serve me, whilst I eat and drink; and afterwards thou shalt eat and drink?
Doth he thank that servant for doing the things which he commanded him?
I think not. So you also, when you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do. (Lk 17:5-10)
At first glance, it’s all familiar – it all makes sense...but does it really? The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith. His answer was that faith the size of a mustard seed was powerful enough to command a mustard tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea...and then He started to talk about the expected duties of a servant.
As I was listening to the Gospel this morning, I really thought “That makes no sense. What’s the correlation here? What does expected duty have to do with faith the size of a mustard seed; much less with a request for increased faith?”
But this often happens when we really read the words of Jesus closely. What He says often appears to be completely unrelated to what He was originally asked...but, when we dig deeper, we find that Our Lord really answers our question in a way that is better than we could have ever imagined. This is always the way of Divine Wisdom.
To understand what Our Lord was getting at in the story of the dutiful servant, we have to go back to see the context of the disciples initial question.
In Luke 17:4, Jesus tells us that if someone sins and repents, as much as seven times in a day, we must forgive them. Let’s be honest – this certainly isn’t easy. So we can relate with the disciples’ response: “Increase our faith!”
But Jesus’ response to this request is interesting...and it shows that forgiveness is not a matter of faith; rather, it is a matter of duty.
He does this by first addressing the matter of faith. Jesus tells us that faith as small as mustard seed is powerful enough to command nature; because the object of that faith is the One who created all things in the first place. So, if faith is that powerful, an increase in faith is not what is required for us to forgive.
Then Our Lord goes on to give the example of the dutiful servant. After a hard day’s labour in the field, it is expected that he will continue his duties by waiting on his master. And his duties don’t cease until such time as the master says so.
And that it is what forgiveness is like – sometimes it is really hard, like the servant’s hard day’s labour in the sun. But even when it’s hard, we are still expected to forgive. And just like the servant whose duties did not conclude with the setting sun, but continued at his master’s table; so too, if we are called upon to forgive again...it is expected of us. Just as the servant is expected to serve until the master says his service is completed, we too are expected to forgive as many times as Our Master requires of us.
And all the while, as we forgive, forgive, and forgive again...the words on our lips should always be: “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”