Text: Luke 17: 1-10
One day she got fed up with the parrot and as it was insulting her she picked it up, it continued with the insults, “you’re ugly! I can’t stand you!” and it pecked at her arm as she carried it. She opened the freezer door and threw him in and closed the door. From inside, the parrot was still going on for about 5 seconds and then it was suddenly quiet.
She thought, “Oh no, I killed it!” She opened the door and took the parrot out. The parrot just looked at her and then said, “I’m very sorry. I apologize for my bad behavior and promise you there will be no more of that. From now on, I will be a respectful, obedient parrot.”
“Well OK” she said, “apology accepted”.
The parrot said “Thank you” and finished with, “Can I ask you something?”
“Yes,” the woman said, “What is it?”
The parrot looked at the freezer and asked, “What did the Chicken do?”
Forgiveness. What compels us to seek forgiveness and how are we to grant it. These two questions are at the heart of our gospel lesson today. The responses that we find may appear confusing or perhaps even dissatisfying. However, they lead to a larger truth about our relationship with God. If you were reading along with the pew Bible you will have noted that there are three sub-headings inserted into our reading. These are ‘Sin, Faith and A Servant’s Duty’, just as chapter and verse were not added until much later these sub-headings are not found in the original manuscripts. They are added by translators. The NRSV entitles Luke 17:1-10 as ‘Some Sayings of Jesus.’
Both of these sub-headings imply that what we find in our gospel lesson this morning do not go together. As if these are just some jumbled statements that Jesus made and Luke needed to shove them into his gospel account somewhere. However, these ten verses do go together and one needs to be understood before we can move to the next. The Lectionary would have us start at verse five, but you can’t understand what Jesus was saying about faith unless you understand why the disciples needed more faith.
While the statements about the servant may seem out of place and perhaps cruel especially when we consider that the Greek word for ‘servant’ is the same word used for ‘slave’. Distressing as that might be these words of Jesus teach us something about our relationship with God which we can’t fully appreciate unless we work through the entire passage.
Let’s work our way through these passages and see what Luke is telling us. We begin with words from Jesus about sin. The bottom line of this passage is that sin happens. We are going to sin and Jesus knows it. Remember that he came to forgive us from our sins. This passage is not permission from Jesus to go and sin willingly, rather it is an acknowledgement that we are human and we will sin. The rebuke comes when Jesus reminds us that we should not encourage one another to sin. So watch what you do!
Sin is important, God wants us to live lives free of sin but knows that this is not always going to be possible. So Jesus cautions us not to tempt one another into sinful habits and practices. Then comes the part about forgiveness which many find so difficult to deal with. We are told that if someone sins against us and asks for forgiveness, we should forgive them. If this happens seven times we are still to forgive.
The message is that we are to forgive. Not once, not seven, but all the time. And that is hard. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer ‘forgive my debts as I forgive my debtors’ but that is a hard thing to put into practice. Still this is what Jesus urges us to do. To forgive just as we have been forgiven.
Well the disciples felt a little like how you feel about this! They were exasperated! Seriously Jesus, I have to forgive the person who keeps on sinning against me. The person who continually steals from me, hurts me, calls me names, slanders me. I have to forgive them? No way, it’s going to take a lot for me to forgive on that type of level.
Jesus in order for us to do that we are going to need a lot more faith.
To which Jesus makes an archaic response about how having faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is required. And that if you had that faith you could command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and be planted in the sea! Come again?
I’d like to think I’m fairly faithful, I trust in God’s promises. I hope my faith is at least the size of a mustard seed, but I’ve never had a tree uproot itself for me. In fact most trees, shrubs and flowers I touch tend to whither and die. So is Jesus saying all of us have no faith, because I don’t think trees uproot themselves for you either.
The comment Jesus makes about faith is associated with the disciples lack of ability to forgive. Moving and replanting the bush is a metaphor to remind them that they already have faith sufficient for the task. They just aren’t willing to see the task through. They are either lazy or in this case disinclined to forgive. Go back a step further and remember the warning Jesus gave about causing people to stumble into sin. Jesus doesn’t want us to do that, we would be better to tie a millstone around our necks than to cause someone to stumble and sin. We have the faith, what we lack is the ability to see past ourselves and our own hurts and desires.
So what do we do about the servant or as some translations render it the slave? The servant who comes in after a dutiful day of work. Do we praise them and ask them to sit at our table? We probably should but that is not the message that Jesus is trying to convey this morning. No Jesus says we don’t invite them to eat with us, instead we ask them to prepare our dinner.
To be sure this passage pulls in strong understandings of life in the Mediterranean when Jesus was alive. A world vastly different from our own, with values and practices we find abhorrent. It makes any passage about slaves and servitude difficult to deal with. But notice the turn Jesus makes after asking if the servant deserves thanks for obeying orders. Jesus says, “It is the same with you…” Jesus is putting the disciples on the same footing as the servants. We find the image leading up to this distasteful and hard to deal with and so when we get to the crucial turn at the end we miss it, we stumble.
What Jesus is reminding us through this entire passage is that we serve God. We are in God’s debt, not the other way around. We don’t get to say “come on God I really need this to happen!” God knows what we need. God is not at our beck and call; God does not respond when we throw a tantrum like children.
N.T. Wright comments on this passage, “It’s not great faith that is required it is faith in a great God.” Jesus is teaching the disciples that they need to trust in God’s grace and mercy. That God can never be in our debt. All that we’ve done, all that we will do is genuine service done in gratitude for what God has done for us.
Through this we understand Christian faith as hopeful, trusting, strong in weakness and active. Most importantly to trust God, to have faith in God and fewer excuses. Amen.