by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“It was for faith that our ancestors were commended. It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going.” Hebrews 11: 1-2; 8-12
“Happy those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. I tell you solemnly, he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them.” Luke 12, 32-48
Prominent among the multiple themes woven into the readings of this Sunday are those of living in faith and trust, and making responsible use of the gifts with which God has entrusted us. The opening sentence of the reading from Hebrews defines what it means to live by faith: “Faith”, the author writes “is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see.” (New American Bible, Hebrews 11: 1-2) The rest of that chapter proceeds to list our ancestral giants who lived faith-filled lives, and concludes that the list would not be complete if it did not include us who, like all those before us, know that living by faith is sometimes a real struggle. Moreover, we can add to the list in Hebrews faith-filled women and men beside whom we have lived and worked in the course of our lives so far. They are the ordinary “saints” who have encouraged, loved and inspired us in our struggles to be faithful, especially when we have struggled to cope with the unexpected griefs, troubles and disappointments that come and have come our way. Our experience has already taught us that the promises of God, about which Jesus taught us, will not be fulfilled this side of the grave. Yet it is our faith and trust in our loving God that keeps us keeping on.
Another translation of the opening line of today’s second reading from Hebrews reads: “To have faith is to be sure of the things for which we hope, to be certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11: 1). If we care to reflect on this a little, we can come to appreciate that our faith is not a totally blind phenomenon. We actually shape something in our mind that is a picture of what we think will happen to us. It is that on which we pin our hopes. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, the Austrian Holocaust-Survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl wrote that prisoners in concentration camps survived only if they created in their minds a future which they could realistically envision and hope would be fulfilled. Conversely, it also requires imagination to envision things that we believe will dishearten us. People who walk out of their marriage or away from their religion imagine a bleak future, a future in which they are unable to hope. So, it’s not only faith that is founded on a vision of the unseen God. Lack of faith is built on an unseen vision of gloom. The Abraham we hear about in Hebrews did not know in advance the land he was to inherit. He probably started to imagine what it might look like. He had the faith to keep journeying towards a promise whose details he did not know.
Aware of the fact that Jesus was fully human, we can conclude that he, too, had to picture in his mind how those who committed themselves to follow him would turn out. Take that to its logical conclusions, and we can only conclude that God puts trust in us, too; a trust that we are capable of working to promote justice, peace and mercy. When we know that somebody trusts us, we feel affirmed. If we are conscious of being trusted, loved and valued by God, we might be more inclined to put our trust in God.
The three brief parables about servants, managers and the unexpected return of their masters are all about what is expected of people who commit themselves to working to bring about the establishment of the reign or kingdom of God where they live in the world. Sunday after Sunday, we have been reminded that the reign of God is all about striving to ensure that everyone is treated with justice, compassion, respect, mercy, tolerance, and so on. That, of course, calls for selfless service from all who commit themselves to building the kingdom of God, from all of us who have committed ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Implicit in the three short parables in today’s gospel-reading is a message that, whatever our position or status, we are all called to be leaders in one way or another. Jesus makes it clear that those entrusted with leadership have power, but the power they have is meant for service of others not for feathering their own nests. True leaders give their time, energy and talent to empower those they serve, thereby enabling them to do for others what is good and just and empowering, so that they can, in their turn, determine the best way to live their lives.
Tucked into these three parables, which, incidentally, are hard to separate, are a couple of surprises. One is that Jesus refers to both male and female servants. (This is consistent with the fact that Luke repeatedly includes women as central to his gospel story.) Almost unobtrusively, Jesus describes a head servant abusing his position and setting about “beating the menservants and the maids” (Luke 12: 45). Women in the prevailing climate were particularly vulnerable to abuse. The second surprise lies in the reference Jesus makes to a master who is so pleased with the work of his servants that he sits them down at table, dons an apron, and serves them a meal himself. In a male-dominated culture, where men were not to be found even close to a kitchen, Jesus overturns convention and tells of a man who serves his servants. This is surely a reference to how Jesus pictures God as one whose love and care know no bounds. It makes the point that slaves and servants are loved by God, and, therefore, to be treated with respect, dignity and justice.
To be committed to walking in the footsteps of Jesus is to become faithful and generous in using our gifts, talents and personal qualities in contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God. We are truly humble when we recognise that our gifts are God-given and meant not for our own aggrandisement but for the service and benefit of others. The world will then be better for the fact that we are part of it.