Let’s talk about Luke – the name by which we know the author of this Gospel, one of the four Biblical books that tells the story of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Luke is writing perhaps fifty to sixty years after these events. He’s talked with people who were there, and he’s read various written accounts, including Mark’s Gospel and at least one other compilation of Jesus’ teachings and sayings. He’s not satisfied that anybody has really pulled it all together into one coherent, compelling account yet. So, he tells us in the first chapter, he decided to take on the task of investigating everything carefully and writing down an orderly account, so that everyone may know the truth.
To do this, Luke is trying to combine all these various sources. Imagine him with index cards all over his desk, moving them around, trying to get the timeline right, to match parables with sayings with healings, and so on. Overall, he does a pretty good job…though I think he sticks too many morals onto the ends of parables sometimes.
Today’s Gospel passage feels to me like some of Luke’s left-over index cards. Luke has it on good authority that Jesus said these things, but he doesn’t know where to stick them into the story. So there’s this part in chapter 17 where Jesus just says stuff. There are three sayings in this section; today’s Gospel passage contains two of them. The first is a short speech about handling others’ bad behavior. Jesus says, Don’t cause others to stumble; rebuke those who sin; but also be ready to forgive, over and over again. This passage is also in Matthew’s Gospel, because Matthew was reading some of the same sources as Luke, and we’ll read it on a Sunday next year, when Matthew will be our core Gospel text.
Then there’s this saying about faith like a mustard seed; and then the saying about the obedient slaves. From there, Luke chapter 17 goes to a healing story and then some of Jesus’ teachings about the end times, including everybody’s favorite Bible verse, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (That’s Luke 17:35, if you want to embroider it on something.)
I don’t think the two teachings in today’s text are directly related, except in the general sense of “stuff Jesus talked about.” They’re just a couple of index cards Luke put together, trying to organize all this material. So the jump from the obliging mulberry tree to the weary slave really is a jump; it’s not just you. But that doesn’t help us that much, because even if we take them separately, these are both difficult sayings.
Listen to the second saying again: Jesus said, “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”? 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”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!”
The word translated as slave here is doulos in Greek, and it’s a tricky word to translate into American English. The range of practices by which one person was bound to serve another person in the ancient Near East were somewhat different from our American experience with slavery. The same word is translated as “servant” in some other passages, and in some translations of this passage. But the emphasis in this little story is on the power imbalance between the master and the worker – and it’s clear that the worker has little authority or autonomy. He doesn’t get to rest when he’s tired; he doesn’t get to eat when he’s hungry. Anyone who could easily find other work would probably do so. Slave seems like the right word to use.
So what is Jesus saying, here? Is he saying that God’s relationship with us is like the relationship of an exploitative, even abusive, master? I don’t think so. I think Luke put this index card in the wrong place.
See, Jesus is very audience-conscious. He always knows who he’s talking to and what they need to hear, whether it’s comfort or challenge. When he’s talking to ordinary folks, he tells stories about farming and fishing, housekeeping and sheep-herding. When he’s talking to his rich friends, he tells stories about property development, lavish banquets, and staff management.
When he begins this little parable with, “Think about how you treat your slaves,” that makes me think he is not talking to his usual crowd of penniless seekers -even though that’s where Luke pastes the story into his text. I think Jesus is talking to people who own slaves, and treat them exactly like this, and think that’s normal. And I think the jarring language is very intentional.
Think: You’re a wealthy man who’s also publicly religious. You participate in holy days, you give generously to the Temple, you keep the food purity rules, and so on. Maybe you’re a little proud of all that. Maybe you reckon your wealth is because God is especially pleased with you. And then Jesus looks you in the eye and says, All your righteousness is only doing what you have been ordered to do, by Moses and the prophets. It does not make you God’s special favorite.
So I’m hypothesizing that this parable might have been originally spoken to folks who were wealthy and somewhat self-righteous. Did Jesus know anybody like that? He sure did. He went to dinner with people like that back in chapter 14, and he had a few things to say to them. He mocked them a little for their status anxiety and jockeying for position, and then he told his host, ‘You think you’re being pretty generous with this nice dinner party. But you know, most of your guests will have you over to dinner within a month, to return the favor and show off their houses. If you really want your generosity to impress God, hold a banquet and invite all the poor folks in your neighborhood, even those who beg in the streets.’ There’s an echo here of the Sermon on the Mount, earlier in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus said, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
If we imagine the saying from today’s Gospel being spoken at that dinner table, or one a lot like it, Jesus’ description of harsh treatment of slaves makes sense. He is not endorsing the master’s behavior. He’s calling out what he sees – a shallow righteousness without kindness. And he’s trying to shock and humble his elite hearers by equating them with slaves, reminding them that while they feel pretty important among their neighbors, they are lowly before God. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
There is a more general teaching buried here, I think – that following God’s ways is a basic pattern of life, not something extra for which you earn a gold star. But I believe Jesus is shaping his message in this text for a particular audience, and we are not that audience – unless any of you are particularly nasty to your household help.
That leaves us with the mustard seed and the mulberry bush! Here it is again: The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The 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.”
The apostles, here, means the group of Jesus’ disciples whom he’s appointed to go out and spread the good news of God’s redemption. So… he’s talking to us. No way to dodge it this time.
I have two conflicting gut reactions to this text. One is, That’s not how things work. Jesus is talking about faith as if it were stage magic. The point of faith is not to manipulate reality. When the Marianne Williamsons of the world suggest we can focus our prayers and get a hurricane to turn away from our favorite beach resort, they misunderstand both God and world. In my most faithful moments, in the moments when I know deeply and boldly that God’s redemptive love is powerfully at work in every human circumstance – I still have not been able to throw trees around. (Though I admit I’m not sure I’ve tried.) So my first reaction is, honestly, to be a little angry. Jesus’ playful hyperbolic language about the power of faith here seems misleading and possibly harmful.
But my second reaction is: Yeah, Jesus, you got me. In my most faithful moments, my faith is still so small. The Greek word here, pistis, is really more like trust. What do we trust in? It’s so easy to trust in things like tomorrow being a lot like today; like a plastic card that somehow allows you to buy food; like my own competence, and the illusion of control. It’s so hard to trust in God, unseen and unknowable.
There’s a term for this: functional atheism. It means we believe in God, but don’t actually run our lives that way. Author Parker Palmer defines functional atheism as “the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.” Molly Baskette, from the United Church of Christ, suggests you might be a functional atheist if you often find yourself saying, “‘I can handle this all by myself.’ ‘Don’t worry about me.’ ‘Yup, just fine.’” That doesn’t mean our belief is shallow or insincere. It means that our culture has successfully sold us the myth of rugged individualism, complete with stress and loneliness. It means that it’s hard for us to feel and trust in God’s near and loving presence. Gerald May writes, “Even if we believe devoutly that God is present with us, our usual experience is that we are “here” and God is “there,” loving and gracious perhaps, but irrevocably separate. “We just don’t understand ourselves,” says [Saint] Teresa [of Avila], “or know who we are.” (Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul)
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this from the pulpit, but I find that all of this names me better than I like. If my faith were like a mustard seed…
Hmm, doesn’t mustard seed sound familiar?…
Jesus talks about mustard seeds twice in Luke’s Gospel. One day – about four chapters earlier – Jesus was telling stories about the Kingdom of God, God’s alternate reality of justice, mercy, freedom and love. And he said, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19)
The Kingdom of God might seem tiny… but it GROWS. It grows and spreads, and becomes strong and gracious and lovely. What if our faith can do that too?
[Show people mustard seeds] These are seeds from the garlic mustard that grows in many places on our church grounds. It’s a very different kind of plant than Jesus is describing, but it’s part of the same big family of mustard plants. And it has the same tendency to start out tiny… and end up big. I’m sure some of you see garlic mustard as an enemy… but you’ve got to respect how resilient and prolific it is.
Jesus says, The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed… And Jesus says, If you had faith like a mustard seed… Our Bible translation says “faith the size of a mustard seed,” but the original Greek doesn’t say anything about size – it’s just, like a mustard seed, in both of those passages. Maybe Jesus’ reply to his friends’ request isn’t shaming them for having little faith. Maybe instead he’s saying that the quantity of your faith doesn’t matter; that in fact it’s not even quantifiable. Because faith is like the Kingdom is like a mustard seed: it seems so small, but throw a few of those seeds around, and suddenly the woods are so full of the stuff that you’re asking volunteers to come pull it up.
On the days when my faith feels small, when I trust too much in myself or the world and forget to trust in the God who knows my name and loves me beyond imagining – what I need on those days isn’t to beat myself up about it, but to trust that small things matter. My faith – our faith – however tiny or weak it might feel, can make a difference to us, to others, to the world. That’s why we started talking about these spiritual practices, a few years ago. We got together and asked ourselves and each other about why we follow Jesus, and what church means to us, and when we’re aware that we’re doing something because of our values and convictions as people of faith. And we took all that beautiful qualitative data and shook it all up and ended up with the discipleship practices we’re talking through this fall; we’ve done Welcoming, Abiding, and Wondering so far, and today is blessed Francis and Reconciling.
These practices: they are things we already do, because we’re already formed by our faith and the way it orients us in the world, often at a level we’re not even conscious of. But naming and talking about them also helps us be intentional about looking for opportunities to practice them more faithfully and fully.
That’s how our faith – our capacity to trust in God and let that trust make a difference in our lives – that’s how faith is like a mustard seed: smaller than a fingertip, but holding within itself the gracious tree, the resilient weed, that lives, and grows, and spreads, and changes things.
Molly Baskette’s summary of functional atheism: