Gospel: Luke 17:5-10 5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’ ”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let’s consider that last part of our Gospel reading for today: 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’ ”
First of all, let’s pull up what to me is most offensive in this: worthless. It’s the way people describe slaves, as worthless, so that they can justify keeping them as instruments to satisfy their own “more worthy” desires. In truth, if slaves were truly worthless, slavery would not exist, it would never have existed, because something that is actually worthless is soon abandoned, left behind, forgotten… Therefore, a literal interpretation of slaves being worthless, that is, without any worth, is absolutely incorrect. There is high value in one who serves well. (This does not mean that I support or promote slavery!) The word worthless here, though, does not mean without worth, and I promise to come back to that later!
Before I do that, I’d like to share with you something that happens often as a kind of altercation between churchy people. First off, does anyone know how many different kinds of churches there are?
The short answer is no, because even within denominations, people do things differently. We’d first have to define how we would categorize the different churches, and then we’d need quite a bit of research to come up with the data to answer that question well. A particular altercation was raised again last week by a person who said she’d recently attended a service at a church with the American flag and a state flag in the sanctuary. She said she didn’t feel welcome in the congregation, but she didn’t specifically connect that unwelcome feeling to the flags, however, that’s how nearly everyone who responded treated her post.
One person said, “This is a hot issue in some churches, where it takes a brave pastor to move those flags out of the sanctuary. Many have been brave enough to do it. The flags are still in the church, but no longer in the sanctuary or near the altar.”
It bothered me that she had used the word “brave” and I said so, noting that other issues are more important. Three others responded to my statement in ways that made it clear they see my lack of opposition to the presence of these flags in our worship space as wrong (or, dare I say, unworthy!).
The problem is that many people look at the flag and view it as a symbol of division. Each country has its own, and people are often fiercely loyal to their own, and opposed to those that differ. Many argue that because of such divisiveness national flags do not belong in spaces of Christian worship. Our ELCA actually has resources that uplift such views and encourage the removal of national flags from our worship spaces.
I propose a different understanding, even though it might seem a bit strange to suggest during a time in which Democrats and Republicans seem so at odds with one another, and those of other parties seem to desire little to do with either one. I suggest that one might view the flag of our country as something that unites rather than a symbol which divides, a flag symbolizing a country that has historically welcomed people from all lands without requiring of us a unified religious practice. As such it may be no more out of place than the seal adopted by Martin Luther, which might be seen as a symbol of division among Christians.
Does this mean that our national flag is a necessary item for our worship spaces? No more so than the Luther Rose seal currently displayed in our projection. We’d have a problem, though, if that flag (USA)—or that flag (generic Christian, white with red cross on blue field)—became the focus of our worship. No symbol can replace the one person who actually unites us as children of God, not even the symbol that recalls for us the cross on which Jesus died… for us…
We use symbols to support our beliefs, both religious and secular, but the symbols are not ends in and of themselves. That would be idolatry!
The disciples in the beginning of today’s story say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Jesus responds first with the symbol of the mustard seed, which has a remarkable ability to spread where it is least desired! Then, though, he seems to switch gears, and starts talking about slaves… or does he?
Did you know that this gospel story was originally written down in Greek? Many people study long and hard to understand Biblical Greek, in order to translate it to be read in languages that those of us who don’t use ancient Greek with any regularity might understand. I know some Greek, in order to gain a better understanding of these texts in order to help you also in whatever ways I can that might be useful. Today I want to share with you that there is no difference in the Greek word that we translate as slave and the one we translate as servant. δοῦλος is translated either as slave or as servant, depending on context.
So, when Jesus asks which of them would turn the tables between slave and master, maybe Jesus was commenting on their relationship with himself, their master. Maybe he saw the disciples’ words as a demand on him: Increase our faith! (a demand to the master from the servants).
Jesus’ response, I believe, actually says something much different than we first assume. Rather than belittling them, as if their faith is smaller than that little mustard seed, he’s telling them, telling us, that we don’t have to wait for greater faith in order to do greater things. If a tiny little mustard seed can spread all through a field of wheat, then your faith is enough for what you are called to do today. That’s all the faith you need.
So, can we hear that in the words of Jesus?
What you have is enough. Use it. Maybe that’s what Jesus is saying.
I promised I’d come back to the statement about being worthless. I don’t believe Jesus was declaring us to be worthless with these words. Rather, I believe Jesus was cautioning us that when we do what is good, those things that we are called to do in God’s kingdom in this world, we should not expect to receive expressions of thanks. I thanked a worker for coming in on the weekend once when we had no heat in the building. He waved it off, saying, “It’s my job.”
It’s our job to love God and neighbor. It’s our job to worship God by loving our neighbors. It’s what we do. In Jesus’ name. Amen