Today is the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel lesson for today is Luke 17:5-10:
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.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing 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!'”
This is a very troublesome passage for many.
I think one way to understand it is to ask oneself some questions:
When driving through town, you come to a light-controlled intersection and the light is red. You stop and wait for the green light. It comes. You proceed at legal speed through the intersection and go on your way.
What do you expect to happen? What do you expect the police or the city’s mayor to do because you stopped in obedience to the traffic signal?
Or this … On April 15, you complete all those forms produced by the Internal Revenue Service, correctly reporting your income and accurately computing the taxes you own. You write a check for the amount calculated and enclose it with the forms which you mail to the IRS before the midnight deadline.
What do you expect to happen? What do you expect the Internal Revenue Commission or President Bush to do because you obeyed the Internal Revenue Code and paid your tax?
What did the Pharisees expect to happen because they had adequately live up to the purity code? What did the Sadducees expect to happen because they had offered the proper sacrifices and performed the temple rituals in conformity with the holiness code?
We surely don’t expect our mayor to invite us to supper because we obeyed the traffic signal, or the president to invite us to tea because we paid our taxes. But the Pharisees expected rewards in the afterlife if they obeyed the purity code, and the Sadducees expected to live well in the present if they performed correctly under the holiness code. And an awful lot of people seem to expect the rewards of Heaven and the Resurrection because they live up to (their own idea of) what the Baptismal Covenant requires.
To this Jesus asks, “Why do you expect a reward for doing simply what is required of you? The slave in the field tilling the soil or tending the sheep does not expect to be seated at table with the master. Neither should you. Say to yourselves, ‘We are worthless slaves; we only did what was required of us.'”
It isn’t the following of rules and regulations, whether they be the 613 mitzvot of the Hebrew bible or the obligations of the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, that will get us through the Pearly Gates and into the rewards of Heaven. It’s something called “grace” — the unmerited, unearned favor of God freely bestowed.
Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment is and he responded with what Anglicans call “the Summary of the Law”:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
In rabbinic teaching, the 613 mitzvot of the purity code and the holiness code represent “fences” about these two great commandments. If we obey the codes, we are prevented from taking that further sinful step that might break the commandments. One supposes the Pharisees and the Sadducees might similarly have conceived of their rules and regulations.
But Jesus saw those rules for what they are, not fences around the commandments of God, but fences (or perhaps chains) around the slaves who sought to obey them. Their rules and regulations enslaved them, making them unable see that proper relationship with God and with our neighbor is not a matter of obeying codes, but of loving God and neighbor. The prophet Micah had said as much when he wrote:
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
It’s that simple. If we would simply do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, we wouldn’t have to worry about the 613 mitzot, or the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, or any other list of do’s and don’ts. If we would simply acknowledged the abundance of God’s unearned, unmerited favor bestowed freely on us, and live in a spirit of gratitude and thankful generosity, we would not (we could not) fail to obey the two great commandments.
Because we are blind, we see only the fences, only the chains, only rules and regulations, only the obligations of law and covenant … and if we only do what is required of us, we are worthless slaves. The slave in Jesus’s story today worked hard in the fields, tilling the soil and tending the sheep, and when he came in, his master did not invite him to the table but rather ordered him to serve still further. But we are invited to the table!
May God bless us with sight to see that that is so, that we are invited to the table by a loving Father, and that we have been invited to the table all along … even before we went out to till the soil and tend the sheep. May we know that we have this invitation so that our tilling and tending and other service is offered, not in a spirit of obligation performed, but in a spirit of thanksgiving offered. May we know that we are not worthless slaves, but beloved children invited to our Father’s table without regard to how well we live up to our own rules and regulations.