“Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Those true stories on Dragnet still have power to captivate us more than fifty years after the last episode was originally aired. “Among the many real-life police officers who submitted story ideas for this series was future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.”1 “Contrary to popular belief, Joe Friday never said “Just the facts, ma’am” in any episode. The actual phrase used was “All we want [or “know”] are the facts, ma’am”.”2 Joe Friday did say “Just doing my job, ma’am,” and the phrase is so associated with him that there’s an internet meme with that saying with Jack Webb’s face staring out at you.
I couldn’t help thinking of Joe Friday when I read today’s Gospel lesson which ends with “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.’” If upon hearing that ending what you thought of was our boarded-up government, well, no one would blame you – but Dragnet is more fun.
The Gospel lesson isn’t as fun, in fact it’s a bit troubling. As my friend Fr. Steve Pankey pointed out in his blog this week, there’s a word in that last sentence that is a bit, well, arresting: the Greek acreioi.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the one we use in the liturgy, translates that word as unworthy; even in doing our jobs and doing them well, we are but unworthy servants. Other translations use the words unprofitable, good for nothing, worthless.3 The only other place in the New Testament that acreioi is used is in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, when Jesus tells us that the Lord will “cast the worthless, the acreioi servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ 4
My nephew used to say about people like this, that they are “terrible at life.” It all sounds pretty harsh, and maybe it is on some level. The master in this example did call them unworthy servants. But wait, did he? “So you also,” Jesus tells us, “when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Say, say to yourselves, We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ Well that’s totally different, isn’t it?
Yes, it is, because to the Lord you are of inestimable, ridiculous, unmeasurable worth, and the work that we perform for the Lord brings Him joy, real joy. So what’s with all the acreioi stuff, all this stuff about worthlessness and unworthiness?
Well, it’s about perspective. Jesus tells the story of the master of the household who has a servant out working, plowing or keeping sheep, and when the servant is done in the field, that same servant wouldn’t expect the master of the house to serve him supper. Instead, the servant would continue to serve until his time of service is done, and be thankful for the opportunity to serve.
So what does that mean to us as Christians? It means, in short, that we are to do our work, our Christian work, with deep, grateful humility. It means that each of us has been called to different things in our life and faith, and that none of those things is somehow greater than the other. It means that the person who, out of gratitude for what God has done for them, secretly picks up the trash from the lawn of the widow next door is every bit as loved and regarded as the bishop who blesses a million people on TV, or maybe even more so. Remember the Magnificat, emblazoned on that window, when Mother Mary sang out the Lord regarded what(?) the lowliness, the humility, of His handmaiden.
Are we, the servants of the Lord, unworthy? Sure, in so many ways. But through Christ we are, as the Last Gospel says, we are given power to become children of God, not so that when we meet the Lord He might shake our hand and say “Thanks,” but rather that we might hear Him say “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (I dare you to say “Just doing my job, God.”)
1IMDB, Dragnet, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043194/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv
3Fr. Steve Pankey, Worthless!?!, Draughting Theology.
4Robertson’s Word Pictures