The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied… “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: 5-6; 10)
A servant in ancient times owned no property and was not free in the way we understand freedom today. The servant attached to an estate or household was wholly dependent upon his master who owned property. In the evolving feudal system property was paramount; it was the large country estate that fed the economic system. Before the factory worker, there was the servant who was tied to the land and beholden to the master of the estate.
Understanding this master & servant relationship is necessary for evaluating the quotation above taken from one of Jesus’ parables in today’s gospel reading at Holy Mass. The obligation of the servant to his or her master was not solely one of labor contracted and duty performed; it was also one of gratitude owed. Before the world advanced on the notions of universal freedom and private property there were masters who possessed and retained, and servants who relied and obeyed.
In our time it is difficult to grasp these types of relationships – the patrician and plebe or the nobleman and commoner – which was as cultural as it was economic. The ancient and medieval master/servant relationship usually existed for defense and in the absence of central government. At its finest the good master commanded respect yet also cultivated the well-being of his tenants who came to trust his direction and virtue. Noblesse oblige was once a way of life in which those privileged to have wealth were expected to act with generosity and care to those without privilege. However, it was not a system based on our notions of freedom, education, and occupational mobility, nor did it fail in becoming oppressive, but at its best it rested upon authority and gratitude forming bonds of trust. Thus to follow the instruction of Jesus and say that we are “unprofitable servants” under obligation means to say that we are grateful to build up the divine estate from which we receive its fruits. The request of the Apostles – “increase our faith” – is thus our common hope of being bound to God to gain all his graces.
For this 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time we have placed on our bulletin cover a work by the Neapolitan master Franceso Solimena entitled Rebecca and the Servant of Abraham (1710). Solimena was a well-established baroque master in Naples (Italy) where he relied and built upon the baroque of Rome.
In this painting we catch the servant as he approaches Rebecca to become the wife to Isaac, Abraham’s son. We see the servant as the true representative of his master dressed in the fruits of his master’s prosperity. He carries gold in his left hand and offers a bracelet to Rebecca with his right so as to tie this around her wrist and bind her in betrothal to Isaac.
This servant is not oppressed and weak. He is himself noble and he holds in his hands great wealth. But as these are symbols of grace he claims these not for himself but as the possession of his master. He has great trust in his master; he loves Abraham just as we should love God for all his mighty and gracious gifts.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services