There was a very entertaining op/ed piece in the news a few weeks ago. It was written by a competitive marathoner who complained that younger racers are no longer interested in competition. Rather, younger runners seem to enter races only for the purpose of being praised for taking part. Some older runners claim that the “performance-related apathy among young amateur athletes helps explain why America hasn’t won an Olympic marathon medal since 2004.”
There are no clinical studies that prove, or disprove, this claim, but one can see why the claim has been made. The “everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality” that is so prevalent in elementary and high school athletics certainly makes credible the claim that “races are turning into parades.”
I don’t know if the op/ed author was being fair to younger runners, but there is a valid lesson here about social trends. We live in a culture that increasingly fosters a sense of entitlement on the part of individuals and special-interest groups. At present, there is a group of federal legislators who are denying funding to the entire federal government based solely on their personal ideology. The sense of entitlement that has become so ingrained in American culture makes it difficult for us to understand what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus told a parable about a servant who plowed a field, looked after the livestock, made dinner and served the meal to the landowner. After having done all that work, the servant said, “I deserve no praise or thanks; I did nothing more than what is expected of me.” The current translation of the Lectionary uses the word “unprofitable,” when the text ought to be translated as “not deserving of special credit.” The servant in the parable said, in effect, that no one deserves a trophy for merely meeting expectations.
The reference to meeting expectations might lead us to assume that the parable is about making an effort to live a strict moral life, but Jesus intended this parable to be instruction about faith. The parable was occasioned by his scolding the disciples after they asked, “Increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5) Jesus replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:6) Evidently, Jesus did not find in them even enough faith to fill the tiny dimensions of a seed.
Jesus used the word “faith” in the same way it was used in this Sunday’s first reading. The prophet Habakkuk lamented the sufferings of God’s people. He asked God, “How long, O Lord, must I cry for help, and you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ and you do not intervene?” (Hb 1:2) God responded to the prophet’s lament by saying, “See, the rash have no integrity; but the just one who is righteous because of faith shall live.” (Hb 2:4)
The “faith” that God spoke of was loyalty regardless of circumstances or events. The prophet wondered if God would deliver God’s people from suffering. God responded that it would happen in due time, but only those who remained steadfast in their loyalty to the Covenant would survive long enough to witness that deliverance. Jesus understood faith in this same way; faith is steadfast loyalty to God, regardless of what might or might not happen.
This definition of faith ought to make us look at what we expect from our prayers. We live in a culture that tells us to expect praise for doing the merely minimal and reward for making no real effort. “Faith,” in such a setting can never mean anything more than loyalty to oneself and a sense of entitlement to privilege. When we define faith as a means to an end we should not be surprised that our prayers go unanswered. When we ask for things that will benefit us personally we are praying for exactly the thing that Jesus tells us not to expect.
Jesus said that the appropriate attitude for his disciples is the attitude of a servant who performs his duty, and does not expect to be praised for accomplishing the ordinary. The kind of faith that Jesus expected from his disciples was not a magic talisman that they could use to get whatever they wanted; prayer to God is not an incantation that guarantees the fulfillment of our wishes.
Jesus’ definition of faith meant personal loyalty to him, and adherence to the Covenant in his blood. He said that if we have even a tiny bit of this kind of faith in God, we are assured that our prayers will be answered. St. Augustine said the same thing, in a slightly different way. He said, “Where there is no faith, there is no prayer.”
Prayer that grows out of a sense of entitlement can never connect us with anything beyond our petty concerns. The kind of prayer that connects us to God is prayer that does not seek a reward, but rather finds sufficient reward in having placed one’s complete trust in God’s providence. There is a long tradition in Christianity of intercessory prayer: of asking for things. In light of Jesus’ definition of faith, however, we should take care about what we ask for and how we ask. Perhaps the conscious goal of our praying should not be about getting the things we want, but rather about learning to desire what God offers.
(Quotes are from “The Slowest Generation” by Kevin Helliker, in the Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013)