Unprofitable servants and the purification of love


“Jesus said to the Apostles:
“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 table’?
Would he not rather say to him,
‘Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
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.'” (Luke 17:7-10)

I have sometimes found this passage a little bit impenetrable, for in an age where we no longer have servants, the social context feels far removed. Many of us would feel uncomfortable with the idea of having servants in our homes, and even less comfortable with asking someone tired from the fields to wait to eat and drink until after we have been served ourselves.

However, in this passage Jesus begins with the perspective of the person being waited on, and then shifts to the perspective of the servant himself. While Jesus’ story starts with the viewpoint of the master who does not need to thank the servant for his work, it ends with the viewpoint of a servant who does not desire thanks for what he gives and offers. Thus rhetorically, Jesus moves from thinking of ourselves as masters, to thinking of what it means to serve. The servant recognizes that he is not perfect, but does his best, and offering his best is enough for him. The servant is properly humble, and this humility is a model for us in our own discipleship. We are to serve, not to master. We are to do our best, and not to act for honor and accolade, but rather to act for the good of others.

There is another image that follows a similar theme in the readings for today:  gold being purified in a furnace. We are like that gold, whose impurities are being removed from us through the course of living out our human lives. One kind of impurity is an impurity of love. If we only love and serve others because we want something back from them, then our love remains impure. We are then like the servant who wants accolade and honor. Or if we love in order to be loved back, our love also remains impure, for then the real object of loving is to be loved. Although we all need love to an extent, the deeper call is to recognize our call to love others, because Love is our very nature. To love, more than to be loved, is our deepest calling.

Even if we were to love others even out of a sense duty to God, our love would still be impure, because at some level, mere obedience is still implicitly about pleasing others. When our love is truly purified, though, we love because it’s who we are.  This idea of love being associated with our very identity is familiar to parents. I love my children not because I am supposed to love them as their mom, nor my husband because it is my wifely “duty”, but rather because that love constitutes who I am. Once a mom, always a mom: who I am is defined by that relationship of love. Love changes who we are, so that once we love, our identity becomes inseparable from all the loves that we carry with us. This is a richer sense of “I have done what I am obliged to do” than loving from duty. Rather, I love because I am obliged to love by the very nature of my being, which is Love–and by the nature of your being, which is also the same Love.

Purified love doesn’t love for the reward that another can give back, or to fill some kind of a need. Purified love says: I can no longer be me without loving you.

This is the deeper message of the passage about the servant. We love and we serve because love is who we are. The love that we give and the love that we receive all leads back God, whose very Being is a Trinity of Love. We are like the servant who only does what he must, when we discover that to be fully ourselves—and so also fully to belong to God—is to be love.