Sunday 3 October 2010

Faith & Duty

Address given on Sunday 3rd October 2010, the Eighteenth after Trinity, in Nenagh.

In today’s NT reading, Luke (17:5-10) records two short sayings of Jesus.
They are memorable, because Jesus, as he always does, paints vivid pictures in simple everyday language.

But they are also paradoxical, I think, because although they seem simple on the surface, it is only after pondering them for a while that we can begin to grasp their true implications.

In these two sayings, Jesus is giving his followers – then and now – two important rules for living as God’s beloved children: a rule of faith, and a rule of duty. Let's look more closely at them.

First, the rule of faith
The apostles said to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith’. Jesus replied ‘If you had 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.’

I wonder whether the apostles felt when they heard this that Jesus was exasperated by their request? Was he criticising them for not having even the merest smidgeon of faith? Because of course they knew very well they couldn’t expect a tree to obey their command!

But once they thought about it they would realise that he was simply telling them the truth, in his typically vivid way.

Surely what Jesus really meant is this. They mustn’t use the excuse of too little faith to avoid doing what God asks of them. If they have any faith at all, no matter how small, they must act on it. They must trust that God will work his purpose out through them - and get on with it. They will find that they can do things they never thought they could – miraculous things.

And I think, perhaps, that we have experienced the truth of this in our own parish, in a small way. When we discovered that St Mary’s needed a new roof which would cost hundreds of thousands of euros, we didn’t at first believe that we could raise the money. But when we overcame our fears, when we trusted that God would not let us down, when we acted on our little faith, then we discovered that by God’s grace, with the help of our neighbours and the wider community, we could perform a little miracle. We raised enough money to complete the roof in a little over a year, and we have gone on to replace two more!

The rule of faith that Jesus gives us is this: do not fear that you have too little faith; instead trust in God and obey the promptings of his Spirit; you will discover that you have faith enough to do things that might seem impossible.

Second, there’s the rule of duty
Jesus asks his followers to imagine that they are slave owners. A slave owner wouldn’t dream of thanking a slave for doing what he is ordered to do, says Jesus – that’s just what a slave is meant to do! But then he asks them to imagine their role reversed, with them in the role of slaves in relation to God. ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!”’

Now, we’re not at all comfortable today with the idea of slavery – thank God! Slavery was abolished largely because Christian men and women came to realise that it contradicted the biblical conviction that every human being is created in the image of God – though shamefully, not until nearly 2000 years after Jesus’s death. I doubt that many of Jesus’s disciples owned slaves themselves – they weren’t rich folk – but slavery then was part of everyone’s common experience – they would have understood what Jesus was talking about very well.

If Jesus were making the same point today, he might say something like this.

‘Imagine you’re a multi-millionaire, who employs a housekeeper, a personal assistant and other staff. When they do their job, you don’t go out of your way to thank them, or give them a bonus, because you pay them well to work for you – doing their job is only what you expect of them.

Now, put yourself in God’s shoes. He employs you to serve him by doing good, doing his will. He has given you this wonderful world and all its resources to meet all your reasonable needs. You don’t expect God to give you any special reward just because you have done what he asks of you, do you? You’ve only done your duty!’

The rule of duty that Jesus gives us is this: behave like servants of God; the Holy Spirit will tell you what God wants of you if you listen for it in prayer; your Christian duty is to do what he asks. But you should not expect to earn any special favour from God for doing it – it is no more than what is your duty to God.

We have no right to expect good things in this life, nor a place in heaven, just because we have done a few good deeds – and inevitably failed in many others. Yet Jesus reveals to us a God who is like a loving Father. He assures us that God will forgive our failures if we ask him to, and that he has prepared a place in his kingdom for his faithful servants. But it is a matter of God’s grace and not our own merit.

Let us then resolve to live our lives according to Jesus’s rules of faith and duty:
  • Let us trust in God, and believe that though our faith is little it will be enough to achieve God’s purposes.
  • Let us be servants of God, doing what is right and our duty, not because we expect to be rewarded for it, but just because it is right and our duty.
St. Ignatius Loyola captures this beautifully in his prayer

Teach us, Good Lord, to serve you as you deserve:
to give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,

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