Text: Luke 17:5-10
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
Part of our family bedtime routine for Elijah is to share with each other our highs and lows of the day. Hans and I tell each other and then we have to do our best to answer on Elijah’s behalf.
The other day I had to honestly say that the low point of my day was changing Elijah’s poopy diaper not once but twice. Hans and I take turns with diaper duty if we’re both around, but somehow I ended up with both poops.
And there’s more. Elijah’s poop is on the runny side so frequently I’m not just cleaning him up, I’m also rinsing the poop off of his onesie, and spraying it with detergent, and putting him in clean clothes, washing my hands. It’s just a lot when it happens frequently.
And then, to top it all off, the very next morning I got the next poop.
So, why the poop story? Well, one, I just enjoy saying “poop” in a sermon, but two, it’s because our gospel lesson for today is talking about the relatively thankless nature of serving.
The disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith,” and he said to them, “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 is one of those verses we stumble over because we all know perfectly well that we could order a mulberry tree to uproot itself, and it would not. Does that mean our faith is insufficient?
It helps to know that right before this, Jesus had told his disciples that if someone sinned against them and then asked for forgiveness, even seven times, they had to forgive. Unsurprisingly, the disciples asked for more faith, for an “increase” in faith so that they could achieve this difficult command.
And Jesus reorients the discussion, which is now not about forgiveness but about the nature of faith, and says that faith really is not about quantity. It’s about obedience.
They asked for more faith, and he essentially said, “You don’t buckets of faith. Even a tiny amount is more than sufficient. If you had even this much you could move trees into the ocean.
And then he continued his explanation with yet another confusing and troubling parable. He said, “How many of you, if you came home after a long day of work, would tell your slave to sit down at the dinner table while you served up the meal?”
The answer is, “No one. None of us would do that.” “Rather,” Jesus continued, “You would tell your slave to serve dinner for you! And afterwards, the slave can eat.”
Now this story is troubling because of the casual reference to slavery. Some bibles translate it as “servant,” but in fact, the word is slave -- doulos in Greek – which means one who is owned and does not have personal rights.
There were different kinds of slaves in the ancient world, including chattel slavery which meant slavery for life, and debt slavery, in which Hebrew people who sold themselves or their families into slavery to pay off debt. According to Hebrew law, no Israelite should remain a slave for more than a certain number of years. What actually happened in every case we don’t know.
What we do know is that slavery in its various forms was so common that it was unremarkable. It was part of everyday life. In this text Jesus used slavery as a metaphor that would be familiar to his listeners. And what was Jesus’s point? He was commenting on the nature of faith and of being a disciple.
As difficult as this metaphor is, Jesus was comparing being a disciple of Christ, a follower of God, to being a slave. He was saying that you just do it. When we become Christians or claim the faith in which we were raised, there are the things that are expected and demanded, and we follow through because that is the nature of the gig.
For example, if someone sins against us and then repents and asks for forgiveness, we forgive. That was the immediate issue in Luke 17, but there are many more requirements, including sharing food, clothing, and cups of cold water, visits to those in prison, and welcoming the stranger and the immigrant.
And then Jesus’s parable ends with this odd and again kind of jarring note. In verse 9 Jesus asks, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!’”
What does Jesus have against saying thank you? Wouldn’t we all appreciate being thanked, even if all we had done was our duty? Wouldn’t we be motivated to be better in the future? I don’t know. But these last two verses take us deeper into what Jesus was teaching.
Jesus isn’t only talking about the various things that we are called to do in his service, he’s also talking about our nature as his disciples. He’s talking about who we are and who we become, inside.
Many years ago when my sister’s daughters were young, she put a plan in place to improve their communal behavior, to hang up their coats when they came through the door, not leave shoes in the living room, and put dirty dishes directly into the dishwasher, without being asked.
My sister put their weekly allowance in the form of dimes in glass dishes on the table, and put a dish of her own, filled with dimes, on the table.
Each time one of the girls did what they were supposed to, like hanging up their coat without being asked, or putting dishes in the dishwasher without a reminder, a dime went from mommy’s dish into theirs. But if the coat went on the floor, or the shoes stayed in the living room overnight then a dime went from their dish into mommy’s.
My sister said that it was remarkably effective. These were small amounts of money, but something about that “clink” and the very real possibility of ending up with more than the designated allowance, was very motivating. But here’s the point. My sister was cultivating a habit.
The behavior needed to become automatic. There is nothing special or noteworthy about basic human respect, taking care of your own mess, and living in a civilized fashion with other people. We should just do those things automatically. That’s what Jesus is saying. Do you really need to be thanked for treating other human beings like children of God? Don’t we do that because it’s right?
More than once I have heard someone thank a soldier or police officer or a veteran for their service, and the officer will say, “Just doing my job.” In other words, thanks for the thanks, but I don’t do it for thanks. I do it because it’s what I signed up for. I do it because I believe in what I’m doing and it’s who I am.
When I change Elijah’s diapers, I don’t expect him to thank me. And he doesn’t thank me. In part because he can’t talk. But Hans and I do it because that’s what parents do. That’s what responsibility does. That’s what love does.
Maybe when he’s older he’ll give us a card expressing thanks for all we do. But there’s simply no way he can comprehend what’s being done for him for love’s sake.
Until he himself takes care of a baby, he’ll have no idea of the diapers, the bottles, the books, the walks, the songs and games, the lack of sleep, the expenses, the whispered prayers, the fear, the pride, and the joy, day after day after month after year.
Yes, I appreciate it when my husband recognizes what I do and says thanks, and vice versa, and it means a lot to me when I receive kind words about my parenting from others. But Elijah doesn’t say thank you and I don’t expect him to. I take care of him because it’s my job. We serve him because we love him.
Jesus is telling us this morning/afternoon that we don’t need more faith. Large quantities of it. The faith we have is enough. What we need is to act like disciples. We need to be conformed to the image of Christ himself. The transformation happens inside, and it manifests in actions on the outside.
When we are acting like disciples, we love others and we serve them, not for thanks, but because it’s our job as Christians, as slaves or servants of Jesus Christ. We forgive because it’s what we’ve been told to do. We share because it’s become a habit. We love because we’ve been loved, and we serve because this is what we signed up for. Amen.