Who among us doesn't like a bit of recognition, a pat on the back for effort and a job well done? Fr. Timothy Lowe emphasizes the relational aspects of trust and mercy as he unfolds the ego-busting lesson in Luke's gospel. "So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we've only done what was our duty.'" (Luke 17:10) Ultimately, it's not just about doing the basics, but about going the extra mile.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm delighted to have with me Fr. Timothy Lowe. Fr. Timothy is a retired priest who has served within the Orthodox Church in America, most recently from the Albanian Archdiocese in Worcester, Massachusetts. Fr. Timothy also spent significant time at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, serving as their Rector. So welcome back, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:40
Well, thank you, Hollie, I trust you've been well.
Hollie Benton 0:43
Yes, thank God. So Fr. Timothy, in thinking about this podcast I was thinking about who among us doesn't like to be recognized for a job well done. In our secular jobs, we've come to expect bonuses, pay raises, promotions, and other plaques of recognition. And beyond secular employment, it does feel good to be recognized for the time we volunteer and the contributions we make to nonprofits and to our churches. Perhaps the public recognition inspires us, or perhaps puts pressure on us to give more. When we try to live as faithful servants in the household of the Lord God, does a pat on the back help keep us going? Have we grown to expect the Lord's commendation and perhaps feel deserving of thanks from our priest when we show up for liturgy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 1:33
Well, let's be honest, who doesn't like a pat on the back? Right? Any sign of appreciation, encouragement can be quite important for maybe the things you outline but certainly in the relational reality that defines our lives. I think what's important, at least for us, as Christians, is what goes on between our ears, how do we think. We all need to remember that we really are in the same ark together transversing, the same stormy weather dealing with issues of life. In other words, whether we like it or not, life is relational with all of creation, hence my use of the arc image. We are not soulless robots. I mean, I have a wonderful dog, and he responds to praise. In fact, our trainer said yes, praise him, praise him. And in the end, it will make him a happier creature, and also more responsive and more obedient. So it is relational. So I'm not against the job-well-dones in appreciation, of course, I went into a ministry that doesn't pay bonuses and whatnot, but that's, we don't care about that. Most of us, without deeply thinking about it, compartmentalize our lives. Perhaps it is just a coping or survival mechanism. We have jobs, family responsibilities, and then whatever is left, discretionary time, let's call it, that is ours. And with the "our time" of our lives falls all of the what I would now call non-obligatory activities, hobbies, recreation, entertainment, reading. Most church related activities, I think, also fall in this category. So yes, the priest, depending on his personality will either become the taskmaster controlling, shaming his parishioners into better church attendance, being on time, or he will be the cheerleader, telling them all about the wonderful and exciting things going on, praising them incessantly, trying to make them feel good about themselves as a community, making a difference in people's lives, what I would call sometimes, a bit like an activity director. And the latter is certainly more effective. And as much as Americans do not respond very well to yelling and shaming, especially the young people, no way. So the question, I believe, comes down to teaching them about what are the essential things that we must be attentive to as Christians, and for which I think we will be held accountable at the great and last day. And in doing this, it is the Lord in His commandments that are the reference point. For example, I once came into a parish as a newly assigned priest, following a priest who had completely lost the parish, because he was constantly badgering, berating them, for coming late to church and other things. He was always judging them. And so he was communicating to them all of his frustration and anger. And so even the good things he was capable of, because he was not a bad priest by any stretch of the imagination. He was losing them. And so in my opinion, I think he was fighting the wrong battles. I mean, this is the example I used with them, because one of the reasons why there was a transition going on, and I said to them, I said, you know, there are 168 hours in the week, and I'm really mostly interested in the 166 hours that are not church related. And so what are you doing in those hours with your lives as Christians? In other words, I simply, casually, even with a little bit of humor, because that's generally my style, I changed the discussion and focus. And actually, they were quite responsive. Did they start coming to church on time? Oh, God, no, they were they were horrible. Okay, let's be honest about that. But I honestly didn't care, they knew I was going to be poking my nose into the other 166 hours, because this for me was the most important thing. So you know, there are battles to fight and things to do and ways to approach but finally, what are the essential issues?
Hollie Benton 5:16
Yeah. So the biblical passage that we chose for today comes from the gospel of Luke, specifically 17:7-10. So here it is. "Will any of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, come at once and sit down at table? Will he not rather say to him, prepare a supper for me and gird yourself and serve me until I eat and drink and afterward you shall eat and drink. Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also when you have done all that is commanded you say we are unworthy servants, we've only done what was our duty." So if I might paraphrase this passage into a contemporary example. Will any of you at the grocery checkout ask the clerk to come to dinner? Do you rather not say whether you prefer paper or plastic? Do you thank the clerk for putting your bread and potato chips at the top of the bag lest they be crushed underneath by the cans of beans? So you also, when you have done what is expected will say, I'm employed, I'm only doing my job. So Fr. Timothy, why is it so hard for us to have a simple mindset like this when it comes to doing our jobs as Christians?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 6:34
It's a good question. I just said above that life is relational. Relations are based, require faith and trust. If you ask about a simple mindset and relationship to Christ and His commandments, I believe that it really should be that simple. And if it is not, then we have a relational problem, a lack of faith, lack of trust. Now for us to accept baptism means to accept that Christ is the Lord and master. And we are no longer volunteering in our discretionary time, living this compartmental life that I referred to above. But we are now living a completely integrated life of service to others, and following the Lord's teaching, His commandments. Let me say it again, we are not robots, as though we can mechanically do this, whether we like it or not. The reason I like these words from Luke, is that it attacks our ego needs, the need for recognition, our need for security and pride. Even in service to Christ, we are still tempted to make it about ourselves from time to time. And this, quite frankly, I believe, is a relational disaster, a torment to everyone else on the ark, to use my earlier metaphor, because we are together. Now imagine, as well, that after doing all those things required of you as a servant to Christ, you and I together have to say these words we are unworthy, it's one translation, unprofitable, another translation of the Greek word, another one more, a little bit more harsher to our American ears, worthless servants, we are unworthy, unprofitable, worthless servants. To me, this is an absolute ego buster, which I think is the point. In other words, it is nothing exceptional. Now there are many examples of what being exceptional in the Gospel might actually look like. For example, think of Christ asking the richer ruler if he wanted to be perfect after he said he had fulfilled all the commandments and so on, What else must I do? Well, if you want to be perfect, if so, he had to go and sell his riches and follow. He declines. But I would actually exhort our listeners to reread Matthew chapter five, the Gospel, to refresh themselves. The profitable servant to his master Lord has to do more than his basic duty. Otherwise, he's just like the Gentiles. You love those who love you, you give to those who give to you, you don't go the extra mile. And when asked for your shirt, give him a cloak also. It's these kinds of things. So I think ultimately, it's also not just about doing the basics, but about going the extra mile at some point.
Hollie Benton 9:15
I was noticing Fr. Timothy, that this passage in Luke's gospel sits between Jesus's teaching to forgive your brother, even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and then following, we are only unworthy servants. Following that part is the story of the ten lepers who cried out, Jesus master, and they call him master here, have mercy on us. And then were cleansed on their way to show themselves to the priest. And then only the Samaritan who was healed turned back to give thanks and praise to God and fell at the feet of Jesus with thanks. It seems on the one hand, Jesus is making it clear that it's our duty to forgive our brother, maybe the bare minimum. Maybe what is just straightforwardly expected, as straightforward as tending sheep or preparing supper or bagging groceries. And on the other hand, to be ever thankful of the great mercy our Lord and Master has shown to us. And I wonder too if this juxtaposition of the passages is indicating how our Lord and Master demonstrates mercy, regardless of him being thanked. When the other nine lepers who were healed didn't return to say thank you, it's not like they immediately fell ill again. And notice that Jesus isn't expecting thanks for himself, but praise for God. He asked, Did only one come back to give praise to God? Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ subjects himself as servant to the will of his Father, and then defers the thanks to him. So we see here that our Lord and master indeed does extend mercy to us whether we acknowledge it or not. In the same way, He expects us to extend mercy to our brother, by forgiving him even seven times in a single day. So what do you think Fr. Timothy about the thread of these passages?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:05
Well, actually, I'm glad you brought in the thread around the three versus, four verses we read today. See, I think you're asking, obviously, another relational question, and how we are to relate to our brother's failings. Forgiving. Of course, if you read that first thread, he's actually required to come and ask us for forgiveness. Now, I don't know about you, but that almost never happens. Okay. But that is not the issue. The issue is the restoration of a broken relationship within the community, and the basis for it to be a community built upon the life and the teaching, the mercy, the forgiveness, the love of Christ. So it is interesting that immediately after they're told that they have to constantly be in a position of showing mercy and forgiveness when asked, when called upon, when begged for, it is interesting that the disciples then immediately asked Jesus, the strange thing, increase our faith, okay, increase our faith, which is, it's about faith and trust, okay, it's a relational crisis. Okay. Now, behind that question, I think, as if Jesus had some sort of Harry Potter wand, where he could sort of immediately just magically increase their faith instead of the issue of their trust, trusting more and obedience. Like, come on Jesus, just snap your fingers and solve all of our relational issues, our psychological foibles, ego, fear, self doubt, and so on. Note, if you look at this, that Christ does not give them an answer, nor does He increase their faith, which is, I think the point, he does something actually quite humiliating, and said that even if they had the littlest amount of faith, a tiny mustard seed as his example, they could do something that is functionally humanly impossible to do, take this tree and plant it in the sea. So it is then that he launches into the few verses about what we read today, the dutiful servant, who is faithful, but must confess he is unprofitable at the same time. On the surface, it is a bit of a conundrum, which I think sometimes is the point. Instead of making it easier answering the question, he poses more questions and leaves us sort of betwixt and between. Now, what I like about your question is this section ends with the story of the ten lepers, and only the Samaritan returning to give praise to God. Again, relational issue, how do we relate to the mercy and the love of God that is being poured out on anyone and everyone? So God will send His mercy on all, because, and I think this is said so often in the biblical text, his concern will always be about the totality of His creation. But in the end, in the end, maybe only a very small percentage will make the connection and acknowledge Him as the source and giver of mercy and therefore life. So for a ministry this is really important to remember because we always have grandiose dreams. And I must say something and you can actually edit it out, I don't care. We have these grandiose dreams, the worst I recently heard was someone announcing that we would have an orthodox revival in America, especially if we manage to bring more CEOs to Orthodoxy, as if that was the sort of hopeful future of our church and this country as a missionary church.
Hollie Benton 14:41
I want to actually lean in to the comment about the CEOs becoming Orthodox. Could you say a little bit more why that's critical.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:48
I put it in the context of grandiose scheme that this is what is going to bring revival to America. I'm all for preaching the gospel to anyone, and the CEOs will be the last ones to follow the gospel. Why? Because it's a story of the rich man all over again, you're dealing with people with power and money, and the Lord is going to challenge them about redirecting their power and money. So my point is, if thinking that this is the solution to revival in the future of Orthodoxy is engaging these people and preaching to these people, when in fact, the Gospel ultimately, and who is responding are those who are the most desperate, the poor, the needy, and because you and I both know self sufficiency, security, once we have it, we are quite reluctant to give it up. Hence the story of the rich man, he went away sad, and because he had much wealth. So I think the idea that this was the key is my critique, not about against these people, per se, the Gospel is for anyone and everyone.
Hollie Benton 15:53
He works with those who see their need for mercy, who see their need for salvation. And when we're comfortable, we don't recognize it.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:01
God is a need base. When we need Him, we pray. When we don't need Him, and we don't need him, I don't need him right now for Him to provide me food, shelter, clothing, pay my bills, we're doing it just fine. Unless a hurricane comes rolling through Myrtle Beach, then we have a different issue. So I don't minimize the need-based reality that brings us to our knees. Now we need to move beyond that and discover that we are constantly in need. Even if we have all of the physical material things, what shall we eat? What shall we drink? I mean, I've lived overseas seven, eight years of my life, I find the deeper faith amongst the poor, the faithful poor, because there's nothing glamorous about poverty. I was talking to very poor man yesterday in Palestine, he says, and I can't tell you the difficulties of his life, which are immense. But I'm closer to God, I'm closer to God, I pray more. In other words, he realizes that without the presence and the mercy and the love of God, there is no hope for him, because he can't trust in the princes and the sons of men. Now, if you will indulge me, I would like to end with a bit of a story. And it's a story about the ten lepers, as it really does tie into what we've been talking about today. In 1977, I took a sabbatical, went first to Jerusalem to do some coursework at the Ecole Biblique, French Dominican Archaeological Biblical Institute. As is typical, when you're going someplace in another Orthodox jurisdiction, you get a letter from your bishop stating you're a priest in good standing, and you take it to the local bishop since I was in a foreign country. So in that instance, it was the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. So I go to the Office of the Secretary General, I show him my official paperwork, and he receives me warmly, a Father Timothy, if you need anything, we will help you if you want to concelebrate, you now have permission, he gave me a document. So we exchanged phone numbers. So I did some work for him from time to time. And then one day, he said, I'm taking a trip, I have to go to visit a few remote villages that have just a few Christians remaining, and I go there from time to time over and above my job, he was the secretary general of the patriarchate, which means he was busy beyond imagination, because his office, he as a person was running the whole show. And that meant everything that had to do with the business. And you know, the Greek Patriarchate is a very large business, owns more land than anybody else other than the State of Israel. So we went to this village of Burquin, because there was an old Byzantine church there that had fallen into disrepair. And it was originally a cave church, it was the church dedicated to the ten lepers from our gospel reading today. So there's my segue into that story. And he had been helping to restore it, because His concern was that you would have the Holy Land but no Christians, no natives, just a bunch of foreigners like himself, who come passing through, but there wouldn't be any sort of living community, which then would, of course, make a mockery of what the church is as a community of believers, and not just a bunch of stones. Anyway, he was restoring in this very remote village, very poor village. So he was going to check up on the restoration to meet with some of the elders and there's a few other things that he did there. And this was completely on his own, which is the point I wanted to make, Hollie. It's about going the extra mile, becoming not just a worthless, unprofitable servant, but still faithful, as one who is actually doing more more than even expected. So we get to this village, the elders knew he was coming, but it had spread that the bishop was coming, which is a big event. The elders say, oh, there's a family that needs your visit now, we can't wait. It is the top priority. So we go into the house of this family. It turns out it's a Muslim family, which was extraordinary because you know, he's not the religious leader of any Muslim families, but they heard a religious leader was coming and they needed some comfort. We didn't know why until we got to the house. And it was during Ramadan. So Ramadan is a time of fasting during daylight hours, so it's not like they're going to offer you the typical hospitality, but their son, their 12 year son had just been shot and killed. You know, there was a stone throwing incident, there was an Israeli incursion for no reason. But let's not get into the politics of the Palestine Israel conflict.
But they had lost their son, their 12 year old son, they were in such deep mourning. They just wanted the comfort of a person of what they would say, of faith, a person of importance just simply to sit with them. They just wanted the comfort of his presence. And I remember to this day, I can remember the picture, I can remember the poverty, the barefooted people, the silence, the sadness, and the hopes that just his presence would be the extension of some comfort, the mercy of God, okay, because they were coming as people of faith, and he was coming to them as people of faith. It was an extraordinary, impossible, difficult, but even simple thing just to be there present with people of faith, sharing. And what this was the tragedy, and not the glory of forgiving your brother. One last epilogue to this story, after we had met with a few community leaders, he went to go visit one more family. And this was a family who were so poor, that the bishop had been paying out of his own pocket, his own source of funds, the tuition of their son to go to college, because they could never afford it, and it was a gift that was unimaginable. I mean, you know, for those of us that have children and have them in college, or would have the difficulties if we don't have the money and, loans and whatnot, he was willingly doing this. And again, their appreciation, like the one Samaritan who came back to praise God, was immense. But they had no physical way to show the appreciation other than just to thank and to thank, and to thank and to give the gratitude. They also were poor. They didn't have hospitality, nobody was fasting. But what did they give us other than the tea was the only thing that they had, which was an orange. And literally, we shared an orange, not just the bishop and I, we shared a single orange. Again, it's all about what goes on in our mind and our heart and our soul and our Thanksgiving and our fulfilling of the commandments of God and then realizing there's always more we could do than just the simple obedience to the basics. Okay? You know, it's a Christmas season. So we can exhort all of us, let us do more, because we can, we can in some way, God will show us ways we can. I mean, yes, if we have money, we can always give more money, but that sometimes can be impersonal. It's the relational touch. Simple story. Over and above beyond his job, his job description, no one else was doing it. No other bishops were attending. Maybe they didn't even care, why? Because these were remote villages. Excuse me. These were Palestinian Arab Christians, not part of my ethnic tribe.It's all there in the sort of Samaritan dynamic. So anyway, there you have my story,
Hollie Benton 22:59
Wow. I'm inclined to ask Fr. Timothy, even with the mention of over and beyond, I know that there's still sin crouching at the door. Well, what's over and beyond? What am I least expected to do? And I'll do that and, then maybe this Christmas season, I'll go over and beyond. Tell me Father, how might I go over and beyond? How can I calculate?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 23:24
You see, that's the point. It is impossible, especially okay, if you were to look at where I live, you know, I live in a suburban track. Everybody in this neighborhood has everything that they need. So there's not the poverty we talked about, and so on. And maybe if there's a personal tragedy or whatnot, then you can go, it's more the severe of how we're interacting. And this is where we Americans want to be given assuredness. I can even tell you a joke, someone older than myself, who's also retired, recently said, Fr. Timothy, what should I be doing with my life? I'm going to ask you a funny question. What should I be doing with my life? Okay, this person is in his late 70s. So he meant it as a joke, but also behind it is the question. Okay, I have all this time and I am free to pick and choose. You see, my point is we can go looking for people to give to, causes to give to, endless Giving Tuesday opportunities came to our male and email. Are we deeply engaging life and community? If we're living isolated in our suburban areas, like often I am, I mean, I have no reason to go out. My wife works from home. I mean, functionally, there's not much difficulty. We're retired we don't have children to care for and we're not involved in activities. And then what is the local church doing as an avenue to engage their local community? For us wealthy suburban Americans who are pretty much isolated unless we go hunting, sniffing something out, which maybe we might be called to do. It's more problematic, I think.
Hollie Benton 25:07
Right. Right. Thank you, Fr. Timothy. Most challenging, self-critiquing conversation today, and I really appreciate your ministry.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 25:18
Well, you know, we can't figure things out once and for all, this is what we want. We want to have things nice and neatly packaged. And we don't want to have to wrestle with the messiness, okay, or the unpredictability. And I, for one, think that if we're engaged in communities and people's lives, there will be people that God will send to us that need our help. But we have to be open to it and we have to be engaging and seeing if it's what we're supposed to do. And I have countless stories of that happening at various times in our life, mostly taking people in, safe house for abused women, foster care, all things that Lisa and I were capable of doing and chose to do at various times. It came to us and we tried.
Hollie Benton 26:10
Fr. Timothy Lowe 26:12
Hollie Benton 26:13
Glory to God. Thank You, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 26:15
Absolutely. Ok, you enjoy the rest of your upcoming feasts and holiidays.
Hollie Benton 26:20
Transcribed by https://otter.ai