October 2, 2022 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – Luke 17:5-10

Although the mustard seed is a familiar and beloved image from this passage, I’m not going to talk about it at all this morning.  Instead, I’m going to focus on the less familiar second part of this passage.

The very first thing I need to do is acknowledge that Jesus’ reference to slaves is problematic.  Yes, slavery was a thing in the ancient world.  But we can’t equate the slavery of Jesus’ culture with chattel slavery as shamefully practiced in our own country.  In the context of the Americas, slaves had no rights at all.  Biblical slaves, on the other hand, did have some protections and rights, were entitled to Sabbath rest along with the rest of the household, could inherit property, could be released after six years of service, and when released, were to be given economic gifts to help them survive on their own.  I’m not, by any means, saying that any kind of slavery is okay, but I think it does help to understand that when Jesus refers to slaves in this passage, he’s not talking about chattel slavery.

Nevertheless, Jesus paints a pretty dismal picture of discipleship, doesn’t he?  When we’ve done the work of disciples – feeding the poor, advocating for the oppressed, caring for the orphan and the widow and the stranger and the immigrant – when we’ve done what Jesus has commanded us to do, we shouldn’t be looking for a cosmic reward or a divine thank you.  We’re just nothings and nobodies who have only done what we were supposed to do.  Wow.  How many people do you suppose we’re going to entice into a life of faith if that is our message?  If that were the principal message of Jesus, it would be amazing that Christianity survived through the first century!

Though there’s no doubt that, in Luke’s gospel especially, Jesus paints a sobering picture of what is required of his disciples – things like giving away our possessions, forgiving those who wrong us over and over again, taking up the cross – though there’s no doubt that discipleship is difficult, I wonder if we might hear Jesus comparing discipleship to slavery as something other than gloomy and joyless.  I wonder if he might be saying that faithful discipleship isn’t just the big, miraculous things like healing the sick and casting out demons and raising the dead . . . it’s also the mundane things in our everyday life, the things that slaves might have done in Jesus’ day, like plowing the fields and tending the sheep and making supper and putting on an apron to serve.  Because sometimes being faithful just means doing the unglamorous things that need to be done.

I’d like to do a little exercise with you.[1]  When you came into church this morning, you received a writing instrument, and you should have found a slip of paper in your bulletin.  I’d ask you to get those two things out right now because I’m going to ask you a question, and I’d like you to write your answer on that piece of paper.  For the folks who are joining us by YouTube, I invite you to write your answer in the chat box, if you know how to do that.  If you don’t know how to do that, no worries – just think about your answer.  Okay, here’s the question:  Name one thing that you did this week to be helpful to someone else.  Maybe you prayed for a neighbor.  Or brought their trash cans in from the curb.  Maybe you helped with Loaves and Fishes.  Or bought a jar of peanut butter for the Survival Center.  Maybe you cooked supper.  Or did the dishes.  Maybe you listened to someone who needed to talk.  Or talked to someone who was all alone.  Just name one thing that you did to be helpful to someone else this week.  Then collect responses.

 Now imagine what this world would be like if no one . . . insert here everyone’s responses.  In the face of the serious problems and struggles that we face in our world today, it’s easy to feel like these common, ordinary, everyday acts don’t matter.  But they do.  They matter because you are disciples and your helpful deeds are the fruit of faithful discipleship.  And though God owes us no “thank you,” there are no thankless tasks in the kingdom of God.  For the reward of faithful service is a more intimate relationship with the one in whom we have placed our trust:  a closer walk with Jesus.

[1] Thanks to David Lose for the idea for this exercise:

Pentecost 20 C: Every Day Acts of Faith

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