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Text: Luke 17:5-10
The scripture scholar Markus Barth used to tell his students, “If you can’t find the Word in the text, it isn’t the text’s fault. Dig deeper.” How deeply do we need to dig to understand the mustard seed exhortation and the slave imagery of today’s Gospel passage?
As Christians, many of us grew up in a religious context that was punitive in nature. In that scenario, we see Jesus “yelling at us” in much of what he says. And yes indeed, Jesus does often appear to be yelling at people like hypocrites, blind guides, and unforgiving, unrepentant sinners. As we read those passages, we can personalize much of what Jesus is calling out in us when he is chastising his audience. I have been a hypocrite, a blind guide, and I have been judgmental and unforgiving. So yes, Jesus is sometimes speaking to me.
But what about this mustard seed narrative? Here, we have two ways of interpreting and personalizing the message. What is Jesus really saying? In the punitive model, Jesus is yelling at his disciples, and thus yelling at us. “What’s the matter with you? You don’t have enough faith. You don’t even have faith the size of a mustard seed, because if you did, you wouldn’t need to be asking me about increasing your faith.” But is Jesus being punitive?
What if Jesus is saying this? “You don’t need me to increase your faith. You’re not perfect. And all you really need is faith the size of a mustard seed. That’s good enough for God, and God will do the rest. That’s why I am not asking for perfection. In the reign of God, even the little things mean a lot.”
As a minister and a Christian, I can tell you that if mustard seed faith is not sufficient, I am in serious trouble much of the time. What about that mother with cancer whom I prayer over and anointed, only to see her die a couple of months later? What about that kid in the car accident who never walks again, even though I prayed my heart out with that family? I cannot say in those moments that I was overflowing with abundant faith. In these life moments, the mustard seed may have to be enough. And it appears from what Jesus is saying that it’s OK. It’s enough. God is still God, and we are still God’s children. And we can be OK with God, whether our faith is a mighty oak or a tiny seed.
Well, we’ve kind of worked that seed stuff out, but what about that slavery talk? At United in Christ Lutheran church in the 1990s, I had a number of parishioners whose grandparents were slaves. When I was born, slavery in the US had only been abolished for about 85 years. It’s recent US history. And it’s not over. When black men can be executed on the street for having a burnt out taillight, and when more young black men are in prison than in college, slavery has not fully been abolished. If you think this gospel is tough to preach on today, try being a lily white preacher in a black church. It’s a troublesome image for Jesus to be using, because he is not using the language of abolition, but rather is accommodating the slave owner class of his day to make his point. Or at least it would seem that way. So Markus Barth would tell us to dig deeper.
Slavery takes many forms. A young woman or teenage boy or girl being trafficked by a pimp. People stuck in poverty wages, unable to use their voice for fear of reprisal and punishment. An intimate partner stuck in a battering relationship where there seems to be no way out. An undocumented person working in squalid and dangerous conditions? A young black woman being “busted” for smoking a joint in public, while same-aged white kids a few blocks away get stoned on their front steps with no consequences? Slavery. The creation of slaves by people who would make them slaves. But here is an answer to the slavery dilemma.
A word of Greek translation helps us to parse the mixed use of the words servant and slave in the Gospels. The Greek word “doulos” is translated as both servant and slave, and you see this fluid translation used in varying ways in different translations of the bible. So keep that in mind as we explore the terminology.
For the Christian, Jesus answers the question of slavery on the cross. We have no right to make another person a slave. Slavery imposed is slavery with absolutely no redemptive value. Slavery imposed is slavery abhorrent. Jesus is nailed to the cross by those who would enslave him and his message. He is bound, and he is condemned like a criminal, a slave to the authorities, and a slave to the wooden instrument of his torture. This is slavery imposed, except for the triumph of the cross. In the triumph of the cross, Jesus owns the slavery and dies the suffering servant; he is a slave to our sins, so that we are no longer enslaved. He owns slavery and imposes it upon himself for the sake of freeing the world from slavery.
If I am to follow the crucified and risen Christ, at some point I must die to myself and truly adopt the servanthood of Christ as my own. The slavery I own then is not an imposition on me, but rather a role that I embrace in the service of others. I own that title of slave so that others may be lifted up. When I embrace the slavery, the servanthood of Christ, I break the shackles of slavery imposed upon others by a sinful, violent, and greedy world. The triumph of the cross, the turning point that makes slavery a liberation, that triumph is mine to celebrate and to live in Jesus Christ.
When I as slave, as humble servant, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and release the captive. When I do this and more with my slavery, I turn oppression on its head, and I own it as Jesus owns it. And guess what? I only need faith the size of a mustard seed to make it happen. God in Christ does the rest.
To be with God in Christ is to be Christlike. My servanthood liberates others as Christ’s servanthood liberates me. And as mere servants or slaves, we are only doing what we ought to do in the first place.
The ultimate God language for living out the calling of doulos is this: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have done well in these little things, and I will now entrust you with more. Come now, and rest, come and enjoy the master’s house.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.