Thomas J Parlette
Luke 17: 5-10
10/6/19, World Communion
Did you know that every time you take a step, you generate six to eight watts of energy? But then – poof – it dissipates into the air. But wouldn’t it be something if you could capture that energy and harness it’s power?
There is an architectural firm in London which has been looking into ways to capture that kind energy on a large scale and turn it into electricity. For example, 34,000 people walk or dash through Victoria Station in one hour, rushing toward their trains. That’s a lot of steps. If you could harness that energy you could actually generate a very useful power source.
According to the business journal Fast Company, this architectural firm is working to develop vibration-harvesting sensors. These sensors would be implanted in the structure of train stations, bridges, factories or any other building frequently rattled by commuters, vehicles or machinery. The devices could capture the rumblings of all this activity, turn them into electricity, and then store it in a battery. Just goes to show that there is power in small steps.(1)
Power in small places and small things. That is one of the points Jesus makes in this passage from Luke this morning.
These verses are part of a larger passage that begins chapter 17 of Luke. Jesus is continuing on what is known as the “journey narrative” of Luke. He is travelling from Galilee in the north, down south towards Jerusalem. On the way he is teaching his followers. Verse 1-10 are a collection of four sayings or lessons about discipleship.
These verses, 5-10, are actually part of verses 1-10, but for some reason, our lectionary separates the passage. Most likely that’s because the first four verses are addressed “to Jesus’ disciples” – meaning the crowd of people in general who were following him. This was a different than “the apostles” who are addressed in verses 5-10. The apostles are the 12, the inner circle – and the disciples included everybody else travelling with Jesus.
The passage begins with Jesus offering some advice to his followers. Occasions for stumbling in the faith are bound to come along, everybody comes up short now and then. But don’t yourself be a stumbling block for others. Don’t get in the way of someone else’s faith. That’s the first saying or lesson
The second thing Jesus has to say to his followers is about forgiveness. If someone repents of sin, you must forgive. Even if they sin against you 7 times in a day, you must forgive.
That brings us to the third saying or lesson. Jesus inner circle of 12 apostles heard this teaching, and they must have recognized how difficult that could be, to forgive that generously. So they ask, or actually demand would be a better word, “Increase our faith!”
It’s easy to hear Jesus’ answer as him scolding his apostles – and by extension, us – for a lack of faith. Somewhere along the line most Christians seem to have come to expect a steady dose of condemnation from scripture. More often than not, we hear Jesus’ words as shaming and angry words. And it’s true that there are a lot of warnings and do’s and don’ts in the Bible – that’s one of the main reasons I have heard when people explain why they don’t go to church – it’s too negative. Along with such things as “Church is all about guilt and making me feel bad. The church is filled with a bunch of hypocrites.” I know lots of people carry scars of a Bible that has been misused on them. And I don’t want to minimize their experience. But these perceptions are an unfortunate barrier between them and a God who loves them.
But what if Jesus is not really scolding the apostle at all. What if he is not clucking his tongue and shaking his head over their lack of faith, but speaking these words in a voice of encouragement and love, as one who would give up his life for his friends.
What if we imagine Jesus with a smile on his face, saying in response to their demand “Increase our faith” – “Why. You have all the faith you need. You do not need more faith. You have enough faith. Even the smallest amount of faith, as small as a mustard seed, is enough to do what God asks.” Understood this way, Jesus isn’t chastising their lack of faith, Jesus is assuring the apostles, and us, that we already have enough faith to do whatever God calls us to do.
Now we move to the fourth saying that makes up this passage – and it’s quite problematic. Whenever the Bible mentions slaves, it is a sensitive topic. The greek word used here is “doulos”, which can be translated as either slave or servant.(2) Our NRSV bibles go with the word “slave”, which makes this passage particularly hard to hear. Paul is perhaps the most famous biblical figure to talk about slaves, telling the Ephesians “slaves be subject to your masters.” And in the gospel of Luke, Jesus refers to masters and slaves 5 different times. So we should approach these texts carefully.
In the past, these passage – including this one – have been misused to justify slavery. To be clear, Jesus is not condoning slavery – especially the form of slavery that we have had in the U.S.
In Jesus time, it was quite common for a household to have slaves or servants who were attached to the household for a certain period of time before their freedom was granted. It is unfortunate that Jesus and Paul did not directly condemn slavery – Paul comes close when he says there is no longer male or female, slave or free, gentile or Jew. But Jesus is certainly not recommending slavery or condoning it. Masters and slaves were just a fact of life in the ancient world. That’s the way things were. Jesus’ teaching style drew on the things that people were familiar with – planting seeds, plowing fields, working in vineyards, drawing water from wells, herding sheep – and yes, the relationship between master and slave or servant.
So when Jesus asks “Who among you would invite your slave coming in from work to sit at the table with the master and eat,” the obvious answer that everyone knew was “No” – you wouldn’t that. That’s not the servants place to do that. Like wise, part two of the question is self-evident as well. You would say “Make supper, serve me, and then you can eat.” Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded, for that is the job. No, you wouldn’t.
So the lesson for the apostles is that 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.”
This, too, is a problematic saying that just doesn’t hit our ears right. Not only are we still talking about slaves, but now we have the idea of calling ourselves worthless as well. It just doesn’t seem right. In our modern times, the issue of self-esteem and self-worth is an important one. For most of us, I hope, we’ve grown up with the message that we have worth, we have value – and it seems almost offensive to hear Jesus say this.
But what Jesus is getting at is highlighting the importance of a disciples duty, or calling. Our duty, according to Jesus, is to do God’s will, show God’s way of life to the world, even when it might cost you. That is our duty. That is our calling, if we are true disciples.
Yes, the metaphors that Jesus uses here, are troubling – and we need to approach them carefully and respectfully.
I rather prefer the way Paul puts it in the second chapter of Philippians. In the section of his letter that encourages us to imitate Christ’s humble, servant attitude towards life, Paul says – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” I like that way of putting it rather than thinking of yourself as worthless servant. Jesus’ intention is to point out that we should do our duty to God with a sense of humility.
You might know the name Albert Pujols – he is a well known baseball player with a World Series ring, an 8 time All Star and 3 time National League MVP. But perhaps even more impressive is what Pujols has done off the field. For one thing, the Pujols Family Foundation he started offers support and care to people with Down Syndrome and their families. The foundation also helps the poor in Pujols’ native Dominican Republic. But Albert Pujols seeks in other ways to practice what he preaches.
While speaking at an event at Lafayette Senior High School in Missouri, Pujols read Philippians 2:3 to the crowd, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” And he said, “One way for me to stay satisfied in Jesus is for me to stay humble. Humility is getting on your knees and staying in God’s will – what God wants for me, not what the world wants. It would be easy to go out and do whatever I want, but those things only satisfy the flesh for a moment. Jesus satisfies my soul forever.”(3)
Albert Pujols takes his duties as a disciple of Jesus seriously – and so lives to do what God would have him do, not what the world would tell him to do.
As we gather at the table on World Communion Sunday, let us remember that even the smallest amount of faith is enough for God to do remarkable things. So let us take our duty as disciples seriously and do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than ourselves.
In that, God is pleased.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Homileticsonline, retrieved 9/28.
2. John Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p143.
3. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, p3-4.