Titus 2:1-8, 11-14
Doesn’t this gospel passage just rub you the wrong way? It violates our American value system. This is not the way to treat workers. When someone has worked faithfully and hard, they should be given a nice bonus, or a promotion, or a letter of commendation to be placed in their personnel file, or at the very least a pat on the back and compliment for work well done. Praise, too, can be important to us. Mark Twain is on the money when he says "I can live for two months on a compliment."
After all, the servant in this gospel has been working hard in the field since before dawn, plowing, tending the sheep, and numerous other chores. This has been a long day of back-breaking work in the hot sun. The brow is sweaty, feet are sore, muscles aching and the stomach growling. But now it’s getting toward sunset. It’s time to return to the house. No doubt the master will be pleased. He’ll greet the returning worker, unlace the servant’s worn sandals and put soft slippers on those tired feet. The master will have the table set with a delicious hot meal. In my case, that would be hot dogs, chili beans and a root beer float. Anyway, the master would say "take a seat while I serve you."
Wrong. The master does greet the returning worker, but it’s with an apron and the words: "get to work; can’t you see I’m hungry." Not a single word of praise or appreciation.
On a Sunday Mass several weeks ago, I preached the homily at my parish church. After I concluded, something unexpected happened. The congregation broke into applause. In all my diaconate ministry, this has never happened before. Needless to say, I was startled by this reaction, being more accustomed to the occasional snoring. I shared this experience with my wife, Chela, who served as a Eucharistic Minister at an earlier Mass. I thought she would congratulate me on an outstanding homily and want to hear me repeat it her — a kind of reprise. Instead, she said "That’s nice. But don’t let it go to your head. You’re supposed to give good homilies." Where is Mark Twain when I need him? I think Chela may have had this gospel passage in mind. Or, more likely, as a wife and mother, she knows what it’s like to work during the day, then come home and prepare dinner for a hungry family. In either case, she was closer to the spirit of this passage than I was.
What Jesus is telling us is that we can never put God in our debt; we can never have any claim on him. When we have done our best, we have only done what we are supposed to do. We serve the Lord because this is what it means to follow him as a disciple. There’s work to be done, urgent human needs to be met. And there is no time for applause.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.