God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.
I will bless the Lord at all times,
his praise always on my lips;
in the Lord my soul shall make its boast.
The humble shall hear and be glad. (R./)
The Lord turns his face against the wicked
to destroy their remembrance from the earth.
The Lord turns his eyes to the just
and his ears to their appeal. (R./)
They call and the Lord hears them
and rescues them in all their distress.
The Lord is close to the broken-hearted;
those whose spirit is crushed he will save. (R./)
Jesus said to his disciples, "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"
The belief surfaced in Israel about two centuries before Jesus, that God has imbued human beings with something imperishable, a spark or portion of the divine nature itself. Each of us, regardless of race, gender or wealth, has a spark of godhead within us. We begin life created to the divine image; we end it by discovering the fullness of that image in Jesus Christ, when he returns in glory and welcomes us into the afterlife. In between, we trudge or jog along the path of human life. Iin God's mysterious ways, our life on planet earth lets us grow more fully into the divine image. Wisdom, that latest of our Old Testament books, offers this understanding of life. It praises those who have sacrificed their lives for their ideals. God tested them like gold in the furnace, then took them home. Life is a testing-place, a furnace that refines the divine image in us.
The parable about the master and the slave seems to accept customs which are not acceptable today; but Jesus drew a lesson simply from the realities he saw around him. He refers to slavery and to what a master can expect from the slave. The master would not necessarily say thinks for work well done, because the slave had just done his duty. Of course, Jesus was not endorsing slavery; rather he undermined all oppressive structures by affirming the dignity of everyone. He states that what God has in store for us will far surpass our human merits. It is a comforting thought that God blesses us much more than we deserve.
Many books, movies and guru-psychologists in today's culture urge us to be proud of who we are, to proclaim our ego at all times, so that at the end of the journey we can to say with satisfaction "I did it my way." But there is a destructive form of pride that is listed among the seven deadly sins, as something we have to keep in check. The more good we think we have done, the more we can be tempted to be proud, to see the limelight and be recognised by society.
Today's gospel calls for a less self-affirming approach, for a greater modesty about our achievements. Jesus warns against that tendency to be foo full of ourselves and declares, "When you have done all you ought to do, say, 'we are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty'." In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee displayed his virtues and boasted of the good life that he lived. He seemed to think that his good deeds gave him an absolute claim on God. But he was wrong.
The concept of merit is a dangerous one, even though it serves well enough in judging human behaviour on a day-to-day level. No matter how well we live, no matter how much good we do, the grace of God remains a free gift. The good news is, we don't need our own merits in order to have God's favour. God loves us and shows that love by giving us his Son. In response to love, we try to serve faithfully, by doing his will, as we discern it. Our service of God is simply the right thing to do, following our best human impulses.