Luke 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The 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’? 8 Would 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’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So 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!’”
Talk of slavery is always difficult, especially in the United States, where race-based slavery is part of our national story. It is as Jim Wallis calls it our “original sin.” Most people in this country who are of African descent are descendants of men and women who were brought here without their consent to serve their white masters. It took a war to end slavery and another century to end Jim Crow. We continue to deal with the ramifications of slavery to this day. So, reading a parable like this one from Luke 17 is difficult. To do so a week after the dedication of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, even as football players protest against injustice and oppression by kneeling during the National Anthem, and the nation tries to make sense of two more shootings of black men by police, this passage seems out of place. With this as our context, what should we make of Jesus’ parable about the proper behavior of a slave?
We could simply focus on the parable of the mustard seed. It’s always a favorite. There’s not too much controversial about it, especially if you assume that telling the mulberry tree to uproot itself is to be taken metaphorically (I am tempted to tell a few hostas to get up and move to a new location, but it’s my fault that I planted too many of them too close together). Unfortunately, Jesus follows up the mustard seed parable with a word about the expectations placed on a slave. One would assume that it answers the question of faith, but still the comparison of the life faith to a master/slave relationship should be troubling to us. Is this really how Jesus understands our relationship to God? Despite our discomfort, we can’t erase it. According to Luke, this is what Jesus said to his audience. Kimberly Bracken Long suggests that we remember the context. First century slavery was different than American chattel slavery. In context at least some slaves worked for a period of years and that at the end would be released from their bonds. This is called indentured servitude. In this case you have a duty, you fulfill it, so why would you expect to be thanked? Long writes in response that “what Jesus describes is a relationship between master and servant that is marked by mutual accountability and expectation. The master expects the servants to perform their duties, and the servants, in turn, expect that when their work is done they will receive nourishment and rest and protection” [Feasting on the Word, C:4, p.142].
I will confess that I’m preaching on a different text this week, one that better matches World Communion Sunday (though it also has its issues. If only Luke was more selective in the words he chose to share from the lips of Jesus). Whether we like it or not the parable of the worthless slave can be found Luke’s Gospel and is part of the lection for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. Even with Long’s interpretation, what do we do with it?
I titled the reflection “Doing Our Duty,” in large part because it appears that this is the message Jesus is communicating. The life of faith (vs. 5-6) can be seen as doing one’s duty. Jesus offers this message in response to a request on the part of his disciples for more faith. According to the parable of the mustard seed, they should have sufficient faith already. After all, a mustard seed isn’t all that big! Why is such a small amount of faith sufficient? Could it be that what we really need is obedience, unquestioned obedience? Indeed, according to the parable it would seem that disciples are slaves of God, and should do what is commanded.
Having recently completed binge watching the Stargate SG1 series, which calls into question blind loyalty to false gods, whether the Goa'uld or the Ori, I’ve been pushed to ask why we should even offer blind loyalty to the God revealed to us by Jesus? I’m not saying that the God I worship is the same as the Goa’uld or the Ori, but is blind loyalty a good thing? Is it not the foundation for all kinds of evil (as was perpetrated in the name of the above false gods)?
In the parable, which illustrates the life of faith, this time in a master/slave analogy, we are told that we should not expect commendation from the master, for “we have done only what we ought to have done!” One thing I’ve learned over the years is that Jesus has a tendency to push boundaries. He exaggerates things on occasion. He usually doesn’t leave clear clues when he’s doing that. Many people understand religion in terms of duty. They go to church week in and week out because that’s what’s expected of them. They give their offerings to the church on a regular basis. Some give every week. They’ve been doing this since childhood. To be anywhere else on Sunday morning would be strange for them. Of course, this sense of duty seems to be on the decline as time passes. The younger you are the less likely you are to see things in this way, which may explain why many mainline churches have a preponderance of older people in the pews. For their consistency of presence, I’m thankful!
There is nothing wrong with duty. In many ways duty is about habits that are formed in the course of life. They keep us going. They enable stability. In one sense the life of faith is an adventure. In another it is a disciplined journey. There is a pathway and there is a guide. The life of faith involves taking that pathway and following the guide. To do otherwise is likely to lead to trouble. The parable might appear rather stark and off-putting to us, but if we partner it with other passages that assure us that God is loving and compassionate, then the edge is taken off. Indeed, let us remember Jesus’ own words to his friends and disciples as he prepared for his own death: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Let us consider this parable in light of that message. Jesus comes not as the master, but as the servant. This is an appropriate thought for Wold Communion Sunday, for in John 13, Jesus washes the disciples feet as a sign of his station as servant. In that context we can the word that duty has its place!