Doing our duty
POST BY PGallagher
Friday, October 4, 2019 - 16:16
Could it be that God’s gratitude for our efforts comes to us in our delight and satisfaction in the goodness of the life we lead?
We have done no more than our duty.[i] The Gospel speaks of our doing all we have been told to do by God. We might think of the commandments. We might think of the teaching of Jesus. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. [ii] Loving God and our neighbour is our duty. Our faith imposes quite arduous duties on us. Knowing these obligations, it seems, we should discharge them without fuss. The pattern is that of servants getting on with the various kinds of service for which they have been employed. For men and women ‘of all work’, the first job might be something which keeps them all day in the fields but this wearying labour is followed seamlessly by household duties. Such servants move from one obligation to the next as a matter of course. Even if they are tired by the first shift they do not expect to be let off the next. If we are like such employees, who are at once excellent and perfectly normal, we will be attentive to what we have been commanded and uncomplaining and businesslike in carrying it out. Is this how we have imagined the Christian life? Dutifulness without complaint?
Elsewhere Jesus seems less persuaded that the dutiful servant is the pattern of our discipleship. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.[iii] The Lord wants us to be friends not servants. Arguably, however, the obligations of friends are greater than those of servants. The doing of what is commanded may be less onerous because done with more love. Nevertheless the ‘commandments of love’ are not trifling. It is our duty to love God and to love our brothers and sisters: that duty engages all our heart and mind and soul. Still, there are fewer secrets among friends. Jesus shares with us his knowledge of God. As his friends, we do the work the Lord asks with more understanding and more spontaneity and grace.
There is a doubt about the reliability of paid servants. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The hired servant, since he is not the shepherd and the sheep do not belong to him, abandons the sheep as soon as he sees the wolf coming and runs away, and then the wolf attacks and scatters the sheep. He runs away because he is only a hired servant and has no real concern for the sheep. [iv] Hired hands will do their duty but meanwhile lost sheep get lost, wolves raven and pens fall into ruin. The contrast between friendship with God and an inadequate dutifulness might be like another contrast made elsewhere still in the scripture between law and love. The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfill the law.[v] Our relationship with God is better if we obey him out of love rather than simply because he has required our obedience. We therefore prefer do things for God out of love for him rather than because it is our duty to so act.
When you have done all you have been told to do say: we are merely servants; we have done no more than our duty. [vi] There is a softening here, surely, of the contrast between love and duty? It is not duty or love? The dutiful servant sounds quite self-sacrificing and generous: far from unloving. The good servant is to receive no special congratulation or gratitude for the display of these qualities. We have obligations to God and we discharge them without complaint. Furthermore, in doing our duty in this way we learn of the love of God for us and of the invitation he makes to us to love him freely in return. As with all loves, however, the love of God carries with it plenty of duty. Such obligation is at first taken up happily or even scarcely noticed, because of love, but can later become quite onerous. For richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health. [vii]Faith in God is for the long haul and must endure through the changes and chances. God does not change but we change quite a lot and our perspective on him can alter. We can come, notwithstanding our love, to feel the full weight of the obligations of faith.
Can we love our duty? Can we delight in what we have to do not only for the sake of the person for whom it is done but because our duties are requirements of our faith? Part of our love of God is surely also a love of the way of life which he enjoins on us? We are not all the time squirming under the weight of what Jesus requires of us. He says: my yoke is easy and my burden light.[viii] We are glad of our faith. For the arduous parts, there is plenty of grace. The duties are quite numerous but God’s love is abundant and from time to time we can feel it very strongly. When we are afire with enthusiasm, consoled by God’s grace and mercy and full of confidence about his desire to share his joyful life with us for all eternity, we are not repelled by our duties. God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power and love and self-control. [ix] At such wonderful moments we embrace what we have to do blithely. May such times not be infrequent in our life.
As disciples we long for Jesus’s company and we rejoice to be taught and guided by him. Our duty can merge happily with our friendship with the Lord. However, this is not always so: sometimes it can be hard to hold on. The commandments can be hard to keep. Our religious obligations do not always by themselves move our heart to perform them. See how they flag those whose souls are not at rights, but the upright will live by their faithfulness.[x] We have all flagged. We certainly all know others, perhaps they are very dear to us, for whom a love of God, explicitly acknowledged or in the background, has long since ceased to generate a sense of the inescapability of spiritual duties. Let us be encouraged in their regard by the audacity and hope expressed by one of the prayers of the Mass: May the abundance of God’s kindness surpass the desires of those who entreat him…and give (even to those who do not pray) what prayer does not dare to ask .[xi]
How to do our duty when we do not feel like it? How to recommend dutifulness to others without repelling them? Is there a love of duty which, far from undermining, amplifies love of God, love of Christ and love of persons? This is a love for our way of life. We have been baptized in a faith which delights us. We are faithful to our rule. We are devoted to certain people and enthralled by what our devotion requires of us. We are like those who love their work: not workaholics or fools, but those who can find that even the irksome tasks have a sacred quality. The humdrum chores are undertaken gladly because they are part of the totality of what it has been discerned that God wills. We are like those in a programme of recovery from some spiritual imprisonment. For such ‘doers of their duty’, the bridge back to normal living is not only the kindness of friends and strangers, but the very programme itself, whose details are prized and practiced. We can love our duty.
It would be no unhealthy twisting of our capacity for devotion to see it focused not only on people but on the way of life which enables us to serve them. Could it be that God’s gracious response to our efforts – call it his gratitude – comes to us in our delight and satisfaction in the goodness of the life we lead? Another of the prayers of the Mass expresses this possibility with a wonderful optimism: through the sacred mysteries which we now celebrate with dutiful service graciously complete your own sanctifying work O Lord by which you are pleased to redeem us.[xii] Our doing our duty, enthusiastically or wearily or automatically, far from contrasting with the superabundant love of God may be the effective working of that most challenging love in our life now as we lead it.
[i] Luke 17.10
[ii] Luke 10.27
[iii] John 15.15
[iv] John 10.11-13
[v] Romans 13.8
[vi] Luke 17.10
[vii] The Rite of Marriage
[viii] Matthew 11.30
[ix] 2 Timothy 1.7
[x] Habbakuk 2.4
[xi] Opening Prayer, 27th Sunday, The Roman Missal
[xii] Offertory Prayer, same