Grace for the Slave and the Slave Owner: XX Pentecost (Proper 22C)

 

 

Luke 17:5-10

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a[c] 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!’”

 

 

 

 

Everything in our culture pushes us to measure ourselves against other people. For most of us, there is a constant comparison game going on silently in our heads. We either think, “I’m better than so-and-so,” or we think, “I’m worse than so-and-so.” We regularly fight the temptations to think too highly and too lowly of ourselves. In both cases we are operating out of our own insecurities and pride, and not out of God’s grace for the world.

 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a constant challenge to our desire to wallow in self-doubt. God loves us with a perfect love and has made us children of God, honoring us like royalty. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a constant challenge to our desire to exalt ourselves over our sisters and brothers. God sees all of our sin and none of us is worthy of the glories of the Kingdom on our own merit. The solution to both of these problems is God’s undeserved, unmerited grace.

 

Let’s walk through the Gospel reading from this morning looking and listening for God’s gracious word to us.

 

The apostles begin by coming to Jesus and asking him to increase their faith. If we look at the verses right before this passage (17:1-4), Jesus has just told the disciples that they need to forgive everyone, even if they sin against you seven times per day. This is a tall order and the apostles don’t think they can do it -- at least not without greater faith than they have right now!

 

Jesus offers two responses to their question. The first is his saying about faith like a mustard seed (17:6). This is a response for those who genuinely feel unequipped to do the work of ministry, who think too lowly of themselves and God’s image within them. The second response is a short parable about a slave owner and his slave (17:7-10). This is addressed to those who think they are too capable in their own right, for those who think they are more important than the folks around them. First, let’s focus on verse 6.

 

6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a[c] mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

 

If you come to the Lord asking for more faith out of real humility, if you really doubt your ability to follow Christ with all that you have, Jesus offers something of a comforting word here. You don’t need much to do wonderful and astonishing things for God. You already have all that you need, because “having faith” really isn’t about you working up the effort. Rather, faith is a gift from God. Our faith is a product of God’s faithfulness to us. So do not fear! Instead of doubting ourselves, trust in God’s love and mercy.

 

The second response (17:7-10) is especially challenging to us to hear. Jesus uses slavery as a teaching point and suggests that this is a helpful way of thinking about our relationship to God. It’s fair to say that all forms of slavery are evil. To own another person is to deface the image and likeness of God in that person.

 

Nevertheless, slavery was a standard part of ancient societies throughout the Old and New Testaments. As a result the Bible uses several examples and metaphors about slavery in its teaching because, for what it’s worth, slavery was something the original audiences understood. We can read and learn from these portions of Scripture today while rejecting the institution of slavery. Because despite our discomfort with hearing such words out of the mouth of our Savior, we still have much to learn.

 

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!’”

 

This is a complicated analogy that I think has been widely misunderstood. First, we are invited (with the apostles) to imagine ourselves as the slave owners. We are the ones who give the orders and tell others what to do. This automatically places us at risk for pride and haughtiness. So the opening question, “Would you invite your tired servant to sit down and eat with you?” becomes an easy, implied “no.”

 

Instead, what we will probably do is something like verse 8: “Make me dinner and serve me at the table; you can eat yourself later.” And will you thank the slave for doing his job? Will you offer compassion and kindness to a fellow human being for the work they do (conscripted or otherwise)? Again, the implied answer is no.

 

Then in verse 10, we get really confused. Now the characters flip around. Jesus is talking to you and bidding us to imagine ourselves as the slaves now. All of a sudden, we’re not at the top of the food chain, but the bottom. “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

 

The confusing part of this story is the difference between prescription and description. This is the difference between what you should do, and just how it is. Most of us, and most Bible commentators, understand this parable to mean, you should expect God to act like the owner in verses 7-9, and that it’s okay for earthly masters to behave the same. They think this means that we should consider ourselves worthless slaves.

 

On the other hand, I think this parable is pointing out to the Christian listener how much we succumb to the temptations of the world to selfishly overpower and domineer our neighbors. If you look at the arc of the New Testament, and the way that Jesus lives throughout his ministry, we ought to be doing the opposite of the slave owner in this parable. You shouldn’t force workers to work double shifts and to serve you before they eat. You thank them for their hard work, and you show acts of mercy and compassion.

 

But in real life, we so often don’t do that. As soon as we have just the slightest advantage over someone else, the most basic positional authority, most of us let it go to our heads. We end up wielding power like a sword and trying to hurt our sisters and brothers. We forget that God made and love all of us, and that no one is better than anyone else. When we approach our neighbors with that attitude and behavior, we demonstrate that we live out of pride.

 

An example of this kind of pride that we can see in the news is the recent Wells Fargo scandal. Over the last few years, WF higher-ups pressured low-level employees to open unauthorized bank accounts with their customers and make money for the corporation through hidden fees in these hidden accounts. When employees tried to report this illegal behavior to their managers or to corporate headquarters, they were often fired in retaliation. When the scam became public, the first people to lose their jobs were over 5000 low-level employees who were “following orders.” The executives and shareholders who encouraged this behavior and who gained millions of dollars as a result have gotten off pretty leniently so far.

 

The slave who worked all day in the fields, has to work all night in the kitchen, and now loses her job, doesn’t get paid, and can’t support her family. Whereas, the wealthy slave owners keep all the money they earned unjustly and illegally. They think they are better than those who work for them. They have forgotten about God’s deep, wide, broad, high grace -- a grace that extends to everyone and anyone.

 

In times like these when our political and economic systems fail us so mightily (though the government is still working on this), it is helpful to remember the words of our Mother Mary: “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich [God] has sent away empty.”

 

If we, like the apostles, want increased faith, we need to live with gratitude for God’s grace for us; and that means extending grace to others. And if in our pride, we cannot wrap our heads around that kind of mercy and kindness, perhaps we need to consider ourselves lowly servants for a while. But we should never consider ourselves worthless; never should we believe the lies and temptations that pull us to either extreme of pride or despair. This is part of the difficult balancing act of the Christian life. God’s grace shows us how loved we are, but not any more than anyone else. God’s grace is the great equalizer. Amen.

 

 

References:

Matthew Shadle, “What is Good For Business: Mylan, Wells Fargo, and Catholic Social Teaching,” published 23 September 2016, http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/what-is-good-for-business-mylan-wells-fargo-and-catholic-social-teaching-matthew-shadle/

Scott Benhase, “The Wages of Sin Aren’t Half Bad,” published 30 September 2016, http://ecrozier.georgiaepiscopal.org/?p=1387.

  • Scott Benhase, “The Wages of Sin Aren’t Half Bad,” published 30 September 2016, http://ecrozier.georgiaepiscopal.org/?p=1387.

Tags:

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Featured Posts

Walking the Way of the Cross (13th Pentecost, Proper 18C)

September 8, 2019

1/10
Please reload

Recent Posts
Please reload

Archive