Today's Gospel story is puzzling to many people. It even sounds a bit harsh. The servant has been out working hard all day. The master has probably been sitting around the house or, at best, has been engaged in some high level negotiations. Dirty and weary after a long day's work, the servant comes home and the master has a number of expectations before the servant may eat himself or rest. The master expects the servant to serve his supper, wait until he has eaten, and then probably wash the dishes, sweep the kitchen and dining room, run a few errands, serve him his after dinner coffee, and so on. Then the servant might be allowed to sit down and eat himself. And Jesus says that this is what the servant should expect! He is, after all, the servant. The master does not owe him any thanks or consideration. The servant should understand that doing all of this is simply his duty.
This feels rather harsh - especially to those of us who are not even used to the idea of servants. It doesn't seem right that one person should work so hard and then be expected to wait on another person who probably has not been working very hard.
What is the point Jesus is trying to make?
The focus is really on the servant, not the master. And the point is that nothing the servant does can obligate the master. The servant can not earn the master's praise or obligate the master to repay him for his good work. That's not because the master is unkind or ungrateful. But it is because the master does not owe the servant anything, while the servant probably owes his very life to the master.
What Jesus is doing is drawing an analogy between God and the master, between the servant and us. The behavior Jesus is discouraging is the idea that we can somehow earn God's approval. And the scripture that comes right before this story is one of the places we might have acquired some bad theology. Jesus says that if you had faith so weak that it only resembled a mustard seed, you could still say to the most deep- rooted tree, "Pull yourself up by the roots and move over there," and the tree would do it! We listen to that and we assume that our faith somehow controls God - if we have great faith God will do what we ask. If our faith is weak, God will not respond.
The place where this is most often heard is when someone is ill. "If you have faith, you will be healed," someone will say. Or, worse yet, when someone is not doing well they will say, "your faith isn't strong enough." We assume that if Jesus says our little faith can move trees, then if we had any faith at all, we would certainly be healed. But, we fail to recognize that this means we would be manipulating God. In other words, if I have enough faith, then God has to do what I want God to do!
But that is not what Jesus is really saying. Jesus makes it clear that we are simply expected to have faith - that is part of being Christian, just like serving is part of being a servant. Our faith does not require God to do anything. God does not heal us because we have faith. God heals us because God is God. God loves us simply because God chooses to love us. God's power is active in our lives. God is present to us. God gives us more than we ask or deserve. God sustains our very life. God does all of that but NOT because we have faith. God does that because it is God's nature to love and heal and sustain life.
Neither our faith nor our actions can earn us God's favor. Nor can our faith or our actions earn us salvation - the other common misconception. Many people believe that they must be good or do good in order to be saved. Or, on the other hand, they believe that their current or prior behavior makes it impossible for them to be saved. Yet there is nothing you can do to earn salvation - it is a free gift offered by Christ through his life, death and resurrection. Even as God's love is a free gift offered with no requirements or regulations. God simply is love. And Christ's life, death and resurrection have already saved us. Nothing we can do, no amount of faith we can generate, makes God love us more or makes us more saved. Being saved is already a done deal - an accomplished fact.
Our responsibility is to respond to God's action in and through Christ. We are called to a life of faith; not to obtain anything from God but in response to God's loving action toward us. We are called to have faith, not to get God to love us or heal us or to get Christ to save us. But we are called to have faith because God loves and heals us. We are called to have faith because Christ has saved us.
Our faith does not need to impress God or anyone else. Our faith simply needs to respond to what God has given us. So the next time you are concerned about whether you have enough faith, stop and get in touch with God's love for you. Remember that Christ's life, death and resurrection already has made eternal life available to you. Become aware of all the gifts God has given you. And know that you are infinitely loved. Respond to God's love with thankfulness and love in return. That is your faith. And that faith, even if it were as small as the tiniest mustard seed - that faith can transform you and the world. For God, working through you can do more than you can ever ask or imagine.