The Grinch tried to steal Christmas by dressing up as Santa Claus so as to go unnoticed on Christmas Eve. At one point, while stuffing a Christmas tree up the chimney, the Grinch encounters little Cindy Lou Who who asks him, “Santie Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?” The Grinch looked like Santa, but he didn’t seem to be acting like him, and Cindy Lou, a girl of maybe two, was quick to ask why.
This Sunday, the Lectionary gives us two of three “sayings of Jesus” that if Luke hadn’t expressly told us that Jesus said them, we’d seriously wonder about. When Jesus doesn’t act like we think Jesus should, are we willing to be like Cindy Lou Who and ask questions?
Take, for example, the second non sequitur from Jesus that ends with this difficult sentence, “So you also, 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!'” The whole issue of slavery aside, the idea that Jesus would encourage us to think of ourselves as “worthless” is totally foreign to the modern American reader. We’re so used to God so loving the world and picturing Jesus as a giant Santa Claus in the sky to even begin to think that Jesus would utter this phrase.
So what do we do with it? Well, we can dig into the translation a bit. The Greek word translated in the NRSV as “worthless” can also mean “useless,” which doesn’t help very much. Friberg also says it can be translated as “mere,” which feels a whole lot safer. To be “merely” a slave seems a lot more palatable than to be a “worthless” slave. A deep cut into exegesis takes me into the Thayer Lexicon, which describes this saying of Jesus as hyperbole. “By an hyperbole of pious modesty in Luke 17:10 `the servant’ calls himself achreios, because, although he has done all, yet he has done nothing except what he ought to have done; accordingly he possesses no merit, and could only claim to be called `profitable,’ should he do more than what he is bound to do…” Of course, resorting to calling it hyperbole feels like cheating my way out of a difficult saying.
There’s also the way translations have changed over the years. From “unprofitable” in the King James and Young’s Literal to “unworthy” in the RSV, NIV, and ESV to “merely” in the CEV; it seems to be only the NRSV that takes such a hard line in translating achreios. This makes stepping back from the Grinch Jesus a little less Joel Osteeny. Maybe it isn’t that Jesus called us to feel worthless, but instead that he is reminding his disciples that in the Commandment to love, there is no wiggle room. One cannot do anything more than has been asked when living into the full expectation of loving God and loving neighbor. There is no way to do it more, only to fail and do it less. And so, when we all is said and done, do we recognize that we have merely done our duty, or, more likely, do we give thanks for the graciousness of God who forgives us each time we fail to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
It might not sound like the Jesus we are used to, but it is Jesus who invites us into love.