As a Boy Scout – many years ago – I promised to “do my duty to God and my country.” Soldiers promise to do their duty – to obey orders. If you’re to survive and thrive in the military you better know your place and fulfill your duties as outlined for you. And if you want to keep your job, you had better do what is asked of you, or you will be looking for a new one. But there is something in us that desires something different. We want our freedoms. We want to choose our own destiny. This is the way of the world today. Even in matters of faith, we want to set the agenda. We want to choose, which religion we’ll follow and what parts of that religion to embrace. We talk about being disciples of Jesus – I’m even a minister in a denomination that has as part of its name “disciples of Christ.” I must admit that as a denomination we focus more on freedom than discipleship.
The reading from Luke 17 is brief, but is focused on defining what it means to be a disciple. It is a reading that should trouble the mind and heart, even though the creators of the lectionary omitted the opening four verses – the ones that suggest one have a millstone tied to one’s neck and thrown overboard into the sea rather than cause someone to stumble and insist that we forgive those who offend us and then repent – even seven times a day (at least that is a countable request). Each of these two descriptions of discipleship seems to limit our freedom. So what if I offend my neighbor. If I think I’m in the right, why shouldn’t I say what I think and do what I want? Am I not free in Christ?
Alas, the lection doesn't require us to do with these four verses – though verse five does seem to need linking to what goes before, because the apostles say to Jesus – “Increase our faith!” I think it’s that thing about forgiveness. It’s just really difficult to get our head around such a demand, don’t you think? Yes, following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart. Fortunately for us, over the years, though various forms of establishment, we have been able to domesticate the more demanding aspects of the Christian religion (and don’t think that because Americans lack a state establishment, we don’t have a cultural establishment – even if it is now in a state of rapid decay).
In response to the request for more faith – Jesus simply says that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed (not very big!), and then you have all you need. With that amount of faith you can tell the mulberry tree to replant itself. So far -- so good. We can deal with this word about faith. It’s what comes next that should give us pause.
It’s here that we hear a word about duty. To be a disciple is to do as you are told. It is important that if we’re to hear a word from God out of this parable that we recognize and acknowledge the cultural and social chasm that exists between the era of the New Testament and our own. In the Common English Bible the word servant appears. I think we’re fairly comfortable with this word, perhaps because we’ve transformed it. But the word is that of slave. We’ve made a transition in our society recognizing that slavery is inhumane and inappropriate – especially the race-based slavery that existed in the United States. We may be tempted to soften this by transforming the slave/master relationship into employee/employer relationship, but this simply won’t do. We have to be more conscious about the dissimilarity between eras, even if we are repulsed by the word and even the way Jesus lays this out.
Having acknowledged this reality that lies before us, how can we hear a word from God in this passage? In the parable, Jesus describes a hierarchical set of relationships. To be a slave is to put the needs and desires of the other – the person who owns you – above your own. You may come in from the fields, hot, tired, and hungry. All you want to do is take a cool bath, rest your feet, and have a nice dinner. But that is not your destiny. You don’t get to come in from the fields and take a place at the table with the master and honored guests. Your job, as a slave, is to take care of the needs of the other, that is, the needs of the master. So, when you come in from the fields you go to the kitchen and start to prepare dinner for the master and any guests in attendance. Only then, after you have done the master’s bidding, can you attend to your own needs. And don’t expect a word of thanks. No, no word of gracious appreciation will come your way, for you are a slave. You are doing your duty. You are fulfilling your role in society. What should you say, when all is said and done? The rendering in the Common English Bible takes away a bit of the sting: “We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.” The NRSV renders it a bit more sternly: “we are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” The emphasis is mine.
So, what is the word that might be gleaned from this passage? It is good to bear in mind that Jesus is speaking here about the life of the disciple. Don’t cause anyone to stumble (17:1-2); forgive those who offend (3-4); exercise faith (5-6), and finally a disciple does one’s duty without question or boasting. Fred Craddock writes: “Jesus came among us as one who serves, and so are his followers servants. There is no place or time, therefore, at which the disciple can say, ‘I have completed my service; now I want to be served.’” (Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 200). These should be difficult words for us to hear, for they are a challenge to what we define as being spiritual.
To be a disciple of Jesus requires more of us, so it seems, than to be “spiritual but not religious.” While I understand the attraction to the self-defined nature of this reality, is it sufficient for the disciple of Jesus? As we read the parables it’s clear that discipleship occurs within community, and that community isn’t always a fun place to be. Our relationships with each other remain tainted by our own desire to be masters (witness the regular occurrences of power struggles within churches), and thus the need for forgiveness. To be a disciple is to be more than simply a member of an organization. It is to be in submission to the master, who is Christ (who also comes to us as servant), and so the life of faith is simply doing one's duty to God (though not necessarily to country).