When you have done everything that has been commanded you, say, “We are useless slaves! We have done what we were supposed to do!”
Luke 17: 10
At first glance, this saying of Jesus appears to us as quite harsh. Having laid out some of the demands of life in community with others, Jesus then says that if we succeed in doing all he has commanded, we are not to congratulate ourselves but to realize that we have done no more than our duty. For us to be told that we are not valued and approved of in accord with our “being good” is a hard pill for us to swallow.
We have countless expressions of the “common wisdom” that tell us that we are worth the sum of our actions and what we produce as a result of those actions. But Jesus says that when we have been successful in doing what we have been commanded, and so in being a “good person,” we are, for all that, merely useless slaves. Do we deserve thanks and congratulations for merely doing our duty? Or, perhaps even more importantly, are we loved by God in accord with the performance of our duties? Does the degree that we are “good” according to our measurements constitute the degree of God’s love for us?
We are formed and trained as children through recognition and praise. When we do what we are supposed to do, we receive smiles and accolades: “You are a good girl/boy.” When we fail to do what we are supposed to do, we receive frowns and censure: “Bad boy/girl.” This is necessary to develop a good moral and social conscience, and it is how we develop our unique profile of shame. Our feelings of connection to our worlds and social value are based on the expressions of acceptance and approval of our actions by those around us. But Jesus is speaking of a very different level of relationship. Given the context, he is obviously not denigrating the need to do the right thing, to do our duty, but he is saying that God’s love of us is not dependent or based on our actions. Implicit in his description that when we’ve done all we’ve been commanded that we are still only “useless slaves,” is the positive truth that we are seen and accepted in our deepest identity by a love that transcends anything our actions can do to affect it. For God, we are far more than anything we can fully express in our actions.
Søren Kiekegaard speaks of the “suspension of the ethical” as the truth that faith, the relationship of the individual to God, is something beyond the universality of the ethical.
Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual, though bound by the universal [ethical], is higher than the universal. As a single individual, as the particular, she stands in an absolute relation to the Absolute (God). The ethical is thus suspended. Faith is this paradox.
But faith’s paradox is precisely this, that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the individual determines his relationship to the universal through his relation to the Absolute (i.e. God), not her relation to the Absolute through her relation to the universal. That is, to live by faith means that one has an absolute duty to God and to God alone. In this tie of obligations the individual relates herself absolutely, as the single individual, to the Absolute–the God who commands. This duty alone is absolute and for this reason the ethical, for the person of faith, is relegated to the relative. In fear and trembling this is faith’s paradox–the suspension of the ethical.
. . . The one who walks the narrow path of faith, no one can advise, no can can understand. Faith is a miracle, and yet no human being is excluded from it.
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling