September 16 (O.S., 3) 2018: 16th Sunday after Pentecost; Hieromartyr Anthimus, bishop of Nicomedia. Martyrs Theophilus deacon, Dorotheos, Mardonius, Migdonius, Peter, Indes, Gorgonius, Zeno, the Virgin Domna, and Euthymius (302). St. Theoctistus (467), fellow-faster with St. Euthymius the Great. St. Phoebe, deaconess at Cenchreae near Corinth (1st c.). Martyr Basilissa of Nicomedia (309). Hieromartyr Aristion, bishop of Alexandria, in Syria (3rd c.).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Like shepherds, merchants were held in low repute by most of the ancient world.
A shepherd was all but synonymous with “thief.” Alone with the flock, shepherds (who were frequently hirelings), could easily help themselves to a lamb or a sheep. If confronted, he could claim the animal either wandered off in the night or was killed by wolves.
Given this background, it would have been jarring for people to hear Jesus refer to Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” Contrary to all expectations, Jesus says of Himself that He is a shepherd Who will protect the flock and be faithful in His accounting to the Owner.
But to his listeners, this would have sounded as nonsensical as Jesus calling Himself an “altruistic thief”!
As with calling Himself the “Good Shepherd, ” Jesus referring to His disciples to be “profitable servants” inverts cultural expectations.
In the ancient world, hard cash was rare. Most of the economy ran on barter. Given the limited viability of bartered goods, profit like that in the parable was unheard of. While some individuals had more than others, the fabulous wealth like that of the profitable servants could ordinarily come only from corruption.
The truly wealthy, those who had large reserves of gold for example, were wealthy because they were able to exploit political connections. Emperors, governors, government bureaucrats, soldiers, tax collectors could all become wealthy because they all had the ability to exploit and extort others.
So when Jesus calls us to be “profitable servants”? This would have been as jarring as when He called Himself a Good Shepherd.
And yet, Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are called to be His profitable servants.
Just as there is a way to be a good shepherd (John 10:11-18), there is a way to be a profitable servant.
We have all of us had the experience of feeling cheated. At some point, we all of us wonder if the merchant or the car dealer, the mechanic or contractor hasn’t been dishonest with us.
On the other hand, we have also all had the experience of making a purchase in which we felt truly cared for. It’s not for nothing that we use the phrase “goods and services” to describe the myriad economic exchanges we make daily.
The morally good way to acquire profit isn’t simply to meet the customer’s desires or needs. No, the morally good merchant, tradesman or professional also gives evidence of caring for us personally; of caring sincerely for our well-being and dignity.
Just as in the economic realm, the morally and spiritually profitable servant is the one who serves others, who fosters the well-being of his or her neighbor. This is the life to which we are called this morning by Jesus.
And like the servants in the Gospel, we all have talents that can be put at the service of others. For many of us–and this is important–those talents include technical knowledge. We are (or are preparing to be) scientists, professors, attorneys, business people, health care professionals, and teachers.
We all of us have technical expertise and in our baptism, Jesus has called us to put these not just at the service of others but to use them for their salvation. Whatever trade or profession, the skills we possess are meant to help others come to know and follow Jesus Christ as His disciples and witnesses in the Orthodox Church.
Let me pause for a moment here and say something that may sound harsh.
I think often the clergy fail to value properly the technical knowledge and expertise of the laity. Clergy tend, if I’m honest, to reduce the evangelical witness and pastoral life of the Church to the theology and the precincts of the church. While the fathers, the Creed, the Liturgy, the sacraments and the worship of the Church are all essential to life in Christ, they don’t exhaust what it means to be an Orthodox disciple of Christ.
Whether clergy or not, we minimize the technical knowledge of the laity because we fail to appreciate the evangelical witness that is inherent to excellence in the trades and professions. Through the service the laity–the service all of you–provide daily in the workplace and the home, others are being prepared to receive Christ.
How does serving others, prepare their hearts to receive Christ? In many ways.
Think, for example, of the sense of gratitude you have when someone goes even a little bit beyond what’s required by their job. The server in a restaurant or checker in a grocery store who takes an interest in your day. The tradesman or salesperson who puts your needs before his or her own economic interest. The physician or teacher who speaks to you not simply as a patient or as a student but as someone he or she truly values and appreciates.
All of these experiences can lift us out of our selfishness and foster in us an experience of gratitude. Over time, these experiences lead us to seek the Source of this goodness we see in others. And we come to want ourselves to be kinder.
All of these experiences, in other words, can inspire us to faith in Jesus Christ.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! In baptism, God has given each of us, given each of you, talents that allow you to be profitable servants. Through the everyday exercise of these talents, God has called you to prepare the hearts of all you met to receive the Gospel.
God has called you, in other words, to be profitable servants through your service of others.