Put In Our Place
by Fr. Peregrine Fletcher, O.Praem.
It can be an uncomfortable experience when we’ve “put in our place,” reminded of our lower status, that we are not always in charge. This is what appears to be happening in the daunting scenario Jesus proposes to His apostles today. We hear Him describe a situation in which servants return home from their labor, ploughing the fields or tending the sheep. For many, the idea of coming home after difficult day’s work is a comforting thought; going home to rest, relax and to eat a meal.
But the servants the Lord speaks of today come home after their labors and open the door to the house, only to be surprised by more work to do. Upon entering, they are greeted by a command: “Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished.” And then we hear the only proper response these servants should give: “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”
Here, the Householder is putting the servants in their place. We can conjecture many reasons why he would: purifying the motivations behind their service, preparing them for continual humble labor, mortifying their desire for praise. While all this may seem rather heavy, there’s a very important element to the scene which shows that, far from being burdensome, Jesus’ message is one of immense consolation.
In this scene, the Master is actually home with his servants—He has not departed for a banquet, nor gone on a journey. He has not left His servants alone, which so often is the case in the parables of Jesus. Just several chapters before, Jesus spoke about servants who must continue their labors all while the Master is away and while awaiting his return. Shouldn’t it be consoling to them that “the boss” is away and now they have the house to themselves, unsupervised?
Well, consider who their Master really is here. He is the one who hired them, giving them work that, yes is hard, but is also honorable; duties that show mutual trust and wages to earn a living for themselves and their families. What’s more, this Master has given them care of His own property, taken them into His own home. In short, He has given his servants everything they need and want and more. So when they say that they’re “unprofitable,” they’re not simply practicing self-effacement, but admitting truthfully that, though the Master may be receiving their service, it is they themselves are the beneficiaries of the Master’s generosity in allowing them to serve. Serving in His presence is not only their duty, but their delight.
Ultimately, who is this Master but the Lord Himself: The God of all consolation, the God who is Love. What joy it would be for the servants to open the door after a long day’s work and find Love Himself siting there waiting for them! Not finding Him there—now that would be upsetting. The recurring disappointment of those servants who must stay alert without the pleasure of the Master’s felt presence—that is a heavy burden. To open the door after a long day’s work and see that the Master’s chair is empty; to set the table for Him who doesn’t arrive night after night; that is a more daunting scene than what we heard in the Gospel, where servant and Master were united together.
So today’s Gospel is really one of great consolation; but if what I’ve said here has failed in communicating this, I have one detail left unsaid. After all the servants’ work was done—ploughing the fields, tending the sheep, and serving the Master—after all this, the Master told the servants that they themselves finally could sit down eat and to drink; and, as if the Master hadn’t done enough already, what will the servants find set before them to replenish them? What shock, what surprise, for we His servants to find spread before them, not only a meal that replenishes, but transforms: the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Master Himself! The One who hired them, gave them a place to live and carry out their labor, has now given them Himself as their meal, desiring to unite with them so as never to part: As Pope Saint Leo the Great once said: “The effect of our sharing in the body and blood of Christ is to change us into what we receive…so we bear Him within us, both in body and spirit, in everything we do.” 1
My brothers and sisters we really are the “unprofitable servants” who have somehow inherited a share in immense riches beyond our reach, most evident in the Holy Eucharist. With this great gift we never need to fear distance from the presence of Jesus. He is our true Master and has given us lodging in His own home, meaningful work to do in His service, and a place at His table where He feeds with Himself. So we see that, in today’s Gospel, when we were told to call ourselves “unprofitable servants,” Jesus certainly was putting us in our place—it just turns out to be a most exalted one.
1. From a Sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great as found in The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II, p. 660.
“Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.’”
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