“Freedom comes in letting go. Open up the window to your heart. You are loved.” – JJ Heller
Last Sunday we heard a parable about a servant during the Gospel reading. It’s a parable that has often confused me. What does Jesus mean by saying that when your servant comes in tired and hungry after a days’ work you should not invite him to dinner but rather demand that he serve you?? My gut reaction was, that’s a selfish thing to say, what about serving others? But after hearing a homily on the parable by the priest at Mission San José here in San Antonio last weekend, I have begun to understand – and truly the understanding is timely, and builds on a few themes that have been coming up recently in my life.
Here is a refresher look at that parable:
“The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? 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.'” LK 17:5-1
This parable isn’t about the master not recognizing the servant’s work, or being unresponsive to the fact that the servant probably wants to eat his own dinner before cooking for someone else. A part of my American-work-ethic lens wants to interpret it that way. But then I’d be missing the point entirely.
Jesus tells the parable in response to the apostle’s request that Jesus “increase their faith.” And Jesus says if you had any modicum of true faith, you wouldn’t ask for more but rather work miracles with what you already had. Christ is challenging the disciples to a spirit of generosity. The priest at San José pointed out that at this point the disciples had been with Christ for a while. The apostles were no longer newbies – so Christ invited them to go beyond “just doing their duty.” The San José priest talked about how when we were children, our parents and teachers trained us with tangible rewards to do what they expected of us – perhaps we got gold stars on chore charts at home or homework charts at school, with each star celebrating that we did what we were supposed to.
But then, the priest said, as we grow, we don’t get the gold stars, because we know our duty and accomplishing that is it’s own reward. Yes we get grades and salaries – but we don’t get praise for showing up to work on time when we walk in the door, and our professors don’t praise us verbally for handing in an essay on time. And rightly so. Because as we mature in life and in faith, we grow into the dignity of possessing our own responsibility. Which means that we grow into taking ownership of our own lives, and our own participation in life with God.
In this parable, Jesus is inviting his disciples into a deeper way of taking ownership of their participation in His life. You’ve come this far, He says. And now, rather than just me doing the work of “increasing your faith” for you, as you’ve asked, I’m going to invite you to take next step – from duty, to generosity.
The theme of generosity has come up rather often in my own life lately, in conversations with friends, in my daily spiritual reading, in my ministry work etc. I first understood this generosity to mean doing more, as if now a full work day wasn’t enough, as if a 10-hours was the new 8-hour day. My first gut reaction was – but God, I’m already tired. What do you mean you want me to do more? I don’t think I can do any more! And besides, I protest, aren’t I already too busy like everyone else around here? Shouldn’t we all do less?
But I was missing the point. When God invites us to go beyond duty towards generosity, He isn’t asking us to do more. He is rather inviting us to mature in our discipleship. He is inviting us to move from complying with the dutiful obligations of childhood into the maturity of freely choosing to love as adults. He is inviting us beyond just completing the minimum, beyond just looking out for our own, and beyond the closed confines of our own subjectivity. He is inviting us to be open.
He is asking us to open up our hearts, to open up beyond our small subjective reality, to be free before Him. To approach Him with a possible “yes” instead of a definite “no.” Then we no longer respond to God because we feel we “must,” but rather because we know that we “may.” Fr Joseph Kentenich puts it this way:
“A sense of decency [generosity] is motivated not by what one “must” do, but by what one “may” do. It does not ask what is commanded, but what is advised, what will please. It is expressed in in a classic way by St Francis de Sales who said that in the ship of God’s love, there are no galley slaves, only free oarsmen. The galley slaves were fettered to the galleys, and behind them they had the overseer with this whip. We are quite different. We do what God wants, but not out of trembling fear. We only feel completely at home when we are free to act in a generous spirit…Our Lord put it in these words: I always do what pleases the Father, not just what he demands. The one who sent me does not leave me alone, he is always with me, because I always do what pleases him. (John 8:29).” *
“He is always with me!” That means while it must be my free choice and responsible cooperation with God’s invitation, He certainly doesn’t expect us to move the mulberry tree by sheer force of will. He’s giving us the grace we need, the grace that will compliment our small efforts, and together work wonders. We don’t need to ask for an “increase in faith” – He has already given us what we need.
Duty is the first step. It is mastered in the will, through self-discipline. But once we get there, we don’t get gold stars for doing what we’ve already mastered. Instead, we are invited by love to choose, in our own freedom, in a spirit of openness, to trust God and let Him lead us onward. That is a choice that is made in the heart. Generosity comes as a response to love – and real love always opens us to the Other.
The little girl in JJ Heller’s video embodies generosity as she joyfully empties out her little basket of flowers, giving them to strangers on the street. Like JJ Heller says, “Freedom comes in letting go. Open up the window to your heart. You are loved.”
*Cited from Free and Wholly Human, Collected Texts of J Kentenich, Ed. Herbert King, p 294.