to whom nothing is owed

Our understanding of the inherent value of the human person informs us that as children of God, made in his image and likeness, we are not to be considered property to be bought and sold, use, abused, and then discarded when no longer useful, wanted or needed. We know that to be slavery and a grave moral evil perpetrated against God’s creation.

Faith this small

Faith this small

Perhaps it is to salve our modern sensibilities and our cultural understanding regarding slavery that many translations of the New Testament read “unprofitable servants” or “useless servants” rather than the more literal translation of the Greek. And as distasteful as it might be to us the more literal translation, aside from greater accuracy, provides a deeper, richer portrait of what Jesus is telling us.

In reading the Greek text we find two words—douloi and doulos—which can and should be translated as slaves and slave, not servants or servant.

Why is this important? In the first-century Mediterranean world, servants were almost always slaves, property of their masters, not paid employees. This was so common that both Jesus and the early Christian writers were quite comfortable using slavery as a positive metaphor for one’s relationship with God and even with members of one’s community.

Culturally slavery was a fact of life as approximately two-thirds of the population consisted of slaves (frequently people working off a debt) or former slaves. While slaves were considered property in one sense they were no less human than the master. Thus Jesus took no issue with teaching his disciples to be slaves of one another when he told them, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”1

While the translation uses servant in the first instance and slave in the second, doulos is used for both in the Greek.  Saint Paul happily identified himself as a slave of Christ Jesus2 and the earliest extant Christian hymn celebrates the humanity of Jesus as his taking on “the form of a slave.”3

Although we moderns are repulsed by the notion of slavery, our ancestors were at home with the concept of subservience to God and to one another. God, creator of all things, is Master of all and all are thereby slaves to him and subservient to his will.

We seldom see our relationship with God in the light of its right relationship for too often we do not think of God at all; too busy are we in our own selfishness to bother acknowledging the debt we owe to our Creator. Likewise, as we cannot or want not to acknowledge the debt owed to God, we cannot or want not to be in debt to our neighbor. It is a measure of our egoism which denies the debt owed to God or to another.

But how are we to understand the parable of the “unprofitable servant?” Again we first must unwrap the original text to discover what Jesus was telling the apostles. The adjective used in the Greek is achreioi which is perhaps more accurately translated to mean “to whom nothing is owed.” Thus it would be more accurate to say “slaves to whom nothing is owed” as slaves were not employees of the master and therefore were owed nothing for fulfilling what they were bound to do for their master.

It is the same in our relationship with God and one another: when we live as God wills, serving him and our neighbor, we are owed nothing because we have simply done our duty and have earned nothing for doing so.

Is not the parable now better understood? When Jesus asks “Is he grateful to that servant (slave) because he did what was commanded?” do we now see the question in a new way? The New English Bible captures the essence of the parable very well by stating that “We are servants and deserve no credit.” Jesus places demands of forgiveness, loyalty (faith,) and the surrendering of our entitlement mentality on us and that is challenging to say the least.

When my two daughters were younger—long before they became parents themselves—they often would assert that the only reason we had children was to have slaves to do our bidding.

Their view, to be sure, was predicated entirely on the fact that we insisted on the two of them performing certain age-appropriate tasks or chores for which there was never any remuneration for doing what they had been tasked to do.  Their parents were obviously unreasonable and uncaring as well as hardened slave masters who demanded too much, unwilling to offer them even the smallest pittance for their efforts.

What they steadfastly refused to admit or to understand—until they became parents in their own right—was that their parents owed them nothing: for they had already given them everything of importance. It was they who owed their parents everything: for giving them life, raising them, feeding them, caring for them, loving them.

Thus it seems the parable, now properly understood, can be easily modeled into our own lives. It is not so difficult to comprehend when we live a life of faith in Almighty God, becoming a slave to Christ Jesus whom we serve because he gave us everything and owes us nothing. Saint Paul summarizes this relationship powerfully in his letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God: it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.4

Saint Augustine tells us:

Where there is no faith, there is no prayer. Who would pray for something he did not believe in?

So when the blessed apostle exhorts us to pray he begins by declaring: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved;” but to show that faith is the source of prayer and the stream will not flow if its springs are dried up, he continues: “But how can people call on him in whom they do not believe?”5

We must believe, then, in order to pray; and we must ask God that the faith enabling us to pray may not fail. Faith gives rise to prayer, and this prayer obtains an increase in faith. Faith, I say, gives rise to prayer, and is in turn strengthened by prayer. …

Mark the apostles: they would never have left everything they possessed and spurned worldly ambition to follow the Lord unless their faith had been great; and yet that faith of theirs could not have been perfect, otherwise they would not have asked the Lord to increase it.6

It is truly a sad commentary on the world we live in that so many believe they are entitled by nothing more than that they exist; so many who say with firm conviction “I am, therefore, you owe me.” How else to explain the common demand to satisfy some perceived injustice predicated upon some self-created right? How else can we explain the existence of safe zones, trigger warnings, and the myriad of other injuries to one’s self?

We abhor slavery without due credit for the meaning of it. Slavery which denies the humanity of the slave is most assuredly evil and ought rightfully to be adjudged as evil, forbidden by moral law and human justice. In faith however, we should all joyfully desire to become a slave to Christ Jesus, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Jesus gave us everything; we owe him everything. Amen.

Homily # 089
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time — Cycle C
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
Luke 17:5-10

1 Mt 10:44.
2 Rom 1:1.
3 Phil 2:7-8.
4 Eph 2:8-10.
5 Rom 10:13-14.
6 Saint Augustine, Sermon 115: PL38, 655.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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