A sermon by Jim Somerville, pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.

Luke 17:5-10

October 6, 2013

Believe it or not, it’s October, and believe it or not, we are still on the road with Jesus—watching everything he does, listening to every word he says, following right behind him as he makes his way to Jerusalem through this long section of Luke’s Gospel known as the Travel Narrative: from chapter 9, verse 51, to chapter 19, verse 27.  Today we’ve made it to mile marker 17—chapter 17, that is.  Let me invite you to listen for the word of the Lord as I read verses 5-10.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 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. “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’? 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’? 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!’” (NRSV).

One of the things I’m learning on this journey is that you have to pay attention, because things aren’t always what they appear to be.  Today’s passage is a good example. When I first read it I thought this was going to be a sermon on faith because of the way it begins: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ and 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.’”

That could have led to a sermon on faith in which I tried to convince you that you don’t need a lot of faith to do amazing things.  But it might have also left you wondering where you could get a mustard seed’s worth of faith because, too often in your own experience, you haven’t enough faith to uproot a potted plant.  You’ve prayed for help or healing for yourself or others and nothing happened.  You began to think, “Maybe it’s me. Maybe I don’t have enough faith.” And so you prayed, “Lord, increase my faith!” 

I know that feeling.  I go to our “Prayers for Healing” service nearly every month and move to the front when it’s time to pray for people.  I stand behind that kneeler and wait for the first person to come forward with a prayer request.  Often someone will come with a very specific request: “I have an illness the doctors can’t do anything about, but I believe God can do something about it.  Would you pray for my healing?”  And I lay on hands and begin to pray but I don’t feel the healing power flowing from my hands into that person’s body.  I begin to think about all those times faith and healing are connected in the scriptures and begin to imagine that if I only had more faith this person could be healed.  And that’s when I pray, “Lord, increase my faith!” 

But notice that today’s passage isn’t about healing: it’s about forgiveness.  One of the most important principles of interpreting Scripture is to read the text in context: to look at what comes before and after a verse and not only at the verse itself.  What comes just before this verse is a lesson on forgiveness.  Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him, and [even] if he sins against you seven times in a single day and repents, you must forgive him” (17:3-4).  It’s right after that that the apostles say, “Increase our faith!” and you can see why.

Can you imagine how much faith it would take to forgive the same person of the same sin seven times in a single day?  If someone slapped you and then said, “I’m sorry,” and then slapped you again and said, “I’m sorry,” could you forgive him?  Would you?  “We need more faith!” the disciples said.  “The things you ask us to do are hard!”  But Jesus says, “Faith?  You don’t need more faith.  Why, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could tell this mulberry tree to go jump in the lake and it would!  No, it’s not faith you need, it’s obedience.”

And that comes as a surprise.

I thought this was going to be a sermon about faith, and then I thought it was going to be a sermon about forgiveness, but now it sounds like it’s going to be a sermon about obedience because look at what comes next in the text.  Jesus says, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from tending the sheep or plowing a field, ‘Oh, look at you!  You must be exhausted!  Come, sit down and rest while I fix you some supper.’  Would you not rather say to him, ‘Fix me some supper, and then get yourself cleaned up and serve it to me!’  And when supper was over would you thank the slave for doing what you told him to do?  Of course not!  That’s what slaves are for.  So, as for you, when you’ve done everything you’ve been commanded to do, should say, “We are worthless slaves.  We have only done what was our duty.”

I have to confess that all this talk about slaves makes me uncomfortable.  It doesn’t sound like Jesus to boss people around, to tell them to fix his supper first.  Isn’t he the one who washed his disciples’ feet?   And I can’t imagine that the disciples he was talking to had ever owned slaves.  Most of them had been called to follow him from a life of hard, physical labor.  They didn’t have slaves scurrying around the kitchen to fix their supper.  But in that time and place they would have understood the concept, and in our time and place so do we.  For example: when your car brought you to church this morning did you remember to say thank you?  Did you thank the engine for turning over, thank the wheels for rolling, thank the brakes for working?  Of course not.  You got in your car and drove it here and then got out and slammed the door.  A car is a form of transportation; it’s supposed to get you from one place to another.  And when it does, it’s just doing its job: you don’t have to say “Thank you.”  “So it is with slaves,” Jesus might say.  “You don’t have to thank them for doing their job: you expect them to do it.  And,” he might add, “so it is with disciples.”

Let’s take another look at that word.

The Greek word for disciple literally means “learner,” but for some time now I’ve been thinking that a better translation would be “apprentice,” someone who is learning a particular skill or trade from a master.  When we say “Jesus is Lord” we acknowledge that he is the master, and when we are baptized we become his apprentices, that is, we begin to learn from him how to live the life of the Kingdom.

When a master carpenter says to his apprentice, “Measure twice and cut once,” the apprentice doesn’t say, “Increase my faith!”  And when the master carpenter tells him to use the crosscut saw against the grain and not with it he doesn’t say, “Increase my faith!”  And when the master carpenter says, “Tap the nail to get it started and then drive it in hard, using your wrist,” the apprentice doesn’t say, “Increase my faith!”  No, when the master tells him to do something he does it, or at least he tries to do it, and he keeps on trying until he gets it right, because he is learning from a master.  He doesn’t say, “Increase my faith!”  He says, “Yes, sir!”

Which is why I don’t think this is a sermon about faith or forgiveness, but a sermon about obedience.  Jesus, the master, says to the disciples, his apprentices, “If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in a single day and turns to you and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”  The response he wants from them, and from us, is not “Increase our faith!” but “Yes, sir!”  Immediately we start to look for loopholes.  And there are some!  Jesus doesn’t say, “If a stranger sins against you,” he says, “If your brother sins against you.”  Some translations say, “If another member of the church sins against you.”  Either way it’s obvious that Jesus is talking about someone with whom you have a relationship.  “If that person sins against you rebuke him,” Jesus says, and let me say a little more about that because that word rebuke is a strong one.

It brings to mind all sorts of disturbing images.  But at its best it simply means that you let your brother know that what he did or said hurt you.  And let me be clear about this: if you don’t tell him, then you bear at least part of the blame for your broken relationship, because he may not even know what he’s done.  But if you confront him, gently, and if he repents—that is, if he says he’s sorry—then forgive him and move on. 

It’s a fourfold pattern—sin, rebuke, repent, forgive; sin, rebuke, repent, forgive.  It’s not any harder to learn than measuring twice and cutting once.  “Got that?” the master asks.  “Yes, sir!” the apprentice says.  “Then do it,” the master commands.  And that’s where there’s a long pause before the apprentice asks, “How many times?”  

It seems like a reasonable question.  Surely there would come a time when your brother’s habitual sin against you would become unforgiveable, when enough would finally be (as they say) enough.  But Jesus, the master, says you never get to that point.  As long as your brother asks for your forgiveness you must give it to him (did you notice that word in the text: must?) even if he slaps you seven times in a single day.  And that’s when the disciples say, “Increase our faith!” because that sounds like a hard thing to do.

I was on the road last week with Chuck and Joe, my regular backpacking partners.  We were planning to hike in Zion National Park but got kicked out on the second day because of the government shutdown.  As a consequence we spent a lot more time driving around the (almost unbelievably) beautiful American Southwest than we had planned and had a lot more time to talk.  At one point I asked if either of them would be preaching on Sunday (Joe is a Baptist hospital chaplain and Chuck is an Episcopal priest).  It turns out they both were, and so we decided to work on this passage together.  Chuck read it aloud and we shared our initial impressions.  At first we thought it was about faith.  And then we thought it was about forgiveness.  But it was Chuck who began to talk about the importance of obedience in this passage and how it doesn’t take a lot of faith to obey.  “All you have to believe in this case,” Chuck said, “is that Jesus knows what he’s talking about.”

And then, of course, you have to do it, which makes me think this might be a sermon about forgiveness after all, because that’s what Jesus is telling us to do—forgive—and we have a hard time with that.  We begin to look for reasons not to forgive.  We begin to make judgments about why our brother doesn’t deserve our forgiveness, and especially if it’s someone who has sinned against us over and over again. 

“Maybe we shouldn’t overthink it,” Joe said from the back seat, wearing his Nike shirt.  “Maybe we should just do it.” 

But too many times to count we don’t just do it.  We look for reasons to hold on to our old grudges, to nurse our hurt and resentment.  It makes us feel like we have the upper hand, somehow, against the one who has wounded us.  But we don’t.  Chuck said, “I can’t remember where I heard it but someone said that when you refuse to forgive it’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”  I thought about that for a while as we drove through that stunning southwestern landscape, and thought about Jesus commanding us to forgive as if knew exactly how much it would hurt us not to.  And that’s when I began to think this may be a sermon about faith after all, because if we believed that Jesus knew what he was talking about, if we believed that he was trying to teach us the life of the Kingdom—a life that is free of the bitter poison of unforgiveness—then we would do what he says, wouldn’t we?  We would believe, we would obey, and we would forgive.  And we would keep on forgiving until we got good at it.

Practice makes perfect as they say.  And one of these days we would—without even thinking about it—forgive the same sorry sinner seven times in a single day.  And that’s when Jesus might say to us, “I think you’ve got this.  You are no longer apprentices.  You are masters.”  And that’s when we would say what he says at the end of this passage, “No.  We are worthless slaves.  We have only done what was our duty.”  “Well, then,” he might say: “Well done, good and faithful and obedient slaves. 

“Enter into the joy of your master.” 

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