“The Comfortable Words.” That’s how some Episcopalians refer to a moment that follows the confession and absolution in one version of the Eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. At that point in the service, the celebrant is directed to read one or more of a short list of Biblical passages that stress God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness: “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden,” or “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” Comfortable words.
At first, today’s Gospel reading struck me as the exact opposite. Uncomfortable words (if ever I heard any), these verses seemed to emphasize not a close familial relationship between God and God’s creatures, but separateness, distance, difference: “You may eat and drink when I am finished.”
But let me offer two reflections that have helped me understand this passage in a different light.
The plot of last summer’s “hot” novel, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, hinges on a life-changing moment in the life of its first-person protagonist, Amir, who stands by as a group of neighborhood bullies brutalize Hassan, his boyhood companion and the son of his father’s favorite servant. For months after this crisis, Hassan’s constant quiet presence around the house reminds Amir of his cowardice, until in desperation, Amir engineers the departure of both Hassan and Hassan’s father by framing him for a theft that everyone knows he would never have committed.
I will not spoil the novel for those who have not yet read it by revealing any more of the story. All that I want to stress is that, where we might tend to see Amir’s guilt as resulting from his failure to be a good friend to Hassan, the author of this book focuses instead on Amir’s betrayal of the master-servant relationship. Like his father before him, we learn, Hassan had ironed Amir’s clothes, brushed his shoes and made his breakfast every morning. What Amir did not recognize was that this service, willingly and even cheerfully offered, entailed a reciprocal (if qualitatively different) care and concern on his side.
When I myself was growing up in England, I was privileged to witness a similar relationship in a very different setting. Miss Potter (the name is fictional) worked part-time for my father’s employer well into her eighties. For most of her life, she had been “in service” (as the British say) as a housemaid and later as a lady’s maid in the household of a member of the aristocracy. By the time I came to know her, those years of living “below stairs” lay decades behind her. But the family that Miss Potter had worked for never, ever forgot her birthday; never missed sending a personal Christmas card; and always invited her, at their own expense, to attend major family events—weddings, funerals, and all the most significant birthdays and anniversaries.
If we read today’s Gospel passage with a twenty-first century North American eye, we may indeed feel excluded, condescended to, even shamed. But surely that is largely because we have lost a sense of the dignity of servanthood and an intuition for how a good master (and God is surely the good and generous master) protects, supports and respects those who serve him. Like Hassan, like Miss Potter, we each inherit an extraordinary privilege: in baptism, we sign on to do our Master’s work. To be sure, then, Jesus asks us in this reading from Luke’s Gospel to “remember our place” (another phrase from Victorian England). But the psalmist reminds us that, as another facet of that relationship, we can count on God’s support when we need it most: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” That should be more than enough of a reward to inspire our loyalty and our best efforts for the Kingdom.
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