We plop right into a conversation already in progress in verse 5, but as you may already be aware, reading the previous verses isn’t a guarantee that you’ll immediately understand our lectionary selection!
If you wish to include the first four verses of chapter 17, it’s fine to do so, since they are seemingly what cause the disciples to say to Jesus, “ADD faith to us!” The disciples know just as well as we do that forgiveness is hard, and that humans are prone to selfishness capable of harming others. So their “Increase our faith!” could be as much a confession as a request…
All the same, though, Jesus’ next words—not to mention his parable—put the disciples (and us) in our place. God does not exist for us, we exist for God. And if there’s an issue, it’s on our end, not God’s.
People translate verse 6 differently, sometimes implying that if we have just a little bit of faith, then we could accomplish amazing things. But, it also means, “if you had faith as, or like, a mustard seed…” In this case, it is less about the amount, and more about what you have faith in. A grain of mustard seed knows its end and purpose—that it will grow into a mustard bush/tree. If we, as disciples, know and trust in our purpose and end as part of the Good Master’s kingdom, then there’s no end to what our lives might produce! This difference in translation moves us away from a one-time miraculous feat of faith, to a lifetime of faithfulness.
And a lifetime of faithfulness is the undercurrent of the story that Jesus tells in verses 7-10. After all, we exist for God, not the other way around. We don’t make demands on God—we serve God. Jesus uses a normal circumstance in the Ancient Near East to help his listeners get the meaning. Though the imagery is less helpful in our context, given what modern slavery looked like (and where it still exists, how awful it is), its point back then was about obedience, demands, and trusting faithfulness.
Jesus asks his disciples if they would tell their household slave to sit with them at their dinner tables. Of course not, Jesus says in verse 8. Rather, using the form of a question which in Greek implies a positive reply, Jesus says you’d tell your servant to do what he’s been purchased for: to cook the supper and serve you, just as he’s been doing all day. Similarly, the question in verse 9 is constructed to imply a negative answer: no one thanks their slave for doing what is commanded. Implied in this story is what we already know to be true: good masters keep their end of the covenant towards their slaves: providing whatever is necessary as part of their servitude. For their part, slaves know that they have no right to anything more, they are not owed anything by their master.
And how much more is this true when we think about our relationship with God? This is where verse 10’s interpretation becomes important (see the textual point below). We don’t have any right to ask God to miraculously make us people who can forgive or to “snap his fingers” and make us have so much powerful faith that we can get mulberry trees to grow in the depths of the sea (and other absurd things). No, we are slaves to the best Master imaginable; we have been given all that we need for “a long obedience in the same direction.” We exist because God wanted us to exist, we have eternal life because Jesus made it possible, and we live by faith through the constant companionship of God-still-with-us, the Holy Spirit. So yes, “we are slaves without need, we have only done what we ought to have done,” which is live wholeheartedly for our Lord and Master.
I wonder if there’s another message hidden in this image. I wonder if Jesus isn’t also pointing us to the wisdom of everyday, ordinary faithfulness as the kind that builds and increases the little seeds of faith within us. By using the image of a slave who day in and day out does their duty without thought of reward, but of obedience to their covenant, Jesus is saying that there is something extraordinary about consistent faithfulness built on trusting that you serve a Good, Good, Master.
You want Jesus to increase your faith? Then be faithful. We add to our faith through the practice of faithfulness. It isn’t quite the same idea of “working to earn it.” It’s more like embody what you are meant to be as a servant of God, and you will find faith naturally and wonderfully coming to fruition and fulfillment in your life. Think of the most faithful Christians you know, and you’ll likely have a humble, grateful believer in your mind—someone who heartfeltly is able to express how unworthy, yet overwhelmed by, God’s love they are. For such a person, like the apostle Paul, all loss is counted as gain if it means knowing Christ and being found in him by living a life of faithfulness. (Phil 3.8-9)
In verse 10, Jesus says that his disciples will reach a point of knowledge about their obedience and call themselves “worthless slaves” who have done “what they ought to have done.” That word, “worthless” (achreios in the Greek) is often translated as “being of no use or profit, worthless.” But, as Kenneth Bailey points out, its root word is chreios—having the prefix a– added to make it a negative. Chreios is less about profitability and more about need: “that which should happen or be supplied because it is needed.” So, when this word is made a negative—as in our passage—it can be translated as “without need.” In other words, Jesus could be telling his disciples that they are commenting, gratefully, “We are slaves without need, we have only done what we ought to have done.” We are reminded of another Lukan story about a master and slaves—of the Good Master. Slaves who serve a Good Master do not need to earn good treatment, but are happy to serve faithfully.
Among many others, both Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard turned to the Psalms as guides for faithful discipleship. I thought of these two in particular because the titles of their books fit quite well with the themes of this week’s lectionary. Peterson wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction in it, he explores the various components of our discipleship (such as repentance, joy, service, hope, obedience, and blessing). And Dallas Willard focused on Psalm 23 and learning to live in faith the Life without Lack. These titles capture what Jesus is saying about discipleship: as we obediently go on the long journey of being a slave to God, we will find that we lack for nothing, both now and in the world to come.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 2, 2022
Luke 17:5-10 Commentary