Jesus comes to us as the worthless slave in order to put to death our dependence on the strength of our faith, our knowledge, and external affirmation for our worth; our worth comes from Christ alone. Secure in Christ’s love, we can serve as he has commanded and shown us to do.
Vicar Emily Beckering, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 27, year C; text: Luke 17:5-10
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
These words from Jesus are hard to hear. They may leave many of us wondering where the good news is. How can this parable be Jesus’ response to the disciples’ plea? Where in this parable is the Jesus who was anointed to bring good news to the poor, was sent to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free? Who is being set free in this parable? Where is the Son of God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly? Are we really supposed to call ourselves worthless?
This is particularly troubling because worthlessness already seems to be at the core of the disciples’ demand: “Increase our faith!” That sounds like doubt: doubt in Christ?
Perhaps. We are no strangers to doubt. Faith is never certain; doubt in God’s promises, in God’s love is a part of being human. But perhaps the disciples are also struggling with self-doubt, and we know well what it feels like to doubt ourselves. We hear this story and perhaps think of mulberry trees in our own lives whether they are personal or societal and how try as we may, we feel as though we will never be able to budge that tree even an inch. We doubt that maybe, maybe we do not have what it takes to follow Jesus after all. Maybe we do not have the strength to do what Christ demands of us. If only we trusted more, could throw ourselves completely on the Lord, then maybe, maybe we would have enough faith to be faithful, enough to be true disciples, enough to live in eternity.
The disciples’ doubts echo in our own hearts: “I hope I have enough faith.” “Do I have enough, Lord?” “How much faith is enough?” With arms outstretched we cry with the disciples: “Increase our faith, Lord!”
To which Jesus responds, “No. No. Don’t you see? It’s not about size. Even a mustard seed is enough. It’s not the size that matters, but the One in whom you have the faith, the One in whom you trust, the One in whom you are in this relationship with; that is what moves the mulberry tree. Don’t worry about the size of your faith, just do your job; be a servant.”
The nagging in our hearts does not stop there, though. No. There is more to the disciples’ prayer for faith: even after following him and hearing his teaching and seeing him heal, they still feel lost; they still do not understand who Jesus really is or what he will do or what is expected of them. “Increase our faith,” is also a plea to understand, to have clarity, to know what they are supposed to do and when they are supposed to do it and to know who Jesus is for them.
So doubt takes another form: do we know enough? How can we truly be faithful if we have more questions than answers? What if we do not know what to say or what to do? What if we do not understand?
To which Jesus responds, “No. Don’t you see? It’s not about how much you know, understand, or about gaining perfect clarity. You do not need to have all the answers to know what you should do. Just do your job; be a servant.”
But we still are not content. Another piece of the parable makes us uneasy: Jesus tells us that we are to do our job, that God calls us to serve and not to expect thanks or praise. And now that self-doubt rises up again; now we feel scared. “But Lord, that praise, that thanks is how I know that I am doing well, that I am faithfully serving you and your people, that you really have called me.” “How will I know that I am being faithful if the people whom I’m serving don’t tell me?” “How will I know that I am doing what I am supposed to do if I won’t get thanked for it?”
To which Jesus responds, “No. Don’t you see? You are not going to base your faithfulness or your service or your call on whether or not people praise you or recognize you; you aren’t always going to receive thanks. In fact, you should not even expect it. You will never get enough affirmation, thanks, or praise to satiate you or to convince you that you are enough. Just do your job; be a servant.”
And now with this, Jesus pushes us even deeper to the real heart of the matter, the source of our pain and our fear and our doubt: our worth. If we do not trust enough, know enough, receive enough affirmation, then are we really enough? “Am I enough, Lord? Am I enough? No, I am not, and that is the whole problem with this parable, Lord. I already feel worthless. I am worthless.”
But Jesus asks, “How do you get your value? If you have faith strong enough? If you know enough? If people like you? Think of all that you sacrifice when you live this way; think of the people that you may ignore, that you may use, or trample on, or run ragged—including yourself—to get the affirmation on which you depend. Your worth is not dependent on the strength of your faith, or how much you know, or external affirmation. I would rather you just serve because I have called you. Do your job, and don’t expect to get praised.”
To which we may wish to retort, “Yes, yes, I get it! I will do my job, but I still feel worthless. I still am not enough.”
Maybe, maybe what we really need to ask Jesus is, “Well what then? How will I know? How will I know that I’m doing all right in your eyes? If I can’t measure my worth by the strength of my faith, or the amount that I know, or by the praise that I receive, then what shall I measure it in? Where do we get our worth?”
And most surprisingly, Jesus has given us the answer in this parable of the slave and the master. In this parable, we do hear the good news from Jesus’ own lips. Jesus is saying to us:
“Don’t you see? I am the worthless slave in the parable!
I am the Son of God among you as one who serves!
I am the One at your feet, taking care of you!
And I am preparing a place for you at the table!
I am the one washing your feet and headed to the cross for you because I love you!
Does that tell you how precious you are? Does that tell you where your worth comes from? It is from me, from my love.
That is why it is not about the size of your faith; because I am the One who moves the mulberry tree. So depend no longer on that external affirmation of your service, or your knowledge, or your contributions, or your cleverness for reassurance of your worth.
You have me and my love, and all that I have is yours. I have called you. You have enough; you are enough.”
What if we believed Jesus’ words to us? That he makes us enough. What would that mean for us as disciples and as servants? How might that shape our relationships with our families, our colleagues, our friends, even people whom we find it difficult to love? If we bring Jesus’ parable and Jesus’ words to us into each part of our lives, what will happen?
In our families, might trusting that Christ makes us enough mean that we can turn from being dependent on the approval and forgiveness of our partner, spouse, children, siblings, or parents, and give approval and forgiveness freely instead?
If the table that Jesus speaks of in the parable is our school, or place of work, or where we volunteer, then might trusting that Christ makes us enough mean that we can stop maneuvering and elbowing our colleagues for the places at the table that we think that we deserve and invite them to the table instead? To cease insisting, “wait your turn” but serve those around us first instead? To stop pushing ourselves to the top of the ladder or the class in order to gain the recognition that we think we need but open up space to recognize others’ contributions instead? To make decisions that are the best for people—inside and outside of the company—rather than on what will reap the most profit or earn us the greatest praise? To befriend those who will not gain us any popularity?
In conversations, might trusting that Christ makes us enough break the cycle of one-upping one another to prove our intelligence, competence, or credibility?
Since Christ makes us enough, then we are the ones set free by the parable. So In committees and organizations that we serve in, we are set free from going along with the crowd and saying what will win us friends, praise, and love and instead say what must be said; what the Holy Spirit nudges us to say.
Since Christ makes us enough, might we be able to cease cutting others down when they insult or criticize us—returning violence with violence when we are threatened—and see instead their aggression as an expression of their insecurity which is not all that different from our own? Might we see that Christ is at work in both of us to heal the brokenness that we share? Might we be able to see their worth as Christ looks back at us through their eyes?
We know that these are the things that we ought to do because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. The One who asks all of this of us—the One who has called us to serve—is the One who shares the table with sinners, the One on the way to the cross, and the One who will reach for the towel to wash the disciples’ feet. This is the One at our feet and the One whom we meet at this Table, preparing a place for us, and He invites us here today: “Come and taste and see again just how much I love you. Come here at once and take your place at the table. Then go out and do your job.”