We can do this!
Week of October Sunday 3
Gospel: Luke 17:5-10
Luke 17:1 10
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.3Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6The 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 ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8Would 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”? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!” ’
The lectionary makes an artificial division in the text. Why do they keep doing this? Verse five is not the beginning of a section. Verse five, where the lectionary begins, follows on from verse four, which says
And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
That command is enough to make anyone cry out, “Lord, increase my faith!” The words preceding the command to forgive are almost as bad:
If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender…
The thought of rebuking certain people is enough to cause sleepless nights. “Where can I even begin…? Lord, increase my faith!”
This section of Luke begins at Luke 17:1. It continues through the disciples' plea for faith. And the illustration of the slaves is arguably a part of it all. Brian Stoffregen says that in Greek there is
an "according to present reality conditional clause": "If you have the faith of a mustard seed (and you do) ..." (Luke 17:6). Luke is affirming that they have the faith to do what is expected of them (the theme of vv. 7-10). If they would believe and act on the faith that they already have, then they can rebuke and repent and forgive within the community, it will happen. In essence, he seems to imply that they don't need more faith, but to make use of the faith that they already have.
Jesus says, “You can do this. You have enough faith." Even a small faith the size of the proverbially tiny mustard seed is enough to move a mature mulberry tree, which is huge. The little faith we have can achieve the apparently impossible.
“Faith the size of a mustard seed” is often brandished in our face as a kind of challenge: “Do you really have enough faith? If you do, you will move mountains.” We are dared to believe. I sometimes wonder if this aggressive kind of “signs and wonders” theology is not a shouted denial of our own lack of faith. When signs and wonders happen they prove to us doubters that we must have real faith after all. They are a temporal, human justification. This sort of theology takes a hyperbolic statement about one specific situation, and makes it a normative measure of faith- even a requirement. And fails to see that a Christ-like rebuke; truly loving, and a Christ-like forgiveness; truly real, is perhaps the greatest wonder of all!
The specific context in which Luke talks about faith the size of a mustard seed is that of rebuking and forgiveness within the imperfect life of a congregation. The thought that we might need to rebuke “another disciple” in the congregation can sometimes bring cold horror to our hearts. “Is this a battle I must fight?” we wonder. “I cannot do this!”
Calls to forgiveness may cause resentment and anger, “I will not do this!” or “Why should I do this?” And sometimes, in our bleeding pain we ask, “How can I ever do this?”
Jesus is saying we can. We may need some hard lessons in relationship skills to gain the experience to deal with some folk. We may go with hearts in our mouth. But I find that when it comes to rebuking, I fail to try more often than I fail to succeed.
Stumblings (skandala) will indeed come. Sometimes we can seem so unhealthy as a congregation that it is a wonder we do not fall apart. Indeed congregations sometimes seem to be defined by, or constantly drained by, their disfunctionality. Yet Jesus says we can address this. We can rebuke it, and forgive, and become healthy. If, instead, we cause or allow “little ones” to be lost, we do a terrible thing.
Unlike the non-gap between verse four and five, there really does seem to be a change of subject, at first sight, at the end of verse 6. We go from faith the size of mustard seeds to talking about slaves.
The text has sometimes been used to promote an unhealthy faith: we are but worthless slaves. Loader very correctly says
Read in the context of the whole gospel story, the passage cannot mean: grovel! Nor can it mean: go round saying you are useless as a kind of ploy of humility because then God and others will like you! Nor can it mean: we must be convinced that we are useless. Yet all of these have been ways of expounding the text - often with disastrous consequences for the individuals and communities involved and those around them.
I think about this text via the interpreting lens of moral authority, and the example of my Grandfather.
My grandfather reflected an era when people knew their station in life, and knew how to behave. He was neither rich nor powerful in the world’s eyes, but carried significant personal authority. I grew up meeting people around the district who held him in high esteem. He had a moral authority which was anchored firmly in his own honesty and decency.
There was a man whose life was falling apart. He was becoming dissolute, drinking, neglecting his family, losing control of life. Grandpa rebuked him. He told him to pull himself together, and do the right thing. This man came to visit our house years later, and was still retelling the story of the wonderful thing Grandpa had done for him.
The problem in church is often that the people who are inclined to “call the shots” and rebuke others, only have pretentions to moral authority. It is just assumed their worldly success entitles them to rebuke and correct the rest of us. It’s rather like the classic English detective novel, where the Inspector (publicly at least) assumes that the squire is above suspicion.
Jesus speaks to such people, who knew their superior station. “Who among you would say to your slave…” Few of Jesus’ listeners, and few of the folk in Luke’s church, would have owned slaves. So to those who would keep the church on course, those of superior social standing, Jesus says, “I understand. You don’t invite the slave to come and eat with you. He is your slave. You don’t thank her. She’s just doing her job.”
All our sensitivities to unwarranted social privilege are aroused by this kind of talk. The master who has been at leisure calls the slave in from hard labour, and immediately requires a meal be prepared: such attitudes of self entitlement are disgusting. What I remember of Grandpa suggests he would have a low opinion of such a person— tickets on themselves. Yet such views are common. Such attitudes about self entitlement and superior station will arrive in church- these people, too, are looking for meaning and purpose.
Imagine the man Grandpa helped get life together thanking him; he was a bit inclined to see Grandpa as a saint. Grandpa would’ve said, “It’s nothing. It was just the right thing to do. Keep up the good work!” Having tickled the privilege of the rich in verses 7-9, Jesus turns privilege on its head. “We have only done what we ought to have done.”
Rebuke and correction, and forgiveness, are not about preserving the status quo, or protecting entitlements. They are to ensure that the “little ones,” of faith, are not “scandalized;” that is, led astray or damaged in their faith and their life in the church.
So occasions for stumbling are bound to come.
We can deal with them.
But there is no place for social status or privilege in all this. We are only doing what we ought to do.
And we ought to do what we can do. The expectations of how life is to be lived are not just turned upside down for the rich man who ignored Lazarus. They are also upside down for us, in life in the church.
Andrew Prior Sept 27 2010
For my father, 89 today
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The 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.