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First Impressions: Luke 17:5-10

September 23, 2010

Most of us are probably immediately drawn to the mustard seed image when we read this Lectionary text.  That familiar description of the power of faith is sandwiched between two sayings about subjects that seem to us as moldy bread: forgiveness and serving without any thought of reward—or even thanks!  Luke may mean to connect them all together with forgiveness as the unifying theme.  This week, however, I will pull out the deliciously salty cured meat from the middle and throw the bread away.

That’s not to say, of course, that you couldn’t preach a perfectly good sermon on any of the other pieces of this text (we will hear verses 1-4 along with the Lectionary’s choice of verses 5-10 to fill out the reading), or even put together a good message on the text as a unified whole.  I have simply chosen to focus on the more familiar part this time.  Check with me in three years, and I’ll try to do something different at that time.  (And, yes, if you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “This isn’t the gospel lesson for this week,” you’re right.  I have flipped this week’s lesson with next week’s in order to give us the story of Lazarus and the rich man on World Communion Sunday.)

17:1-4 If you would like to tackle the passage as a whole, you probably should include verses 1-4 in the public reading.  Every source I studied believed Luke was weaving the stories together to say something about the importance of mutual forgiveness in the community of believers.  They first note that the scene has shifted.  Previously, Jesus had been addressing the Pharisees and their love of money, but in chapter 17, he spoke to the disciples (verse 1) and the apostles (verse 5).  By virtue of the term “apostles,” Fred Craddock believes Jesus was addressing the key leaders of the early Church (Interpretation: Luke [Louisville: John Knox, 1990], 199.)  Therefore, the pericope as a whole is likely about our living together as the Church, especially in the midst of conflict.  But, since I’m sure none of you have any relationship problems in your churches, so we can just move on to the good stuff!

17:5-6 Many people hear these verses and imagine the wonderful possibilities of faith.  “Someday, when I finally have that mustard seed of faith, I’ll really be able to do something.”  I think Jesus was speaking about the present reality of our faith.  Craddock says the construction in Greek in verse 6 means “if you had that faith, and you do” (Interpretation: Luke, 200).  That faith is already present within the apostles, and I think we can make the leap to say that it is present in ourselves and in the people we serve.  In Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit worked in the followers of the risen Christ, and mulberry trees were uprooted.  We are their descendants.

My own life is full of examples of the fallacious belief that I must get everything in order first, and then I can get down to the real work.  Once I get my bad back in better shape and get more active, then I can go back to playing basketball.  No, instead I need to play myself back into shape, or I’ll never play at all.  If I wait to do all the things I should—weeks of stretching, sit ups and running—before I play basketball, I’ll never end up on the court.

That’s a simple example, but my life is littered with others.   If I wait to put all my ducks in a row before I can start to be a better father and husband, or get that new Sunday School program up and running, or plant the garden, then I’ll never do anything because my ducks will never line up properly.  They like to wander all over the lawn, and I don’t have the energy to chase them down.

The reality that Jesus points out to us is that by God’s grace we have already been given the faith we need.  So, if you had the right faith (and you do!), what would you do to be the person you always knew you should be?  What would you do to be in mission to others?  What persons would you forgive?

Ah, back to forgiveness.  If you are preaching the text as a whole, then you may wish to point out that the apostles asked for faith immediately after they heard how frequently and fully they were required to forgive others.  That certainly takes more than I have at my disposal.  I’m still having trouble forgiving my wife for not putting the groceries away in alphabetical order yesterday.  How can I forgive the really big stuff, the things that hurt so deeply and left scars that are still tender to the touch?  That takes faith, faith that forgiveness really is the way of the kingdom.  It means I must have faith that God’s forgiveness of me is truly real.  It is faith in the fact that forgiveness brings me closer to the ones I love and actually heals my wounds.

17:7-10 This is a difficult section.  It implies that God is not satisfied with our efforts.  “Why should I praise or thank you?  You only did what was required.”  That isn’t a good model for parenting or for being a healthy community of faith.  Even though we want to serve only out of selfless motives, the reality is that we all appreciate being appreciated.  That’s not sinful.  It is simply the way we human beings work.  You could preach about this interesting dynamic.  I want reward and praise, but those are not my motivations for living as a follower of Jesus.

If this portion of the text is connected to the previous verses, then perhaps Luke meant for us to see that the extravagant forgiveness demanded by Jesus is not so extravagant after all.  It is simply our duty.  God has given us the grace and faith to forgive as God forgives, and so we are not only capable, but we are required.  God asks for our complete selves, our complete devotion and our complete obedience.  We are slaves (not simply servants) in this sense, and so God is free to place demands on our service.

Rather than preaching a unified text, I will focus on the familiar mustard seed.  I believe my sermon will hang on the repeated phrase “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, and you do.”  I will try to flesh that out with examples of people who decided to act with the tiny bit of faith they already possess.  It isn’t so absurd to think that God can do something with the faith we already have, is it?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Joanne permalink
    September 30, 2010 5:16 am

    looking for inspiration for the children’s liturgy i have to lead this weekend on this section of the gospel i have come across this. very helpful for the liturgy but moreover God spoke to me through your words in a personal way. thank you.

  2. Joyce permalink
    October 2, 2013 1:34 pm

    I think that is an important point when you write that Christ knew the disciples already had the faith inside of them to do many things that would seem impossible or extraordinary.
    Also, that we need to focus on Christ when we serve him in ministry or other ways, is a good way to look at the last line, which could be interpreted in a more negative way. As human beings, we all like to be praised or affirmed but that should not be our focus as servants of God.

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