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)
I distinctly remember the first time I noticed these verses, which must have been two Cycle Cs ago. They left a strong impression, both because they captured so perfectly a sentiment I share, and because they seem harsh and counter-cultural. I almost felt guilty for agreeing with the idea that we don’t deserve a pat on the back for discipleship or moral behavior.
This is the type of attitude that gives Catholics a reputation, and I don’t care. Obligation is an important part of our lives. There are things we do simply because they are that which should be done. I run into a lot of people who think the purpose of religion or worship is to make us feel all warm and squishy inside. I’m not wise enough to say what the “purpose” is, but it ain’t that. To congratulate ourselves on our faithfulness is not the same as to affirm the grace of faith. We can be content with our faith and our deeds and still be unprofitable – perhaps we can never truly exceed what we are obliged to do because God’s expectations of us are so high?
Paul writes in today’s reading from 2 Timothy to “to stir into flame the gift of God that you have...For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (1: 6-17). We are endowed with great spiritual gifts, every one of us, and we choose whether to stir them into flame or to cower and let them decay. Claiming our gifts is dangerous business, because it makes us agents in the world. Our power, inspired by love and tempered by self-control, makes us capable of doing every good thing that God expects of us.
The first reading today is from the small-but-mighty book of Habbakuk. The prophet cries out to the Lord, lamenting the destruction and violence surrounding him. The Lord responds:
Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late. (2:2-3)
Living in hope gives us a vision of what the world could be, with all people responding to the invitation of grace and living together in love and charity. We write this vision on the tablets of our lives, doing our best to manifest the hope that lives inside of us. This is what is expected of us, and may even be what we’re made for. Our labors toward the fulfillment our mission and duty may give us plenty to be proud of, but are nothing more than what we are required to do.