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The Gospel passage proposed to us is a difficult one. The first part where it speaks of faith (vv. 5-6) and the second, where a baffling parable is given (vv. 7-9) are rather enigmatic and raise questions. The same discourse is valid for the concluding verse (v. 10) in which even the most faithful disciples are called “useless servants.”
We start with the marvels that faith, even as small as a grain of mustard, is capable of producing. The saying of the Lord is introduced by a request of the disciples: “Increase our faith.”
Is it possible for faith to grow? It’s either one believes or does not. Then it could not be a more or less. This would be true if faith is reduced to the assent given to a pack of truth.
In reality, to believe does not pertain only to the mind. It involves a concrete choice, implies a full and unconditional trust in Christ and convinced adhesion to his plan of life. Things being so, it is easy to realize that faith can grow or diminish. The journey in following the Master at times is faster, at times less and at times one gets tired, slows down and stops.
The experience of an uncertain and vacillating faith happens everyday. We believe in Jesus, but we do not trust him totally. We don’t have the courage to accomplish certain passes, to untie ourselves from certain habits, to make certain renouncements. Here we have a faith that needs to strengthen itself.
The request of the apostles reveals the conviction they have come to. They realized that spiritual maturity is not a fruit of their effort and of their commitment, but a gift of God. For this, they asked Jesus to make them more decisive, convinced, generous in the choice of following him.
From the context one also intuits the reason for which they address this request to him.
He has proposed the difficult way that awaits them: they have to enter through the narrow door (Lk 13:24), be ready to “hate” father and mother (Lk 14:26), renounce all their goods (Lk 14:33) and—as written in the verses immediately preceding our passage—they must be capable of forgiving without limits and without conditions (Lk 17:5-6). Before such demands, it is understandable that they feel the lack of strength.
The temptation to call into question one’s own choices and to step back is great. Probably, it also says to them as many had already done: “This language is hard, who can understand it?” (Jn 6:60) They are afraid not to make it. Hence the invocation for help blooms spontaneously in their mouth: increase our faith.
Instead of listening to them, Jesus starts to describe the marvels that faith produces.
He employs a paradoxical and very strange image for our culture. He speaks of a tree—one doesn’t know well if it is a mulberry or a sycamore—which could be miraculously uprooted from the earth.
If Jesus refers to the sycamore, then the image alludes to the very strong and profound roots of this plant. The roots withstand for six hundred years and it is very difficult to uproot from the ground.
Jesus says: Faith is capable of realizing the impossible: to uproot a sycamore or to make a mulberry grow in the sea.
Matthew and Mark do not speak of a tree, but of a mountain that could be moved with faith (Mt 17:29; Mk 11:23). This must be a very familiar and proverbial image used by Paul (1 Cor 13:2). The message is, however, the same and can be summarized with the words pronounced by Jesus in another context: “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mk 9:23).
A question spontaneously comes: how come no one has ever done such miracles? Jesus did not do it, not Mary, Abraham and the great saints. They didn’t accomplish them. It’s not difficult to understand because Jesus was speaking in a hyperbolic way.
The miracles he spoke of are the possible changes that could be realized in those who believe. They are the inexplicable transformations, absolutely unforeseen, but can be realized in our society and in the world when we really trust the word of the Gospel and put it into practice.
Some examples can give light to us. Whoever has not thought that hatred, grudges, prejudices that permeate the relationship between peoples, are unavoidable realities? Who has not thought that certain familial conflicts are irreconcilable? Who, at least once, has not retained that the roots of enmity are so deep and could not be pulled off?
For one who believes—Jesus says—no irremediable situations exist. Those who trust in his word will be witnessing extraordinary and unexpected miracles; they will see fulfilled the marvelous changes announced by the prophets: the desert will bloom (Is 32:15) and the valleys will be transformed into a Garden of Eden (Is 51:3).
This affirmation is followed by a parable (vv. 7-9) that leaves us a bit bitter and disillusioned. It is not easy to understand why Jesus spoke in this manner.
It tells of a slave who, after a hard day’s work, returns home very tired and with a face burned by the sun. The master, instead of complimenting him for the service done and inviting him to sit and eat a piece of bread, demands harshly: “First, serve me, after I am satisfied, you will eat supper.”
Since the master represents God and we are the servants, we have something to worry about: at the end of our life will we be really welcomed in this way?
The parable surprises also because, some Sundays ago, we heard Jesus spoke in a very different way: “Blessed are those servants whom the master on his return will find them awake; in truth I tell you, he will put on an apron and have them sit at table and he will wait on them” (Lk 12:37). A moving scenario!
The paradigm used in today’s passage does not correspond to our actual sensibility; nay it irritates us. We have to place it in the cultural context of the time when a slave was considered as property of the owner and he could not make any claim. Jesus does not discuss this situation but takes it as a fact. One day he will set out the innovative principles on which the new society proposed by him will be based.
We have to remember Jesus’ reminder to the disciples during the last supper: “The kings of the pagan nations rule over them as lords, and the most hardhearted rulers claim the title, ‘Gracious Lord’. But not so with you: let the greatest among you become as the lowest and the leader as the servant. For who is the greatest, he who sits at table or he who serves? He who is seated isn’t it? Yet I am among you as the one who serves’ (Lk 22:24-27).
He does not intend to confront the problem of slavery. He only makes use of an example to transmit his theological message. He wants to correct the misleading way the Pharisees (of that time and of today) understand the relationship with God.
The spiritual guides of that time preached the religion of merits. They were saying: at the end of life, God will remunerate based on the performance of each one. From here there is the need to accomplish the maximum possible number of good works: prayers, fasting, alms, religious practices, sacrifices, scrupulous observances of the commandments and precepts. All for having a right to a major recompense!
This way of understanding the rapport with the Lord corresponds perfectly to our logic.
We think it right to imagine such a God. We are not aware that we are reasoning exactly like the Pharisees. Man—who is dust and ash—cannot claim any right before God, from whom he receives all gratuitously.
This religion of merits is damaging to whoever practices it. It establishes wrong rapports marked by a subtle egoism among persons and deforms the rapport with God. One does not really love the person who accomplishes the good with an objective of accumulating merits before God. He still puts himself at the center of his own interests, helps the brothers/sisters to better one’s own spiritual life.
Jesus wants the disciple to put aside any type of egoism, including spiritual. Whoever loves in an unconditional and gratuitous way as the Father in heaven enters the Kingdom of God.
The major trouble provoked by the religion of merits is to reduce God to an accountant in charge of maintaining the account books in order and signing accurately the debits and credits of each one. The parable wants to destroy this image of God.
We don’t like it; it even irritates us, because of the idea that in doing good we acquire merits before God is too rooted in us. It is too deep as the root of the sycamore.
The concluding saying—already very hard—is made even tougher by some inexact translations that speak of “useless servants.” It’s better translated: “We are simple servants; we have not done nothing more than our duty” (v. 10).
Jesus does not intend to underestimate the good works; he does not look down on the work of a person nor assumes an attitude of arrogance towards one who commits oneself to accomplish what is good. He rather tries to liberate the disciples from a form of egoism dangerous for them and for others: the pursuit of self-fulfillment for their own justification, over preoccupation about one’s health, or in the exhibition of one’s own flawless conduct. He likes to purify their hearts of the impulses to emulation and spiritual rivalry.
There is no need to compete in order to grab the favor and love of God: there is an abundance of his love for all.
Jesus wants them to understand that the behavior of the Pharisee who shows his own merits is foolish because all that is good is always a gratuitous gift of God and not a merit of the person. “What do you possess—says Paul—that you have not received? If you have received it, why are you proud of it as if you have not received it?” (1 Cor 4:7).
Italian missionary and biblical scholar