Last week we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus’ plight was ignored by the rich man in this life and this ignorance let to hi, the rich man’s, banishment to the netherworld in the next. The early Christians identified with Lazarus. They too were cast aside by neighbors, friends and even family. This is understandable but we can forget that we too can be the rich man and Jesus addresses this today.
Between the story of Lazarus and todays reading Jesus has spoken to the disciples – all who are following him – and tells them that sin is inevitable. He assures them that they will be forgiven if they show awareness and repentance. However, speaking about a leader, he says: “It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin “ (Lk 17:2)
The apostles are the leaders and although often a bit deaf to Jesus they get the point immediately and beg “Increase our Faith”. Jesus is particularly blunt with them” “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed”. That is exceedingly tiny, and Jesus is saying they don’t even have that. We need to ask what faith is to the disciples. Is it merely holding that Jesus is the Messiah and will fulfill the Messiah’s duties? That is wonderful but it is not enough, faith is the realization that Jesus is the way to a deep relationship with God. That through him everything changes. Therefore, any relationship with Him no matter how tenuous can accomplish the otherwise impossible. This image is particularly striking, the mulberry tree has a very extensive root system and is virtually impossible to uproot and of course no tree is planted in the sea.
This relationship is difficult to achieve especially for leaders because of the deep-seated need for power and position. Already in Luke an argument broke out among them was the greatest. (Luke 9:46.) Jesus’ response was to put a child by His side and tell them that” For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.” (Lk 9:48).
Today He is even more direct. The apostles who are his chosen leaders expect to be treated as Rabbis when their apprenticeship is over. In this world they will be greeted with marks of respect in public, given places of honor at table and the means for a comfortable life. (Luke 11:43) They expect to be masters and would sympathize with the master in today’s story. Imagine their shock when Jesus ends the story with: “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 17:10)
The apostles needed to be reminded of their job description: Look at the images that Jesus uses throughout Luke and Acts for the apostolic ministry.
He speaks of spreading the word and calls it plowing (Luke 9, 62) He speaks of being pastors and reminds them that they are to tend the sheep (Acts 20:28)Most powerfully he speaks of being a leader by serving others: let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant”. Lk 22:26).
Apostle means one who is sent, and Jesus is telling them that they are sent as stewards.
Leadership is important as anyone who has been in an institution where that leadership was missing whether a classroom, church or corporation will attest. Leaders can too often think that they are better than others. Certainly, there are those among us with more marketable skills and will be rewarded accordingly but there is no one with greater dignity than another. In a few chapters St Luke will tell us the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. “He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else”. (Lk 18:9) The Pharisee told God how good he was, and the tax collector asked for mercy. Remember the ending: “14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
Jesus owes us nothing; we are always in his debt – he is never in ours. A great and dangerous trap is to think that if we have in any way suffered for our relationship with Jesus or done anything particularly well God should be grateful.
Jesus may not be grateful to us, but he is joyful for us especially when he finds us being true disciples. He has already told us:37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. (Lk 12:37).
This is the joy filled heavenly banquet that awaits all who follow him and even more for someone who has led others to him acted as a true apostle. We would hope that all priests would be apostles, but all apostles do not have Priests. Being an apostle, accepting the role of Jesus’s steward is not by ordination but by invitation. It is call that comes from our Baptisms.
Are you invited by Jesus to take a greater role in being his presence in the world? If you feel this then think about this Gospel passage. Are you prepared to be a servant? There are people who seek involvement in the church because they are good at manipulating small groups and a parish provides amble fodder. Others have unresolved issues and mistakenly think they can be worked out through ministry. The basic requirement for stewardship is humility, to give up not to take in.
For the past few weeks and for several more we will be talking about stewardship. The most tangible sign of this will be a request for increased financial offering. But it is not the most critical. Stewardship if it is to be apostolic is giving up more than what you have but sharing who you are. It is not only raising money but using it effectively. Stewardship really begins after the money has been collected and we need to put it into action. There is no greater excuse for lack of action than lack of money. When that is removed, we stand before God with either empty hands and a cold heart or full hands and hearts on fire.