October 6, 2019
Sunday Between October 2 and October 8 Inclusive
Proper 22, Ordinary Time 27
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Luke 17:5-10, The Message or Luke 17:5-10, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
I don't know about elsewhere in the world, but this lesson is going to be a hard sell in middle class Canada.
We've not noticed that faith of any size cures cancer or fixes any number of other problems. (And we don't care about trying to cast trees into the sea.)
And thanks for the no thanks for working like slaves for the church when we're already broke and burnt-out trying to pay the bills and keep our families afloat.
Depending on where you and your congregation are at, there will be two tough sermons that can be preached from today's text. (And once again, let's send a shout out to the Lectionary composers: "Thanks, but no thanks!")
Verses 5 and 6. This is the first tough sermon.
My first comment on these verses is that everyone should rush out and buy their own copy of Malina and Rohrbaugh's commentary. (See footnote below.) Because there (page 359) you will find the absolutely crucial fact that in the Bible:
"faith" primarily means personal loyalty, personal commitment, fidelity, and the solidarity that comes from such faithfulness.
That is, the apostles are NOT asking Jesus to increase their understanding or their intellectual agreement. They are asking Jesus to increase their loyalty to him. To increase their bonding with him.
And in response, Jesus says:
If you had trust in me the size of a mustard seed, you could ...
This is a most troubling statement because Jesus seems to be holding out the promise that if we trust him enough then WE will be able to perform miracles. If we trust him enough, then we can cast cancer into the sea. Cast joblessness into the sea. Cast addiction into the sea. Cast violence into the sea.
Indeed, we may have heard of others who were able to do these things - one or two others, here or there. But not us.
It makes us ashamed - or angry - that apparently our faith - our trust - was not enough - was even less than a mustard seed. Was not enough to stop the illness that killed our child. Or not enough to ... well, there are a legion of unanswered prayers and heart-aches that could be listed here.
Now the one thing I do trust about Jesus is that he is not stupid, and does not make promises that can't be trusted.
So when I pause and think again about this text, I think, "Maybe I am missing the point."
First, I notice that Jesus' response is exaggerated, perhaps satirical - almost to the point of sarcasm. (I wish we could hear his tone of voice! See the expression on his face.)
Who said anything about wanting to throw mulberry trees into the ocean? That's crazy. Silly.
And remember that we are trusting that Jesus is not crazy or silly.
So instead of assuming that Jesus is promising that if our faith is big enough we will be able to do miracles, let's wonder if Jesus isn't chastising us for thinking in the first place that faith / trust comes in sizes.
Remember that this whole thing began with the Apostles saying, "Increase our trust! Increase our loyalty!"
And really what Jesus' response is saying is:
Trust, and loyalty, and bonding with me don't come in sizes. You either have it or you don't. It's like you are asking me to increase being pregnant. You can't be more or less pregnant. You either are or you aren't. Your silly request deserves a silly, mocking response.
We know from the whole of Jesus' life and teachings, from his death and resurrection, that he isn't about casting mulberry trees into oceans. That is absurd and cheap.
Rather, we do know that Jesus is about bringing into reality here on earth the realm of God. About demonstrating how to live as citizens of a distant land called the Kingdom of God.
This text invites us to ponder whether we too would like to become citizens of God's Kingdom - or not.
But please, whatever questions you may have about this, please don't ask Jesus to increase your citizenship! You either are, or you aren't.
Verses 7 to 10. This is the second tough sermon.
Man, sometimes I wish I did have a slave who would do all the hard work to earn the income for the household and then also come home and cook, serve, and clean up my supper.
Unlike Jesus, I probably would mumble a "Thanks" as I pushed back from the table.
But like the point made above, Jesus' response should not be taken literally.
Jesus is NOT teaching us all to work like slaves. He is using the work of a slave to illustrate a different issue:
Trust, loyalty, and bonding are not done in order to receive gratitude or praise. They are qualities of relationship that are valued for their own sake. Valued with no thought of any further reward.
Does anyone really think Jesus should say to us, "Thanks for trusting me?"
Isn't it we who should be thanking Jesus:
Thanks for being so trustworthy, for being such a true and loyal friend.
What a friend we have in Jesus!
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (see link below), pages 295-296.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Luke 17:5-10 (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!'"
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Luke 17:5-10 (The Message)
5 The apostles came up and said to the Master, "Give us more faith."
6 But the Master said, "You don't need more faith. There is no 'more' or 'less' in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Go jump in the lake,' and it would do it.
7 "Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, 'Sit down and eat'? 8 Wouldn't you be more likely to say, 'Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I've finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper'? 9 Does the servant get special thanks for doing what's expected of him? 10 It's the same with you. When you've done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, 'The work is done. What we were told to do, we did."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Permission is granted for non-profit use of these materials.
Acknowledgement in oral presentations is not required.
Otherwise, please acknowledge source as, "David Ewart, www.holytextures.com."
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.