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THE UNPROFITABLE SERVANTS

Read­ing Time: 6 minutes

(Ref. Texts: Amos 6:1.4–7; Ps 146145; 1Tim 6:11–16; Luke 17:5–10)

…when you have done all those things which you are com­manded, say, we are unprof­it­able ser­vants. We have done what was our duty to do.” “This faith is the faith of respons­ib­il­ity and not the faith to show a person’s capa­city to achieve wonders.”

Observation

This Sunday Gos­pel is sup­posed to have star­ted from verse 1 to aid the read­er com­pre­hend adequately what fol­lows from verse five. The request of the Apostles to increase their faith is sequel to the words of Jesus in the pre­vi­ous four verses (Luke 17:1–4). Jump­ing these verses and begin­ning from verse five gives the impres­sion that faith is the most import­ant aspect of this epis­ode. This is wrong and could be mis­lead­ing. More import­ant are: the invit­a­tion not to deceive or lead oth­ers astray; the capa­city to ask for for­give­ness when we are at fault; and the will­ing­ness to for­give our default­ers who have sin­cerely pleaded for for­give­ness and have repen­ted of their actions. The request to for­give a broth­er or a sis­ter who sins against you sev­en times in a day, and who repents, and sev­en times implores for for­give­ness must be for­giv­en (v.4). Cer­tainly, is not some­thing very easy. It is exactly for this that the Apostles reques­ted for more faith. There­fore, omit­ting verses 1–4 is improp­er. It could mis­lead and con­fuse the read­er. How­ever, I have included them in this reflection.

The foundation of Luke 17:5–10

As indic­ated above, Luke 17:5–10 can­not be under­stood without Luke 17:1–4. Luke 17:1–4 is the reas­on and found­a­tion of Luke 17:5–10. After address­ing the Phar­isees (cf. Luke 16:14), Jesus turned to his dis­ciples, informed them of the cer­tainty of tempta­tion to sin, and indir­ectly warned them not to be the agents of sin (cf. Luke 17:1). They must always be on their guard and rep­rim­and any­one who devi­ates from the giv­en norms. As they rebuke, they should also be will­ing to wel­come back any­one who real­izes the grav­ity of his or her actions and decides to make amend. Deep faith is required for this oner­ous task. It is from this per­spect­ive that we have to ana­lyze and under­stand faith (Greek: pistis).

What is faith?

In bib­lic­al under­stand­ing, faith is the con­vic­tion or belief about man’s rela­tion­ship to God. Included in such con­vic­tion is the idea of trust and holy fer­vour born of faith and con­joined with it. Again, faith is that which gives “con­fid­ence hence, assur­ance, and guar­an­tee” (cf. Uchenna C. Okpalaunegbu, Faith and Heal­ing). There is no doubt there is a wrong per­cep­tion of faith among con­tem­por­ary believ­ers. Gen­er­ally, Chris­ti­ans con­ceive faith as magic. Paul and James in their Epistles, cla­ri­fy that faith is not some­thing abstract. It is good work (cf. 1Cor 13:2; Jas 2:14–26). In Luke 16:19–31, the rich man was not tor­men­ted in Hades because he lacked faith, but because he did not put his faith into prac­tice. Again, in Mat­thew 25:31–46, the cri­terion for the final judge­ment is not faith but good work or lack of it. It is good work that reveals faith. Faith is ful­filling one’s oblig­a­tions. The apostles’ request for the increase of faith is to enable them ful­fil the respons­ib­il­ity of for­give­ness without put­ting or impos­ing any limit.

Increase our faith

Lord, increase our faith.” This was the apostles’ request when Jesus urged them to for­give any­one who offends them and asks to be for­giv­en. Even if the per­son sins sev­en times in a day but sev­en times repents of his or her actions, the apostles and believ­ers must for­give the per­son. As a new emer­ging com­munity, the Chris­ti­an com­munity should dis­tin­guish itself from the Jew­ish com­munity even in mat­ters of sin and for­give­ness. The Jew­ish theo­logy does not allow for­give­ness to exceed three times. This belief is based on the theo­lo­gic­al and spir­itu­al sig­ni­fic­ances of the num­ber 3. As the num­ber of per­fec­tion, it is believed that whatever reaches three has reached its cli­max. Not­with­stand­ing his being a Jew, Jesus seems not to agree to this inter­pret­a­tion. For him, three could be sur­passed, espe­cially, when it has to do with spir­itu­al well-being (cf. Matt 18:21–22). The com­mand to for­give who­ever sins sev­en times and sev­en times asks for for­give­ness means the apostles were expec­ted to exceed the nor­mal Jew­ish lim­it of three times. This cer­tainly, is not an easy task. Hence, the apostles implored Jesus to increase their faith for the new chal­lenge. This faith there­fore, is the faith of respons­ib­il­ity and not the faith to show a person’s capa­city to achieve won­ders. Jesus should increase the faith of the apostles to enable them go bey­ond the lim­it imposed by the Jew­ish tra­di­tion. ‘Increase our faith’ is a con­sequence of Jesus’ words in Luke 17:4 and must not be detached from it.

The quality of faith

To the request of the apostles, Jesus replied and informed them that it is not neces­sary to increase their faith. What mat­ters is not the quant­itas (quant­ity) but the qual­it­as (qual­ity). What is required of the apostles is not the amount of faith they have but its pres­ence. When Jesus talks about the lit­tle­ness of the apostles’ faith (cf. Matt 17:20), he is refer­ring to the qual­ity not quant­ity. Gen­er­ally, doubt sig­ni­fies lack of faith (cf. Jas 1:6; Matt 14:30). The ref­er­ence to the mus­tard seed is an indic­a­tion of what they can achieve with their unshak­able faith in God. With faith as little as the mus­tard seed, they can go bey­ond the Jew­ish lim­it even in terms of for­give­ness. With such faith also, we can real­ize our mis­takes and offences, ask for for­give­ness and be able to for­give and be forgiven.

The joy of serving

Luke 17:10 invites the Apostles and believ­ers to imit­ate the atti­tude of the slave or ser­vant described in Luke 17:7–8, who simply obeys and executes the assign­ments giv­en to him by his or her mas­ter. The Apostles after doing everything they have been com­manded should say: “We are unworthy (achreios) slaves; we have done only that which we ought to (Greek: opheilō) have done.” Achreios is the con­trary of chreios. While the former means use­less, of no use, the lat­ter means use­ful. A per­son described as achreios is worth­less, use­less, unprof­it­able, miser­able and good-for-noth­ing. In Mat­thew 25:30, the mas­ter described the ser­vant who hid his own tal­ent as worth­less and use­less (achreios) and ordered him to be thrown into the out­er dark­ness, where he will weep and gnash his teeth. How­ever, accord­ing to its usage in Luke 17:10, an achreios ser­vant is an unworthy and unprof­it­able ser­vant. Such ser­vant does not deserve any praise. There­fore, when Jesus asks the apostles to see them­selves as achreios, he means they should see them­selves as not deserving any praise and should not boast. It is an invit­a­tion to humil­ity and self-abase­ment. They should humble them­selves so that God will exult them (cf. Matt 23:12; Luke 1:52). That the apostles should see them­selves as achreios does not mean they are use­less, worth­less and good-for-noth­ing like the ser­vant of Mat­thew 25:30. On the con­trary, it means they should see them­selves as not being prof­it­able, unmer­it­ori­ous and not deserving any praise. They should abase them­selves and con­cen­trate on their mis­sion instead of think­ing about their worth, per­son­al recog­ni­tion and praise. Such praise and recog­ni­tion from people might lead to their com­prom­ising their mis­sion. Good lesson!

Showing gratitude

In Luke 17:7–8, Jesus dis­tin­guishes between the role of the ser­vant and that of the mas­ter. It is the duty of the ser­vant to serve his or her mas­ter dili­gently. The ser­vant should always be at the dis­pos­al of his or her mas­ter. In rela­tion to his or her mas­ter, the ser­vant has only one option – execut­ing the com­mands of the mas­ter. Even after car­ry­ing out the order of his or her mas­ter, the ser­vant should not expect any form of appre­ci­ation from his or her mas­ter. On his side, the mas­ter can­not thank the ser­vant for doing what he or she is sup­posed to do. How­ever, that Jesus does not think the mas­ter should thank the ser­vant should be inter­preted with care. It does not imply ingrat­it­ude. It does not even mean the mas­ter should not show appre­ci­ation to the ser­vant. Many do not know that ingrat­it­ude is a sin. Ingrat­it­ude is insens­it­iv­ity to or thank­less­ness for kind­ness received. We should always be grate­ful for every kind­ness received. Appre­ci­ate oth­ers and their effort and God will appre­ci­ate you too. It requires faith to com­pre­hend and apply this prin­ciple of appreciation.

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