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The 17th Sunday after Pentecost; The Propers of the Day

In the 2nd half of the 19th century Horatio Alger wrote over one hundred books for boys. Extremely popular in their days, they survived well into the 20th century. Some of you may have read some of them; you really only needed to read one; Alger was a formula writer, and virtually all his books have the same plot.

The hero is a poor boy from the slums or the country, determined to make his fortune. He scrapes together enough to start a small service business, say, shining shoes. He leaves his humble home before dawn, walks to the business district, and shines shoes all day, walking home after dark. There he studies, reading books found discarded in garbage, in the light of a street lamp outside his window. One day he shines the shoes of a wealthy businessman, impresses him with the effort he puts into the job, and his personality and charm, and is offered a job as a sweeper. He works hard at that and at studying; gets noticed by a manager who promotes him to mail-boy. And on the story goes; he excels at this and he is soon promoted again, and again, and again.

In time our hero is earning a modest though adequate income. However, rather than spending this on food, drink, fun and better accommodation, he puts himself through night school. Inevitably, the hero is promoted high enough in the company that he is invited to a staff party, where he meets the owner’s daughter. They fall in love, and have a romance opposed by her father, during which he continues to work incredibly hard, studies even harder, and finishes college by correspondence. All ends well; the father comes around, realized the sterling qualities of our hero, gives permission for marriage, appoints him manager of the business, and makes him the heir of all he owns. Personal effort and hard work have won the day, and our hero lives happily (and rich) ever after.

These books promote and proclaim a world view which became very common in North American 19th and 20th century thought, and which still colours how we see our society and world today. Indeed, some literary scholars and social historians give Horatio Alger the credit for actually creating this world view. It is a view now so common, underneath so much of our thinking, that we are seldom aware of it, and even more seldom question it. In a sense the Horatio Alger stories are cartoons of a principle that underlies our thinking about “how things are”! First of all, success is defined in a very particular way, as climbing the corporate ladder and eventually coming to run the business. In other words, success is defined by power and money. Secondly, success is inevitably obtainable by sustained effort and hard work. Underlying is the idea that if someone simply perseveres long enough, and works hard enough, success will inevitably result. If you don’t think that these ideas are still very much believed today, just read any of a number of popular magazines or books dealing with how to be successful. Or, watch (very)late night television (or these days, online ads), with their plethora of infomercials and videos dedicated to selling systems and methods for getting rich. All assure us that if one follows this system one cannot help but succeed. They only differ from Horatio Alger in a “minor” detail; often hard work is no longer required, and success is possible through manipulating real estate or financial systems, or just plain gambling. However, they certainly promote the basic idea; perseverance will produce certain success; defined as the accumulation of wealth.

There are several problems with our defining success being solely by money and/or power, and these being a sure consequence of hard work or the following of a system. There is an immediate logical problem; not everyone can become the head of a company, no matter how hard they work; not everyone can accumulate more money than others, no matter how well they work a system; and that there are only a few boss’ daughters around to be married.

But for Christians, for professed followers of Jesus Christ, there are far more serious problems than that. If we believe that God is fully revealed in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth, then our society’s preoccupation with success and wealth is the opposite of what is revealed in Jesus. Jesus was no success story! The poor boy from the sticks of Nazareth did not find success in the city. He lived the life of an itinerant preacher, made only a few friends, and made enough enemies in most places that he could only travel by round-about routes. Instead of working hard all day and studying nights, it seems he much preferred hanging out with people, talking, eating, drinking, enough so that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Rather than frequenting the business district, and influential people, he preferred those on the margin of his society; simple working people, and what we might call undesirables. Whenever he met a wealthy or influential person, rather than seizing the opportunity, it seems he did his best to offend them. On his last trip into the city he might have had a chance of success, his supporters even organised a parade for him, but rather than capitalizing on his momentary popularity he started a near-riot in the temple, irritating the wealthy and influential leaders beyond their toleration. They had him arrested and executed.

No, Jesus was not a success story, at least not in the sense that Horatio Alger and our society would define it. If Jesus reveals God, then God does not care about success stories, at least not in the conventional sense. If Jesus’ choice of friends and people with whom he spent time reveals God’s choice, then God does not count success or wealth or social prominence as a qualification. And if we want to be followers of Jesus, then we should not try to be success stories at following. If we follow the God who is revealed in Jesus, then we ought not and cannot expect our efforts to be rewarded by success, no matter how hard we work, or how much we follow a system, at least not success in the way our society tries to define success.

All the lessons for today contain evidence that the life of following the will of God is unlikely to lead to worldly measures of success.
In the Old Testament the prophet Jeremiah (traditionally the author of Lamentations) bemoans the fate of Jerusalem, emptied of her people who are taken into exile. Jerusalem the holy city, the very dwelling place of God has been sacked, and her people, God’s chosen people, bemoan their fate in far-off Babylon, as we hear in the Psalm. This particular episode in Jewish history, the history of God’s own chosen people, illustrate the comment once made by Fred Buechner, “When God chooses you for his own, your troubles have just begun.”

The apostle Paul too, in the opening passage of his 2nd letter to Timothy remarks casually on the rewards of the apostolic calling. This is the letter of a seasoned missionary, the apostle of Jesus to the Gentiles, inviting a more junior follower in the faith to “… share in suffering for the Gospel …,” and parenthetically remarking about his life as a servant of Christ; “… for this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do …”. From what we know of Paul he was a tireless worker for the Gospel, and yet we also know that he was never a success in the worldly sense. Rather than rewarding him, the world often ridiculed him, ignored him, punished him, and if legend is true, eventually killed him, all for his efforts on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus.

And if we still think that the Christian life ought to bring rewards, or at the very least recognition, the words of Jesus reported by St. Luke will surely disabuse us. Having worked hard we are not rewarded by being allowed to relax. No, we are told simply to continue working, to continue serving. We are not to think that simply doing our duty, simply doing that which God asks us to do, will bring with it reward or recognition; it will not even bring thanks. And furthermore, we are not to think of rewarding ourselves, we are not to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, we are only to say;

          We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.

The implications of all of this for our life in Christ are quite simple, but also quite different from the way our world would like us to think of life. To put it quite bluntly, Jesus Christ does not call us to be successful, Jesus Christ calls us to be faithful! If we are faithful to the will of Christ it is unlikely that the world will reward us with worldly success. The Christian life contains no build-in rewards, no raises or promotions to tell us how well we are doing as Christians. The Christian life is a life of ambiguity, in which we can never be quite sure that we are doing the right things.

And no matter how much we do for Christ, there will always be more to be done; the task will never be finished in this life. And no matter how well we think we are doing at living the Christian life, we must remember that we are, ultimately, unworthy servants, we are only doing what is our duty. And only afterwards, when we serve no more, when for us the task is done, then perhaps we shall hear;

          Well done, you good and faithful servant. Now you may eat and drink.

Copyright © 2019 by Gerry Mueller.