So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’Luke 17:10
There is a strange paradox in the gospel. On the one hand, we hear of how God cares for us as for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. On the other, like today, we hear of God as a stern and demanding master, who demands of us, mere servants, that we do our duty without seeking any reward from it.
Although it doesn’t sit well with our contemporary consciousness of self, the gospel today challenges us to face the truth that we are, at our very core, servants. And if this is true, then, our fulfillment, our joy can come only in realizing and living out that truth.
We read in Psalm 123:2,
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
To be a believer is to know ourselves as servants who are responsible to a “master” for our very lives. And if, as Adrian van Kaam says, our life is “a task, assignment, and mysterious call,” then we have a unique work to do with our lives. St. Paul says (Phil. 1:21) that for him “to live is Christ.” To say this is to say that to live is to live out, with all our heart and energy, the work that we have been given to do.
Self-creation and self-assertion are so deeply engrained in us as our values that serving, even that which is greater than ourselves, can seem demeaning. In reality and practice, however, this is far from the case. It is only when we know our lives to be in service to that which is the purpose and call of our lives that we know real joy. There is no greater joy for us than to be doing, that is incarnating in our lives, the work that has been given us by God to do.
This description of us as servant can seem to us as a diminishment of our creative possibilities. For us, to be responsible to another usually limits us to the vision of the one to whom we are responsible. So, in the work situation the key question is often “To whom do you report?” Now especially in professional life, we wouldn’t usually say that we were servants to that person, and yet, in large part, our success depends on our pleasing our “boss.” Now given the most ideal circumstances, and particularly enlightened leadership, we are given space by those above us to develop our potentialities and to exercise our initiative. However, that is always bounded and restricted by the demands of our authorities, and, obviously, by their limits. Most often, authorities do not take well to someone excelling beyond their boss’s demands and abilities. In fact, there will be forces exercised to bring that person down, to reduce the power and possibility of his or her call.
This is why we are to be servants, but only servants of God. This does not diminish our personhood; it actually constitutes it. To be human is to live in the constant tension between what Adrian van Kaam calls “congeniality” and “compatibility.” We must be social to survive and flourish in the world. But that compatibility with the world must never be at the cost of our “congeniality,” of fidelity to our responsibility to the One who calls us. We must satisfy our work authorities, but that too must not be at the cost of our unique call in life.
To be human is to act. It is to see our lives as a task, assignment, and mysterious call for the sake of the world. What we as human persons are for is to give that gift that we are and have received to the world. We can spend our lives busying ourselves in order to be someone or be seen as worthwhile. We can work hard in order to fulfill our culture’s expectations or to recommend ourselves in the eyes of others. But that all is in service to ourselves, or to others for the sake of ourselves. We can live lives that merely go along with the flow of our societies, large and small, for the sake of security and comfort. But in all these cases we would fail our responsibility to our one “Master.”
How do we know when we are fulfilling our unique task and assignment. We know because of the joy we experience in doing so. We know in the sense of life we experience as we do our work. And we know it in the life it generates in our world. When the majority of persons have no time and space to live their call, a society and a culture begins to crumble. When groups cease to value and to promote the unique call of their members, they begin to atrophy.
To be God’s useless servant is human fulfillment. Such a servant does what he or she does for no other reason that that it is what is theirs to do. We do not look to gain from it, for it is its own reward. We don’t do it for reward here or in a life to come, for it is living now the life of the Kingdom of God. The actual manifestation of one’s life call need not be in grand or dramatic activities. It can be as simple as feeding an infant or typing a letter. It must only be done responsibly, in obedience to the mysterious call that we are.
Why is it that people prefer to be addressed in groups rather than individually? Is it because conscience is one of life’s greatest inconveniences, a knife that cuts too deeply? We prefer to “be part of a group,” and to “form a party,” for if we are part of a group it means goodnight to conscience. . . . The only ting the group secures is the abolition of conscience.Soren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers II
It is the same with busyness. A person can very well eat lettuce before it has formed a heart, yet the tender delicacy the heart and its lovely coil are something quite different from the leaves. Likewise, in the world of spirit, busyness, keeping up with others, hustling hither and yon, makes it almost impossible for an individual to form a heart, to become a responsible, alive self. Every life that is preoccupied with being like others is a wasted life, a lost life.
A parrot, a fly, a poisonous insect is an object of God’s concern. It is not a wasted or lost life. But masses of mimickers, a crowd of copycats are wasted lives. God has been merciful to us, demonstrating his grace to the point of being willing to involve himself with every person. If we prefer to be like all the others, this amounts to high treason against God. We who simply go along are guilty, and our punishment is to be ignored by God.