Back in the day, when I was at teacher training college, we got taught quite a lot about motivation. Some people, apparently, are internally motivated, which means they can do stuff just because they want to. Most of us, though, require external motivation - that is, some factor outside of ourselves encouraging us to act.
It's a basic human truth, I think, that external motivation that is positively expressed has far more power than anything else. So, if I wanted a student to complete a piece of work to their best of their ability, I might say something like, 'I know you can do this because I believe in you and I see great things in you.' Far less effective would be saying, 'If you don't do this, you're going to be in a lot of trouble.' I did actually know teachers that would routinely use negative reinforcement like this - they tended not to like children very much, which always made me wonder what they were doing in education in the first place.
It's part of our basic sense of justice that our efforts should be recognised and commended. So, if a student did complete a task for me and put their back into it, I might say, to motivate them further, 'You've done really well today, and I'm proud of you - keep this up and you'll go far.' Big smile on students' face - and hopefully the prospect of more good work to come.
What about if I had said, 'Yeah, you've done what I asked. What do you want, a medal?' Possibly a less successful motivational strategy. Noone wants to hear that they've done nothing more nor less than fulfil their obligations; noone would be pleased to hear that they've simply carried out their duty. And yet weirdly enough, this is pretty much the attitude of the master in Luke's fable. Servants, Jesus seems to be saying, shouldn't expect praise for doing what they are supposed to be doing in the first place. 'Would the master thank the servant', Jesus asks, 'because he did what he was told to do?' The answer to this question is presumably 'no'. For their part, servants shouldn't expect to receive lavish praise for the routine fulfilment of daily tasks. 'You also', Jesus says, seeming to address the servants directly, 'when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty."'
I remember - again from back in my teacher days - when there was a little film made by the college about the work of the cleaners and security staff. We all acknowledged the hard and valuable work these people did, and gave them a little round of applause for it at the end. I thought it was a great way of saying that we as an institution respected those whose jobs were less conspicuous or glamorous than the teachers. (In retrospect, maybe we were being a bit patronising, but I still think that's better than remaining aloof and disdainful.) When we filed out afterwards, I heard one teacher say ironically, 'Oh well done cleaners, for doing the job that you are paid to do' - the implication being that noone should be applauded for fulfilling the basic conditions of their job description. I remember thinking at the time that this was a horribly mean-spirited attitude, and yet, the point of this particular parable seems to agree much more with that hard-nosed, unimpressed attitude than with my fluffy inclusive one. So what's going on here?
This is an unloved parable, and it tends to be overlooked. It's maybe because it's short - only four verses, in the version that we have of it. Having said that, there are several kingdom of heaven parables that are even shorter - the mustard seed, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price - and these seem to have caught people's imaginations much more. I think the real reason this parable is overlooked is because it's difficult - and also, that it seems to fly in the face of a lot of conventional wisdom about the rest of the book of Luke, and about Christianity more generally.
It's often said that the God doesn't honour the hierarchical distinctions of human society. God doesn't look upon appearances, but upon the heart, the Old Testament tells us - and it's a recurring theme in both the Old and the New Testaments that God cares for the poor, the lowly and the outcast. Indeed, some of the strongest words of judgment in the Old Testament are reserved for those who neglect the needs of the marginalised and the powerless. In the New Testament, of course, Jesus habitually hangs out with the despised sections of his own society - with tax collectors, with prostitutes, with all the people that any respectable member of 1st century Judea could happily write off as the scum of the earth. Luke particularly, it's often said, had a particular concern for the poor and the downtrodden - and a wonderfully inclusive vision of the kingdom of God.
Look at the parable of the great feast in Luke 14. A king (no less) issues invitations to the great and the good to come to his feast. The great and the good all make their excuses - so the king invites instead the despised and the outcast - the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. The implication is that in the kingdom of God, our divisive ideas about people's social worth simply won't apply. What a gloriously radical vision this is! What generosity God has, and how narrow and blinkered our human perspectives seem in comparison!
In the parable of the unworthy servants, though, hierarchical distinctions are not swept to one side by God's gracious inclusivity - on the contrary, they are insisted upon. Any servants who think they can park up and share a nice meal with their master is evidently in the wrong parable. That's not what servants do. Servants prepare the meal for their master, and then, and only then, are they allowed to eat themselves. There's not one meal here, but two - the important person first, and the little guys afterwards.
So what is Jesus trying to say here? Is human hierarchy something that God does have respect for after all?
Well, it might be useful to think about what sort of people Jesus is making his point about. In the parable of the great feast, the focus is on the lower echelons of society - they shouldn't despair, Jesus seems to be saying, because God sees their worth, even if society in general doesn't. I think the parable of the unworthy servants is about the opposite end of the social spectrum - about those in the community who are prominent, the worthies, the religious and civic leaders, the great and the good, the lionised of Jesus' time. Should they be given special treatment in the kingdom of God? Do they have privileges that the rest of us don't have? Are they in an exclusive category of their own - are they special noteworthy individuals, who rise above the collective mediocrity and deserve especial honour? The answer supplied by this parable seems to be, emphatically, no.
Augustine came up with a wonderful apophthegm about the proper attitude to salvation that Christians should have. He was talking about the two thieves on the cross - at the end of the gospel of Luke - one of whom curses Jesus, and the other of whom is promised a place in paradise when he says to Jesus, 'remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Augustine wrote, 'Do not despair. One of the thieves was saved. Do not presume. One of the thieves was damned.' I think the parable of the unworthy servants concerns itself first and foremost with those who are damnably presumptuous - who think they have a special talent, or status, or privilege that distinguishes them from others. Actually, this isn't a parable about the cleaners and the site staff, to go back to my little anecdote of before. This is about people whose time in the spotlight has given them ideas above their station, and who seem to have forgotten the fact that they are servants altogether. Indeed, simply by reminding such people that they are servants, Jesus is putting them firmly in their place.
Jesus is certainly speaking at the expense of individualistic attitudes. The appropriate response to the master's demands is 'We are unworthy servants' - service, in other words, is a collective endeavour, and anyone who claims especial distinction within that group identity is entirely wrong-headed. I said before that this parable seems to insist on hierarchical distinctions, but maybe in one significant way it doesn't - there is no head chef or manager among these servants - there is simply an undifferentiated 'we'.
Perhaps the point here is that when we do things as a group, it is the group that gives us power, not the individual effort we make within it, however splendid that might be. There's a warning here for the gifted and the talented, for those who are excellent - for any member of a group who thinks they should be accorded special privileges over and above that of standard group membership. It's actually a lesson that some of the disciples need to take to heart. Funnily enough, the story isn't in Luke, but in Mark, James and John, who obviously think they're something a bit special, ask Jesus if they can sit at his left and right hand side when He comes into His glory. Not suprisingly, the rest of the disciples are rather annoyed by this, and Jesus Himself stresses that the request reveals an attitude that's actually quite alien to discipleship. It's for the gentiles, Jesus says, to lord it over others - but Jesus' way, and the way for those who follow him, is to serve. 'The Son of Man did not come to be served', He says, 'but to serve'.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul's great image for the collective identity of the church is that of the body. While we all have our own distinctive contributions to make, nobody makes it in isolation from everybody else. Paul writes, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.' In a world that's highly individualistic, there's something profoundly countercultural in this - that actually, the value of what we do emerges not from our own specific strengths and talents, but from our interactions and interrelations with each other. What the parable in Luke reminds us is that in relation to Jesus, we all actually have the same status - and when we start thinking that our power derives from anything else other than the common fact of our service and submission to Him, we end up being unwarrantably high-handed and arrogant.
So, one of the themes of this parable is the danger of thinking too highly of yourself. Another is taking God's graciousness for granted. God has made the first move by graciously creating us to serve Him; as servants, we are admitted into the household of God; and as servants, we have to respond to God's initiative by carrying out our tasks to the very utmost of our ability. Before we even start to serve, we are placed in a position of indebtedness. So can we ever pay that debt of grace off through our own hard work? Well, God's grace is infinite - so, logically, that means, no matter how virtuous or hardworking we are, we can never reach a point when we've paid God off for the great grace He has afforded us. We are always in a position of indebtedness - we never reach the point where we're doing God a favour, or we're doing more than we need to, or we're entitled to some additional reward. The point is, that God has done more for us than we can ever do for Him - so whatever we do, we're always in arrears, and we can never wipe the slate entirely clean. Repayment is our duty, and because repayment can never be made in full, neither can our duty be discharged in full. We can never go the extra mile, in relation to what God has done for us, because God has gone further for us than we can even begin to imagine. You might think you're great. Everyone else might think you're great, but if you are anything less than infinitely amazing, you have fallen infinitely short of God, and you are therefore unworthy.
WellI, this all sounds rather grim and joyless. It's sounds like the Christian life is a matter of endless toil, as we struggle on forever to pay off a debt that can never be repaid. Perhaps part of the problem is in the word 'duty' itself - it's an unsexy word - it suggests what we have to do, rather than what we want to do - it contains an idea of compulsion, and a sense that there's something else that we would much rather be doing if we had any choice about it. Wordsworth, in his buttoned-up, dutiful days as Queen Victoria's poet laureate, called duty 'stern daughter of the voice of God' - and indeed, there is something unavoidably stern, not just about duty, but about this whole parable. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche offers a real voice of protest against the life-sapping demands of duty: 'What destroys a man more quickly,' he asks in The Antichrist, 'than to work, think, and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure—as a mere automaton of “duty”?' That word 'automaton' is an interesting one - there's a sense here that duty makes us less than fully human, without that exercise of the free will that helps us to realise the authenticity of our being.
Maybe there is a more positive way of looking at duty though. Maybe God created us for service. Maybe service is integral to what a human being should be - and maybe therefore we experience the fullness of our humanity when we act to serve. The Anglican liturgy for Holy Communion talks about it being our 'duty and our joy' to offer thanksgiving to God - 'our duty and our joy' - this notion that what we have to do is also what makes us profoundly happy is a powerful corrective to the rather grumpy attitude to duty voiced by Nietzsche.
Jesus was the perfect human being, and he exercised His humanity in service. In the little story I mentioned before, Jesus insists that 'The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.' There's a paradox here - the more humbly we serve, we more fully and greatly we realise our true humanity.
There's actually something in the Robinsonian context that can help to illustrate this further, and it's the image that was handed to you when you came in. Of course, this is the stained glass window in the side chapel by John Piper. I was just sitting in there on Tuesday, praying before the choral evensong service and staring at it...and the more I looked at it, the more interesting things I saw in it. The question is, 'Where's Jesus?' - and this is a bit like a game of 'Where's Wally?', because He's actually rather hidden. Of course the infant Christ is in the top half, but where is the image of Christ in His adult ministry? Look at the bottom section. I think you've got Adam and Eve on the left hand side, then how many people sitting at a table? Twelve. The person on the extreme right seems to be obscured by a particularly dark piece of stained glass, and I guess that's Judas Iscariot. This is the last supper. But where is Jesus? In a central position, like He is in Leonardo Da Vinci's version? Well no. This is actually the version of the last supper we get in the gospel of John, where Jesus kicks off proceedings by washing His disciples' feet - so we find Jesus, if we look hard enough, under the table on the left hand side, doing the work that would normally be carried out by a servant. Can you see him bending down and getting stuck in? This is Jesus the servant king, not taking centre stage as we might expect, but self-effacingly attending on others and putting their needs above his own.
This willingness to serve isn't one of the unique things about Jesus - on the contrary, service is something that He invites us to imitate. Jesus says to His disciples 'You have called me "Teacher" and "Lord", and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.'
What's really striking here is the juxtaposition of words suggesting high status - 'Lord' and 'Teacher' - with the humble act of feetwashing. It certainly messed with the disciples' heads, and it has a power to mess with ours too. The fact is, a king is all his splendour and finery is actually a poor image of God - we come far closer to the image of God when we humble and empty ourselves for the service of others. Giving a sermon - doing the intercessions - well, that's possibly holy. But what's really holy is putting the hymn numbers up beforehand, and cleaning the wax drips off the candles with a knife in the vestry. No possibility of lording it over others there, or getting ideas above your station. God doesn't distinguish between His servants - and that means that the priest at the front is no more worthy in His eyes than someone who cleans the chapel afterwards, or carries the wine and the crips over to the auditorium lounge. We are all unworthy servants.
One of the most moving experiences I ever had in a church was at a meeting with the Bishop of Chelmsford. Now, as you can imagine, he's a really important guy, so everyone was tugging their forelock and being very deferential. At the end of the meeting, do you know what he did? He helped to stack the chairs away - it was a really powerful example of the servant-heart - all the more so because it was coming from someone who sat in the House of Lords and exercises this weirdly feudal authority over archdeacons, priests, and little ordinands like me.
At the end of next summer, hopefully, I'll be ordained, and I won't be a little ordinand any more. I'll be attached to a parish, I'll get to swan around with a dog collar on, and it'll be great. My job title, though, will be 'deacon' - coming from the Greek word diakonos, meaning 'servant'. Basically, I'll be an assistant to an incumbent priest - a holy dogsbody, if you like, who probably gets dumped with all the jobs that nobody else wants to do. So, after this year of being a deacon - being a baby vicar - I'll go through another ceremony called 'priesting', and that'll make me a proper grown-up vicar - so I can do grown-up things, like give Holy Communion, and speaks God's absolution, and do all sorts of other things with the full authority of the church.
But - just because you are no longer called a deacon, doesn't mean you cease to be one, or that you can dispense with the often mundane work of servant, diaconal ministry. If you ever lose sight of your servant heart - if you ever think, 'Well, I'll be a deacon for a year, but actually, my training and my knowledge leads me on to do more important things, like expounding the scriptures, or teaching, or representing the people in prayer to God' - then you will probably end up with a very skewed and a very distorted idea of what ministry is all about. Indeed, the word 'ministry' itself comes from the Latin ministerium, which means 'service' - a minister is a servant, and those who are maybe in the church, maybe in politics, who think being a minister ennobles and elevates them really need to think again.
So - we are servants. We are unworthy servants, because our diligence in service can never match God's graciousness in calling us. Does this mean we need to get down and hate ourselves? No. It means we have to acknowledge with astonished gratitude how generous God is - how infinitely kind and caring - and all in a way that we can never hope to be ourselves. When we recognise ourselves as unworthy, we become aware of the great distance between ourselves and God - one of the great comforts of the gospel, however, is that God has also worked to overcome that distance by revealing Himself to us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the servant both of God the Father and of us human beings. He works to reveal the Father's will, and to carry out the Father's great plans for us that He's had in store since the beginning. He also serves us - the human race - by dying on the cross, thereby taking upon Himself the judgment we would otherwise incur ourselves. Jesus is the worthy servant - the only one who is able to match the Father's perfect love and care with a perfect love and care of His own. If we serve alongside Jesus, He will make good our shortcomings, and our unworthiness to serve. Remember the point I was making earlier, about service being something we do collectively, and not as individuals? Well, if we serve humbly with Jesus - if Jesus is our fellow servant - then His worthiness is something that we all come to share, and we all have a stake in. Jesus' worthiness, in other words, becomes our own, because it is an aspect of our group identity before God. To insist on our own talent, skill, ability or power, and to think it gives us some special privilege, is not only a foolish presumption, but it also risks missing where true worthiness lies - in the perfect love, service and compassion of Christ. Amen.