Worthless!?!

I loved my time at Virginia Theological Seminary.  I made life-long friendships.  I was formed as a priest.  I learned and stretched and grew.  I enjoyed the vast majority of my three years in Northern Virginia, but the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t a great time in the academic life of VTS.  I took Liturgics from a preeminent Episcopal Church historian.  I took Church History from a theologian who ran back to parish ministry about as fast as he could.  There was no Pastoral Theologian on the faculty for two of my three years and when they finally hired one, she was a Presbyterian who didn’t much know our Prayer Book.  My Systematic Theology courses were taught by a Bishop who liked to tell stories and a guy with a faked Ph.D.  The Biblical Studies faculty was probably top-5 in the country, but, well, some things were left lacking in the end.  Despite those flaws, I wouldn’t say my time at VTS was worthless.  No, it was actually very worthwhile.

It was worthwhile because sometimes you learn amazing things from people working outside of their fields or from Bishops who have wined and dined with religious leaders from Moscow to Rome.  Take, for example, Bishop Dyer’s explanation of God’s grace (roughly paraphrased). By the very nature of your creation, God has hired you for a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year job to build the Kingdom on earth.  When, for so little as a second, you fail to do that work, which we all fail to do, there is no possible way to make up that debt as you are already fully committed to the work at hand.  Someone needs to help you out by filling in those extra seconds, days, months, and years.  This, in Bishop Dyer’s explanation, is what Jesus did on the cross, he worked overtime and brought the Kingdom to earth.

I’m reminded of all of this by the Gospel lesson for Sunday, in which Jesus uses a very difficult word to describe his fellow human beings.

worthless

worthless

“When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

That’s a tough word to swallow.  Forget for a moment the implications for the first 250+ years of America’s history and the slave trade, and just think about the deep psychological power of the word “worthless.”  I desperately scoured through BibleWorks to find that Greek word meaning something else, but I kept coming back to “useless, worthless, good for nothing, and unprofitable.”  From my research elsewhere, I’m pretty well convinced that God does not see us as worthless.  I mean, “he so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son.”

So, dear reader, I’d like your help.  As Jesus talks to his disciples here in Luke 17, what is the point of this hyperbole?

 

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5 thoughts on “Worthless!?!

  1. Steve,
    I don’t think it is hyperbole. I think it is very clearly a description of our utility to God. The more honest I am and the more I see, the more clear it is that very little we do seems to have any real value or consequence, except that God has set up situations so fortuitously that we can’t help but stumble into what he wants. Sort of like the little children who create the “beautiful” artwork only because their teacher has spent an hour cutting and gluing a bunch of thing together so that whatever little Johnny does, it doesn’t entirely not look like a holiday decoration. Most of our issues are due to not being willing to believe how utterly dependent we are on God’s work going before us, and we still manage to louse it up a high percentage of the time. Nevertheless, it is also true that God loves us so much that if all creation and the entire work of redemption in Jesus Christ were necessary for us alone, God would have done it. This love of God also gives us a value surpassing anything conceivable except God himself. The theological mystery is that we are both utterly worthless beyond what our fragile human egos are capable of handling and at the same time of inestimable value, and neither of these cancel out the other or have any place on a human scale that admits to human judgment of ourselves or others. That’s my theological two cents for the morning.
    Adam
    PS I loved all my Bible classes at VTS, and wish you could have had Kate Sonderegger, as well as Bishop Mark for theology.

  2. Adam,

    I was tempted to suggest that your feeling like “worthless” was not hyperbolic had something to do with the fact that it is probably already winter in NWPA and Seasonal Affective Disorder was setting in, until I read the last bit, “The theological mystery is that we are both utterly worthless beyond what our fragile human egos are capable of handling and at the same time of inestimable value, and neither of these cancel out the other or have any place on a human scale that admits to human judgment of ourselves or others.” As I consider the role of a slave, I see how their work is of supreme value, even though they earn nothing in return for it. That duality of being worthless and precious is very worth considering as the week goes on. Thank you.

  3. Great thoughts, Adam and Steve! This conversation reminds me of the ancient Jewish proverb that says we should all carry two stones in our pockets — on one inscribed, “From dust I was formed and to dust I will return,” and on the other, “For my sake was the universe created” — and we should use each as needed. I love that paradox!

  4. Pingback: A Worthless Reprise | Draughting Theology

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