Almost nobody watched Saturday Night Live in the 1990’s, and for good reason, but there were a few bright spots. Al Franken’s character, Stuart Smalley, was one of my favorites. If you remember, Stuart Smalley had his show Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley. He was a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist. Stuart had lots of advice, things like “It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world.” He had lots of affirmations as well, but he always returned to his big three: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.
Franken used Stuart Smalley to poke fun at the prevalent culture of the time, the overwhelming influence of the culture of self-help. It was the era of motivational posters on the walls of every office building and school cafeteria, of Susan Powter telling us to “Stop the Insanity,” and eventually wondering who might have moved our cheese.
It was not an era that would have taken well the Parable of the Worthless Slave. “So you also,” Jesus said, “when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants (worthless slaves); we have only done what was our duty.’”
Speaking of culture, let’s look quickly at the culture Jesus was talking to at the time. In the ancient Mid East, many families, “even relatively poor ones, had at least one servant. The very poorest families gave some of their children to other families as servants to ensure that they would be fed.” That was just the reality of the world at that time. If you were deep in debt or found yourself otherwise destitute, you likely became a servant, or more like a slave or indentured servant. Paid nothing, but fed, clothed, and sheltered. In so many ways, the servants became part of the household, and took on the duties and expectations of younger family members.
“The master in this parable apparently has only one servant who both tends the fields and does the cooking. The thrust of the story is clear and straightforward. Good servants do what they are told. A master never has to thank a servant for doing what was expected.
“Most translations cause confusion with their rendition of Jesus’ final advice to disciples: “When you have carried out all your orders, learn to say: we are worthless servants; we have only done our duty” “Worthless”? Literally, the Greek adjective means “without need.” The New English Bible captures this sense in its rendition: “We are servants and deserve no credit.”1
We deserve no credit. If we take this one sentence on its own, it appears Jesus does not approve of participation trophies. But there has to be more to it than that; there must be some good news.
“The good news in this image of our life with God is that, in living the life of faith, we come to see that we have a secure role in the “household of God” – an early metaphor for the community of the Church. Like a household (servant), we belong in that household even more than an “employee” would.”2
And so it is with confidence in being part of the family that we can say that we are unworthy servants, that in being faithful members of the family of God, what we do in service to the family is done with gratitude, with thankfulness for just being allowed into the family.
We express this most clearly in the Prayer of Humble Access: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. That’s the elegant way of saying that what we receive from the Lord, all that truly nourishes us, is not payment for work done or a reward for being good, but rather the free and gracious gift of a good and merciful Father.
As it turns out, we are not good enough, we are not smart enough, but doggone it, God loves us.
1John J. Pilch, http://liturgy.slu.edu/27OrdC100216/theword_cultural.html
2Dennis Hamm, SJ http://liturgy.slu.edu/27OrdC100216/theword_hamm.html