As long as we live we must work. Know that you are a servant overcome by much obedience. You must not set yourself first because you are called a son of God. Grace must be acknowledged, but nature not over looked. Do not boast of yourself if you have served well, as you should have done. The sun obeys the moon complies, and the angels serve. Let us not require praise from ourselves nor prevent the judgement of God nor anticipate the sentence of the Judge but reserve it for its own time and Judge. — Ambrose
Somewhere the Gospels recall the episode of a widow at the offering gate. You remember the story: She tosses in 5 cents while other donors came with thousands and had their act recorded carefully by clever use of trumpets and other clever public relations efforts so that their act of giving would be carefully remembered and their generosity and their honor be told at dinner parties, in synagogues, and at their funeral.
Meanwhile the woman walked away wondering: I have given 5 cents. It means nothing. I hope it was enough. I pray the God of Israel understands this is all I have to give. I hope he will not count me with those who are unfaithful for the meagerness of my gift.
It is impossible to forget the parable of Lazarus and the rich man once one has heard it. It is a haunting tale. It will, and is meant to, leave the listener with an uneasy feeling. What will I do now? How will I live now? After the parable, Jesus tells them that it will be a Lazarus and the rich man kind of day for those who teach falsely, a stab at the pharisees no doubt who would have taught the blessedness of the rich man. (17:2) How will one teach this faith? They were disciples after all. Followers who would one day, they were sure, be elders in the Jesus Faction, tough they were certainly wrong about how that would be. How would they lead, now that Jesus has just told them that they were to be the most forgiving people on the planet? (17:4) What authority does a leader have when he never lays down the law and makes it stick? More about that later.
They ask for more faith and a cryptic saying about the strength of faith as well as a strange parable follow. After that, Luke reminds us that we are still on the road to Jerusalem. Another matter arises: The community of lepers, one a Samaritan, approaches.
Temptations indeed come. The disciples ought to know. Once they asked the master whether they should call fire down on Samaritan villages who would not receive them. The Lord had rebuked them. Shortly after he had urged them not to be too concerned or impressed that the demons fled before them. Rather, we should rejoice that our names are written in heaven. Yes, back in chapter 10 they were sure they could indeed call down fire on Samaritans. Now they ask for more faith.
What is faith? What does it mean to the disciples? Is it power? Is it remarkable? Is it carried like a trophy? If you have any faith, what will you do with it? If you have faith, what will that do to you? Do you have your faith recorded carefully by clever use of trumpets and other clever public relations efforts so that your faith-walk would be carefully remembered and your faithfulness and your obedience be told at dinner parties, in synagogues, and at your funeral?
Those who fall at his feet, as a healed Samaritan will soon do, will be commended that their faith has saved them. That Samaritan was a “foreigner” — a hapax in the New Testament but a word used in the inscription at the entrance from the court of the gentiles to the court of Israel warning “foreigners” not to draw close or otherwise accept that they will be killed for it. The Samaritan “foreigner” now draws close to Jesus because he cannot draw close to the temple.
How, for pities sake, does faith, whatever it might be, fit with work? After all the parable, if we can call it that, is not about faith but about working for the master. Does Jesus ever commend anyone for keeping the law? Does he not actually tell the rich ruler who has kept the law and prophets since his youth that he lacks one more thing? (Lk 18:18ff) That lacking thing is following Jesus without any other obstacle, not even family (Lk 14) or riches. (Lk 18) He is invited to follow in submission to Jesus. That, Jesus admits, is a hard shift to make, so hard that it might only be possible with God. (Lk 18) Yet, that act of submitting to Jesus might just be faith — a work of the Holy Spirit.
What does it do? When Zacchaeus is up in his tree it is not he but the Lord who draw near. Though it is not instantaneous that Jesus’ drawing near works an utter conversion in the man and then, yes, he does works. So, faith and work are somehow connected. The Augsburg Confession is certain of this:
Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God's will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. (Luke 17:10) The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone. (AC VI)
Darn it, one of our verses is in this article. “This faith” is brought on by the drawing close of the Holy Spirt. Faith happens in conversion.
So how, dear pharisees current and former, do you live and lead in this faction of Jesus? The monastic tradition has an answer: get out of the way and while you do this, remove any obstacles to the Holy Ghost that you notice. The saying is Carmelite I believe: “Do good and go away.” It is done by humility. Benedict would write:
1. Revere the simple rules in life, 2. Reject your personal desires, 3. Obey others, 4. Endure affliction 5. Confess you weaknesses. 6. Practice contentment, 7. Learn self reproach, 8. Obey the common rule, 9. Understand that silence is golden, 10. Walk away from the trivial. 11. Speak simply, 12. Act humble in appearance. (paraphrase is mine)
Richard Foster summarizes the little way of St. Thérèse, the patron saint of pastors, this way:
. . . seek out the menial job, welcome unjust criticism, befriend those who annoy us, help those who are ungrateful. (Yes! That does sound like a pastor at work)
The genius of it is simple: The work you do personally makes no difference to you unless it works against the Holy Ghost, then watch out. (Lk 12:10) So you are the abbot? Go to the kitchen and cook when it is your turn. Even Benedict did the farming at his monastery. It’s cold outside and no one wants to deal with wet laundry? What do you do if you are Thérèse? You do it because it has to be done and you doing it might make the life of your sisters a smidgen easier. It is the progressive taking the lowest place day to day. It is called “White Martyrdom” and it is a matter of dying several times a day by humility and love in servitude to others so that obstacles between the other and the Holy are removed and a meeting is now inevitable.
The warning sign at the entrance to the court of Israel was probably well intentioned and commanded in some way by the Torah. But it is an obstacle that keeps away those who seek God. Worse, it puffed up those who were allowed to enter. The Samaritan Leper finds a place where that obstacle is absent: The feet of Jesus. The disciples must learn that they too have it in them to be obstacles: just ask Bartimaeus. (Lk 18:35)
The pharisees, however, are obstacle generators and are condemned because of it. (Lk 11:37 - 52) When they praise themselves, have their righteousness recorded carefully by clever use of trumpets and other clever public relations efforts so that their act of giving and obeying would be carefully remembered and their generosity and their honor be told at dinner parties, in synagogues, and at their funeral, they are demeaning the widow whose gift resulted from faith now shaken by the question: Did I do enough? It would be well that a millstone was tied around the neck of their teaching so it can sink quickly into the depth of the sea.