“Wherever we find ourselves we not only may, but should, seek perfection.” – St. Francis de Sales
Luke 17:1-10: He said to his disciples, ‘Obstacles are sure to come, but alas for the one who provides them! It would be better for him to be thrown into the Sea with a millstone put round his neck than that he should lead astray a single one of these little ones. Watch yourselves! And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, I am sorry, you must forgive him.’ The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you. Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, Come and have your meal immediately? Would he not be more likely to say, Get my supper laid; make yourself tidy and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink yourself afterwards? Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.’
Christ the Lord The easiest thing for us to do is forget that we are not God. When we achieve something great, when we receive applause, we let it go to our heads. One of the very first prayers we all learn is: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” All good things come from God, so ultimately all praise should go to him as well. Even our talents and our opportunities are gifts of God, so if we bear fruit because of them very little of the credit should go to us. When we start to take more credit than is our due, we are forgetting who really is Lord. That was Satan’s mistake; let’s not repeat it.
This kind of humility can sound harsh to us. Isn’t Jesus being a bit hard on that servant of the parable? The servant works hard, obeys, submits, and Jesus says he should look for no recompense; he’s just doing his duty. It seems rather cold. But in fact, it’s just the opposite. Imagine how unstable our lives would be if the intensity of God’s love for us depended on the efficiency of our service in his Kingdom. If we could increase or decrease God’s love for us just by our performance rating, what would be the difference between God’s Kingdom and this world? We would be just as anxious, ambitious, and self-centered working for Christ as we tend to be working for money and promotions.
In the Lord’s Kingdom, the opposite is true. God’s love for each of us is already so total, so personal, so unconditional, and so untiring that nothing we do can increase or decrease it. And so the servant in God’s Kingdom does his work energetically, joyfully, and peacefully as a response to that gratuitous love of God. God’s love doesn’t depend on our achievements; our achievements flow from knowing how much God loves us and from wanting to thank him. This is true humility; this is what the Lord wants us to learn.
Christ the Teacher The two lessons of the passage are unrelated, except that St Luke reports them together in a section of his Gospel where he summarizes several of Jesus’ lessons. The first lesson stresses the power and importance of faith. Faith unleashes God’s power in our lives. When we let ourselves be won over by God, he can do wonders with us; when we doubt him, trusting ourselves and our ideas more than his infinite wisdom and love (e.g., filtering out Church teaching that we find uncomfortable), we cut ourselves off from his grace. He won’t force his way in; he respects us too much for that. But if we invite him in, and give him full control over our lives, amazing things begin to happen.
The second lesson is the hardest one to learn: the lesson of humility. Simply put, all we have comes from God; it is all a gift. So strictly speaking, we deserve nothing (except recompense for our sins). And yet we think we deserve everything. Even our basic human rights stem from our existence, which is a gift of God and not a personal achievement. Our duty is not to rule the universe, but to serve God, to get to know him, and discover his plan for us. If we do that, we will experience the peace and meaning we long for – just as flowers achieve their beauty only when they grow as God designed them to.
Christ the Friend The apostles did the right thing. When they detected a flaw in their spiritual life (a lack of faith), they humbly approached the Lord and asked him to take care of it. They trusted him. They knew that he was sincerely interested in making them men of his Kingdom, so they did not hesitate to come to him with their needs. The answer he gives is indirect, and somewhat unsatisfying, which probably means that they weren’t ready for the full answer yet, but we can be sure that it only drew them closer to him. Whenever we come to Christ in sincerity and humility, he draws us closer to him – which is why we should come to him more often.
The warning against scandal – putting obstacles in the way of others’ faith and trust in God – couldn’t be more frightening. This too shows how intensely Jesus is interested in each one of us. In the first place, he gives us a chance to help build his Kingdom, to bring others to Christ. In the second place, he vehemently warns us against abusing that privilege. This shows that our friendship is real – Jesus takes a risk with us. All real friendship involves risk, the risk of having one’s trust betrayed. And it also gives us a glimpse of heaven, where our friendship with Christ will have automatically made us into friends with everyone else he has befriended.
Christ in My Life The default position of my self-conception is still me-centered, Lord. I don’t like considering myself a mere servant. But it’s true. You didn’t have to create me, you didn’t have to redeem me, you didn’t have to give me the talents and gifts you gave me – in short, everything I am and everything I have depends on you. Jesus, teach me the joy and freedom of humility…
Increase my faith, Lord. I want to do great things for your Kingdom. You have put in my heart a burning desire to make a difference in the world, to bring others into your friendship. But I am so clumsy, so blind. Increase my faith, Lord. Teach me to do your will…
Because you have made me a free person, I am equally capable of both good and evil. I know that my impatience and self-centeredness offends you and pushes others away from you. But I also know that the power of your grace is infinite. You are working in my soul, recreating me in your own image. Make me more attentive to your words, Lord…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Modified detail of Allegory of Humility, Johann Michael Rottmayr, 1714, CCA-SA, Wikimedia Commons.