(Sunday, October 2, 2016)
(St. Andrew Lutheran Church, West Chicago)
Our gospel reading for this morning is really an odd little text. It starts off in a familiar way, with Jesus talking about faith the size of a mustard seed – but then it follows that part up with this kind of bizarre, uncomfortable little story about slavery. In fact, this whole little section of Luke – from the first verse of chapter 17 to the tenth – seems kind of randomly stuck together, like Luke didn’t know what else to do with all of these extra sayings of Jesus he’d collected, so he just sort of stuck them here.
This is one of those texts that takes a little time and a little digging to fully appreciate. And back in seminary, when I had a lot more time for that sort of thing, I went pretty in depth writing this sermon that I’m preaching today – so, fair warning: it’s about to get nerdy!
Let’s talk about the most difficult part of this passage first: the slave language in verses 7-10. The Greek word here is δοῦλος (doulos); it can mean either “slave” or “servant,” and it appears differently in different translations, but the concept is essentially the same.
Now, to the 21st century ear, this passage sounds pretty off-putting. Jesus appears to take slavery for granted as part of life, but not only that, he tells the story of someone not treating their slave very politely in order to make his point. But what Jesus is doing here is trying to make a point by giving an illustration from a situation that would have been very familiar to his hearers.
So let’s try to make it a little more understandable and take an example of a situation that might be more familiar to us and see if we can get at what Jesus is saying here. When I was a kid growing up, we had a chore chart in my house for my two younger siblings and me – you maybe did something similar in your houses. There’d be things on there like, “today, it’s my turn to vacuum, it’s Molly’s turn to clean the bathroom, and it’s Ben’s turn to take out the garbage.”
We weren’t slaves or servants, and these chores weren’t meant to be some sort of punishment. Instead, they were just things that we were expected to do as part of our family. In the same vein, we didn’t get any kind of special treat for doing our chores because, again, they were just what was expected of us out of care and responsibility for our family.
So here in this text, Jesus is saying to the disciples that they are to do what is expected of them – like a slave for their master, or a child for their parents – without expecting to get a gold star for it, or some kind of heavenly reward. So what is expected of the disciples?
The answer is in the first four verses of this chapter, which the lectionary weirdly leaves out for some reason. Jesus says to his disciples,
“Occasions for sin are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If a brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”Luke 17:1-4
Honestly, I think I’d rather take out the garbage! The disciples respond to this instruction from Jesus in a surprisingly honest and self-revealing way, by saying to him, “Lord, increase our faith!” That sounds really hard, Jesus! We need more faith to be able to do this! I don’t want to forgive someone who offends me seven times a day, and I’m not sure I’m any good at building someone up in faith instead of causing them to stumble! The disciples feel overwhelmed by the kind of life God calls them to live, and feel like their faith is not enough to help them to actually live it.
All of this sets us up to hear Jesus’ statement about having faith the size of a mustard seed in a way that we may not have heard it before. Many translations of this verse read, “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” you’d be able to do this miraculous thing, whether it’s uprooting mulberry trees in Luke, or moving mountains in Matthew. This reading implies that, clearly, you just don’t have enough faith to perform these acts of extreme landscaping. But if you dig into the Greek, you find that that’s not exactly what Jesus is saying. A more accurate translation of this verse would be “if you have faith, even the size of a mustard seed,” you’ll be able to do miraculous things. Jesus isn’t scolding the disciples for not having enough faith – he’s reassuring them that they already have enough faith, as a direct response to them asking him for more faith. According to Jesus, having faith is more about quality than quantity.
In this text, Jesus isn’t trying to call anyone out or to shame them for not having enough faith – any more than he is encouraging violence toward mulberry trees. Instead, his exchange with the disciples shows us clearly that faith is a gift, and Jesus is telling his disciples that God has already given them all the faith they need to be able to walk the road that is before them. It is now up to them to take those first steps.
So what does all of this mean for us? It means that we, too, have enough faith to dare to live the life that God calls us to live. Just like the disciples, God calls us to live ethical lives in community – we are to forgive one another (yes, even seven times); we are to put up with each other, to be hospitable and generous and loving, to work for justice, and to be the body of Christ for the sake of the world.
The path of discipleship demands so much from us – and that’s why it is so crucial that we work to build one another up in faith and not cause anyone to stumble, as Jesus warns. There will be days when each one of us calls out to God for more faith, feeling totally burnt out and unable to continue. I know you all know what that feels like. Those are the moments when our shared life as a community of believers becomes most important. Our call is to be there for one another in faith, to build each other up in faith, and even to carry one another in faith when we can’t quite make it ourselves.
Finally, God does not place this demand for ethical living on us as some sort of arbitrary burden – and neither does God command us to do these things in order to make us earn our salvation somehow. We should not work to live good, Christian lives simply because we hope to be rewarded for it someday. Instead, you could say that this kind of living looks more like my family’s chore chart growing up. It wasn’t never a matter of punishment or of reward; instead, that chore chart was a sign of belonging – of belonging to a loving family.
By working to live our lives in a way that is pleasing to God, we are signaling that we belong to God’s family. We do these things, not out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, but out of love for God and for one another. And in the same fashion, God, out of love, gives us faith and everything else we need – mulberries, mountains, and mustard seeds included.