Resurrecting Duty

Homily for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

There are some things which you repeat so often as a child that you never forget them as an adult. For us as Catholics, these include things like the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary. When I go to anoint someone who is dying, and offer them the Sacraments for the last time, these are sometimes the only things which the dying person remembers how to do. They may be mostly unconscious, they may have not spoken a word all day, but when I begin the prayers—often slowly, often with tremendous effort—they will cross themselves. And even if they are unable to say anything else, when it comes time to pray the Lord’s Prayer, they will often mumble along, “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

The things we still have memorized as adults may also have to do with the things we studied in school or the sports and extracurricular activities we were involved in. If you studied math and science like I did, you may have things like the Ideal Gas Law from Chemistry, or the Product Rule from Calculus, still stuck in your head. But what came to mind as I was reflecting on the gospel was the Scout Oath. I was involved in scouting for so many years, and I repeated this oath so many times, that it will probably stay with me until my dying days. Those of you who were involved in scouting may still have it memorized as well. But for those who are unfamiliar with it, or who may need a brief refresher, the Scout Oath goes like this: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

The part of this oath that stood out to me in light of today’s gospel is the notion of duty: duty to country, but duty especially to God. Now, the idea of doing one’s duty is a bit old-fashioned. When was the last time, after all, that you heard someone talk about doing their duty to God, to their country, or to their parents? Duty, like obedience, is a word which has taken on such a negative connotation that we don’t often use it, and seldom think of our lives in terms of it. But if we look at the oldest institutions in our country and the world, the idea of duty is central to them, whether that be scouting, the military, the Church, or the monarchy. This was made especially apparent with the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Many of the articles about her passing spoke of her as someone who had a high sense of duty: duty to country and duty to God.

If we want to understand Jesus’ words at the end of our gospel today, we have to resurrect this idea of duty, and free it from its negative connotations. Jesus said to His apostles, and He says to us, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” In other words, when we have done everything Jesus has asked us to do, at most we have only done our duty. And, as we’ll see, we haven’t done even that.

To do our duty is to fulfill the demands of justice. When we give someone what is their due, which is what justice demands, we are doing our duty. Now justice is possible, though obviously not easy to attain, between human beings. It’s possible because human beings are equal. But when it comes to God our Creator, it is impossible for us, His creatures, to ever make a return for God’s goodness. The infinite inequality, the infinite gap, which lies between Creator and creature, makes this impossible.

We can never praise God enough, we can never thank God enough, we can never worship God enough, to make a return for His goodness. That’s why we say to God at Mass, “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory.” All of these words mean about the same thing, but instead of being unduly verbose, the repetition reminds us of this impossibility. We will need not just one Gloria, or one Mass, but all of eternity to sing of God’s goodness. It is God, after all, who brought us into existence, and it is by His sustaining power that He keeps us in existence. Moreover, every other good gift we have received is also from Him. When it comes to what we owe God, the bill is simply too high; we cannot pay it. That is why, even if we have done everything that God has asked of us, we must ultimately humble ourselves before Him and say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” At most we have done our duty—but in actual fact, we haven’t, because that’s impossible.

Now if that were the end of the story, we might leave here feeling discouraged and depressed. We might leave here with heads hung low, looking like a bunch of Eeyore’s from Christopher Robin. But the Good News is that is not the end of the story. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to His apostles, “I no longer call you servants, …[but] friends” (Jn. 15:15). Although by ourselves, apart from Christ, we cannot fulfil our duty when it comes to God, the Good News is that Jesus can. Jesus, because of His creaturely humanity, owes an infinite debt to God the Father. But Jesus, because of His Divinity, is capable of paying that debt. And when Jesus unites us to Himself through the Sacraments and makes us His friends, He makes us capable of paying that debt as well. God’s mercy makes us capable of fulfilling His justice.

So, what’s the point of all of this? The first take-away is humility. Even if we have done everything God has asked of us in our lives, and I know I haven’t, that’s not really something to take pride in, or to congratulate ourselves about. Again, we shouldn’t hang our heads in shame, but we should acknowledge, in all humility, that at most we’ve done our duty—and, in actual fact, we haven’t done even that, because it’s impossible for us, by ourselves, to make a perfect return for God’s goodness. The humility that comes from acknowledging this, if it is true humility, should not leave us discouraged and depressed; rather, it should fill us with joy and gratitude for God’s goodness.

The second take-away is hope. As we grow in holiness, Christ makes us ever more capable of doing our duty. And that’s Good News because it doesn’t mean we have to be Christ’s servants first before becoming His friends. Actually, it is Christ’s friendship with us which makes us capable of being His servants. His mercy makes us capable of fulfilling His justice.

So let us seek this week to do our duty to God. Let’s do so with humility and hope. And let’s do so by entering into an ever-deeper friendship with Christ. Apart from Him, fulfilling our duty is impossible; but with Him all things are possible. Amen.