Sunday, October 7, 2007

Year C: Proper 22 (7 October 2007)

Luke 17:5-10

Several years ago, I, along with many thousands of others, was a dedicated listener to a talk show host who was quite popular at the time and more than a little bit controversial, though I don’t think she’s on the air anymore and I have no idea what became of her. I’m talking about Dr Laura Schlesinger, who was a dispenser of moral advice. I didn’t always agree with her analysis of the issues and problems that her callers presented to her, but I liked her general philosophy, her underlying attitude. Dr Laura was very much about doing the right thing, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s embarrassing, even when it hurts. And, judging from the popularity of her program and books—at least for a few years—there are apparently a good many people who are concerned about how they conduct themselves, concerned about “doing the right think” in their interpersonal and public relationships.

There are, of course, of variety a reasons for wanting to “do the right thing”, some more or less worthy than others, some more or less appropriate than others. These range from wanting to move with the right crowd socially, to climbing the next rung in the corporate ladder, to looking for a source of self-esteem. One motivation that many have for being concerned with “doing the right thing” is the desire—although they might not always phrase it this way—the desire to please God. Now, even the motivation to please God itself has a whole range of submotivations. Some, in the movies at any rate, try to placate an angry deity by throwing a virgin into a volcano. Others try to manipulate an uncooperative God by performing just the right ritual or ceremony.

In our own cultural and religious tradition, a popular motivation for pleasing God has been the attempt to build up a sufficient number of “points”, enough “good deeds”, to secure admission to Heaven after passing from this mortal life.

Any way you look at it, though, the matter of pleasing God, the matter of “doing the right thing” with respect to our creator, is one of the fundamental religious questions that everyone has to some time come to terms with, in one way or another. And this is a question that even someone like Dr Laura cannot always help us with. As we search for the answer to this question, our hope is that by finding the key to pleasing God, God will then bless us, direct his favor onto our lives.

Sometimes this hope for blessing is quite temporal and material. When I lived in southern California in the ‘70s, there was a popular TV preacher who went by “Reverend Ike”. Reverend Ike taught that if you get your act together with respect to God, you'll be wearing mink and driving a Cadillac. And if you were not financially prosperous, that was a sign that you weren't trying to please God in the right way, and if you wanted to get back on track, the place to start was by sending Reverend Ike a substantial check!

At other times, the blessing which we desire is spiritual and eternal. We want the assurance that, on the other side of the grave, we will not suffer the fate of the rich man in last Sunday's gospel parable, but will join Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.

Doing the right thing. Pleasing God.

Brenda and I feel incredibly blessed that all three of our children were able to get the first rate college education. Having gone through the college selection and application process three times, and having spent nine consecutive years with one or more children in college, I have to say, the whole thing has gotten a lot more complex and subtle since I went through the same process on my own behalf nearly four decades ago. The whole adventure really begins the first time a young person takes one of the preliminary standardized tests. The ones who score even reasonably well are soon inundated with promotional mail—some of it very slickly and expensively produced—from colleges and universities all over the country. It can seem like there's hardly a day that goes by that something doesn't arrive from somewhere. What an ego trip! Even though most of these schools don’t really know the students as anything more than a test score, it's all kind of fun, nonetheless.

And then comes the application process. The first early-decision acceptance letters for those who will start college in the fall of 2008 will begin arriving about three months from now. A few of the brightest and best and luckiest of this year's crop of high school seniors will be accepted everywhere they apply, and will even have colleges offering to pay them to attend. It will be tempting for these fortunate young people with multiple acceptances and multiple scholarships to become just a little bit cocky. It will be tempting for them to adopt an attitude like, “Hey! Look at all I've done. They owe it to me.”

They owe it to me. This is a crucial shift, a crucial move, from humility ... to arrogance.

It is equally possible, and equally tempting, for someone who is accomplished at “doing the right thing,” to make the same move with respect to God. “Hey, God, look at all I've done. You owe me your blessing. You owe me a mink and a Cadillac, you owe me admission to Heaven.” We take our cue from our own litigious society, where justice—what one person owes another—where justice is defined by the law, and interpreted and enforced by the court.

But, believe me, making such a move, trying to tell God what he owes us, is a bad mistake! We can't sue God, we can't hold God accountable to the civil code. We cannot place God in our debt by “doing the right thing”. The parable from Luke's gospel that we read today makes this precise point. Jesus describes a scenario that was presumably common among those who were listening to him on this occasion: Suppose you had an employee whose normal job it was to both work around the property—out in the fields tilling crops or taking care of animals—and also to do domestic chores such as cooking and serving meals. You would expect that person to do his job, and to neither complain nor expect a bonus or a special commendation just because he comes in from the field and serves your dinner before he gets his own.

Now, to our own modern egalitarian ears, this all sounds rather harsh. We'd find it ethically difficult to treat an employee in such a way. We'd be more likely to help cook the meal and then invite him to sit down and eat with us. But it would be a mistake to allow such a cultural difference to keep us from seeing the point Jesus is trying to make. At the very end of the parable, Jesus does a flip-flop. He suddenly turns the tables, and instead of inviting us to identify with the employer who is waited on by his faithful and tired servant, Jesus calls us to identify with the servant! “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’“

We are unworthy servants. God does not owe us any special praise or commendation or thanks for our efforts to be kind or fair or ethical or law-abiding or generous or even for being religious—for coming to the Eucharist every Sunday, for giving our money to support the church, for saying our prayers. None of this places God in our debt. “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

Think of the saintliest, holiest, most upright person you know or know about. Now realize this: God is no more indebted to that person than he is to Attila the Hun or Saddam Hussein! That's the truth—the tough-to-take truth.

But there's also good news in all this, marvelously good news. That which God is under no obligation to give us on account of justice, because he owes it to us, God wants to freely give us out of mercy, because he loves us. What we cannot earn ... is ours as a gift! In the words of St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “You are saved by grace, through faith, not by works, to keep anyone from boasting.” To keep anyone from saying, “I got here by doing the right thing.” Now really ... would we want it any other way?

Those of us who are parents know that if we were able to give our children whatever we wanted, it would be much much more than either the law or common standards of decency would require of us. In most cases, it would also be more than our children would even ask. Our God wants to treat us at least that well. This knowledge of God's grace, unearned, unowed, but freely given, enables us to do the right thing, not as a way of earning God's favor or placing him in our debt, but as a response of gratitude and devotion. The knowledge of God's free grace enables us to do our duty—to worship, to pray, to give of our time and talent and treasure—but not because it's our duty. Jesus invites us to get in touch with the Father's love for us, to accept the grace of God shed so generously on our lives, and then, motivated by gratitude, to do the right thing. Amen.

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