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Friday, October 4, 2019

"What we were obliged to do" - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
"Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
'Come here immediately and take your place at table'?
Would he not rather say to him,
'Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished'?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants; 
we have done what we were obliged to do.'"


Jesus’ words to the apostles sound strange to modern ears: “Who among you would say to your servant … ‘come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not instead say … you may eat and drink when I am finished’?” Not having hired servants, most of us are not entirely sure how we’d manage their dining schedule. Confused with this passage, we usually just move along to the next parable. 

By zooming out, we might get a clearer picture of what Jesus is up to. Since chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem in order to die. All along the way, he’s been offering teachings and parables to the people who are following him along the road. He preached about how the “last will be first” and about the woman who upended her house in search of a single lost coin. He dined with Pharisees and insisted we invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to our banquets. He preached about a father whose mercy runs reckless abandon to embrace his prodigal son. 

This should clarify the opening words of this week’s reading. After spending this time with Jesus ― after being moved by his teaching ― the apostles beg him: “Increase our faith!” Jesus’ reply is a tad painful. He says that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Though it isn’t obvious in English, in the original Greek it is only possible grammatically to read Jesus’ words in one way. He is insisting that the apostles do not in fact have a mustard seed’s worth of faith. They are right to beg for an increase! 

But then Jesus immediately moves into this bit about the time one’s servants should eat dinner. This might seem disconnected, but it is not. Jesus is recalling the basic rules that govern social relations in the households of the ancient world. When a servant comes in from the day’s work, he would proceed to make dinner. It would be absurd if the master of the house immediately invited him to sit down to eat ― the servant himself had not yet made the meal! More than that, Jesus points out to the apostles how strange it would be for the master to shower the servant with praise as he began making the meal: “Is [the master] grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?” Indeed, it was not extraordinary for him to begin making this meal. Based on the agreements proper to his position, the servant was simply doing what he was obliged to do. The servant himself would have found such praise strange.

So how is this relevant to the apostles and their desire for more faith? Again, after hearing him preach, the apostles were struck by the way of life Jesus was offering. His story about the servant is meant to remind the apostles that the way of life Jesus is offering constitutes the basic obligation for a Christian. Household workers in the ancient world had basic obligations. So do Christians. You are to put those who come last in this world first (Lk 13:30), you are to forgive your brother when he wrongs you seven times a day (Lk 17:4). And even when Christians have done all this, they are right to beg for an increase in their faith ― as the apostles did ― for this would only make them“unprofitable servants” who merely “have done what [they] were obliged to do.” 

Jesus’ words reveal something important about the nature of Christian humility. Christians ought not to look on their acts of love as extraordinary, as they are often tempted to do. In Jesus’ mind, acting like a Christian makes you equal to the student who didn’t cheat on her math test. This isn’t something to write home about ― it’s a basic obligation. For Christians, putting those who are last first does not make one extraordinary, it makes one a regular citizen of the Kingdom of God.

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