Gospel provides leaders a reality check
Serving God is its own reward, and no special consideration is necessary
October 7, 2007 -- 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Mike Stubbs
As a priest, I sometimes enjoy special consideration and perks. For example, people will often have me go first in the food line at a dinner, especially if it is a parish function. They will treat me better than everyone else. At some churches, there will even be a special parking space marked, "For the Pastor only."
That is very kind, but it also poses a spiritual danger to me. There is always the possibility that the respect shown to me as a priest will go to my head. If I take it for granted, I may begin to expect it as my right. I may lose sight of why I am a leader. I am called, not to serve myself, but to serve others. If I am rewarded in some small ways because of that service, it's a nice side benefit, but that's not the main reason why I do it. On the contrary, I am a servant because Christ has called me to that way of life. A position of leadership in the church means focusing on building up the community, not benefiting myself.
This line of reasoning perhaps helps to explain Sunday's Gospel reading, Luke 17:5-10. That text appears to be a message aimed at leadership in the church, not just the rank and file membership.
The Gospel reading begins with the apostles addressing a question to Jesus. It is significant that the text mentions the apostles, rather than the disciples. Ordinarily, Luke's Gospel identifies the followers of Jesus as the "disciples." Its use here of the word "apostles" suggests individuals who occupy a position of leadership in relation to the other disciples. The teaching that follows, then, is intended for the leaders, rather than for the rank and file members of the church.
That teaching includes a parable which appears exclusively in Luke's gospel. Luke has placed the parable here specifically because he believed it to be an appropriate message for church leadership. It presents the situation of a servant who works for his master, without expecting any reward or thanks. The parable draws a parallel between that servant and the apostles. "When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'"
The parable is very challenging. It might sound unnecessarily harsh for good Christians who are only trying to do their job. On the other hand, for servant leaders who expect special consideration, it might strike exactly the right chord. "Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here immediately and take your place at the table.?'"
Perhaps some of the leaders in the early church expected to be waited on because of their service to the community, like the servant in the parable. If so, the parable quickly disabuses them of that notion. They have only done what they were obliged to do as leaders, that is to say, as servants of the Lord Jesus. To serve God is its own reward. Can we expect anything more?
(Fr. Stubbs, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., has a master's degree in theology from Harvard.)