PROPER 22 | 19 PENTECOST — 3 October 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am
Lam 1:1-6 | Psalm 137 | 2 Tim 1:1-14 | Luke 17:5-10
“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
The Gospel reading today is not one of my favorites.
(And so I’ll begin immediately with a digression: One of the reasons why we have a lectionary of readings — that’s what the word “lectionary” means, a schedule of “lections” or “lessons” or “readings” — one of the reasons why we have a lectionary is so that we will not get to read, and to preach and hear sermons about, only our favorite Scripture passages. We have to read, and try to preach and to hear about, a lot of our unfavorite passages as well. There are some churches and Christian communities in which the preacher always gets to pick his or her own Bible texts. Presumably we realize pretty soon that this is Not A Good Idea. But, as I said, I digress.)
The Gospel reading today is not one of my favorites. First, the little saying about having faith and uprooting mulberry trees (that’s the first two verses; it’s not clear how, or whether, that is connected to the next four verses, about how a master treats an arguably worthless slave. (Or “unworthy” slave — there’s some dispute about how the Greek adjective should be translated.)
We seem to have gotten a number of unfavorite Gospel readings lately. A couple of weeks ago we had Jesus’ story about the dishonest steward, who cut himself deals with his boss’s debtors so he would have a soft place to land when he was thrown out of his job. I’ve always found that whole story a tough one. Did Fr. Hulme try to take it on that Sunday? If so I’m sure he did a much better job than I would have! I’m still not quite sure what Jesus is getting at in that story.
And then last week we had the Rich Man and Lazarus. We probably like that one a lot better, but mostly because we can gloat about that mean rich guy burning in hell while poor Lazarus is up in heaven with Father Abraham. But gloating over other people’s sins actually does not make well for our own spiritual growth, and the more we think about that story the more likely it is to become one of our unfavorites.
And then we have these peculiar sayings this morning. “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.” This saying sounds like a version of a saying that occurs in Matthew and Mark [Mt 17:20; 21:21; Mk 11:22-24] about having the faith to move mountains. “Moving mountains” was apparently a common expression in Jesus’ day (and it still is among us today) for doing some very difficult, even apparently impossible thing. I don’t think I quite get the point in Luke’s Gospel today about the mulberry tree, or why you would ever want to uproot one and plant it in the sea, but it seems to share the extravagance of the expression about “moving mountains,” and we know that Jesus often, more often than we may be aware, used extravagant expressions to make his points,
(On the other hand, the prophet Muhammad is said to have said, “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad will go to the mountain.” I have no idea how that relates.)
So now we have the little parable about the master and his slave. I think this is not an instruction course in Human Relations.
First of all, this is a parable, not an allegory. That is, it’s not a narrative network of symbolisms, in which this stand for this and that represents that. The master in this story is not God. This guy in fact is not a very good master, although by the standards of the age he is fairly ordinary. We are much more sensitive to the issue of slavery, although we also have to confess that it took most of the Christian world eighteen hundred years to realize that. (Remember that in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus does say “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” [John 16:12-13].) It may be the case that ordinary household slavery in the ancient near east was generally less oppressive than plantation slavery in the old American South, but it was still slavery. (To translate the Greek word doulos as “servant” is a bit wimpy.) A slave could not say to his master, “You really are treating me very rudely, so I’m going to file a complaint with HR, and maybe I’ll give my notice and look for a job somewhere else.” But that was all taken for granted by everyone at the time, and in this little parable Jesus is just assuming the social structure of which all his hearers were also a part.
The point, I think, is the tagline: “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.’”
And although this is kind of a rough way of putting it, it expresses a basic truth that Christians have hard a hard time getting for two thousand years. Life — whether our life now, or the eternal life to which we are called and for which we are destined — life is a gift — it is not a wage. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. All we can do is accept it.
And this is so hard for us to understand! St. Augustine had a big fight with the British monk Pelagius (you might know he would be a Brit!) and his followers — Augustine insisting that we are saved only by the grace of God, and the Pelagians holding out for the notion that we can earn salvation by our own virtue. Martin Luther had to fight this issue all over again — salvation comes not through our performance of the works of the moral law but by God’s grace received through faith. (Sadly, after Luther much of the protestant reformation slipped back into “not getting it,” and in effect turned “having faith” into just another kind of “work” by which we merit our salvation.)
My point is not that we should run about beating our chests and whining about how unworthy we are, and wondering whether we have been good enough to make it into Heaven when we die. What Jesus, and St. Paul, and I think St. Augustine, and I hope Martin Luther, are trying to tell us is that that doesn’t have anything to do with it! God wants us, now and for all eternity, because God loves us; that’s why God created us. All we have to do is say “Yes.” That’s very simple, though perhaps not as easy as we might think. Saying “Yes” to God means saying, “Yes, God, you are God and I am not.” That’s what the story of the man and the woman in the garden is about — their sin was not just disobedience (although people, and churches, that are hung up in power might like to think that disobedience is the first and original sin). Their sin, as St. Augustine and other great teachers and theologians over the centuries have always insisted, was pride. The serpent’s temptation to Eve was, “When you eat of [this fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” [Genesis 3:5].
Life — now, and eternally — is a gift, from the loving God who created us. It is not a wage. We do not earn it. It is not a reward. We do not deserve it. It is not a prize. We do not win it. All we have to do is accept it, as gift, from God.