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Doing What We Ought

Sermon – 10/24/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 17:7-10

The text for this morning comes from the seventeenth chapter from Luke’s gospel and once again it is a story unique to the gospel of Luke.  So unique, that I think it is not terribly familiar to us.  It’s a very short story.  Jesus said: 

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 only done what we ought to have done’.

It’s not too surprising we’re not too familiar with this story because it’s not exactly one of those heart warming, endearing stories, is it?  That we like to be reminded of.  Indeed, it grates our modern sensibilities that Jesus can use slavery in a positive way to make some point seems rather shocking to us.  However, that does not mean that Jesus is condoning that practice.  In chapter 16, just preceding this, there is the story of the dishonest steward.  If you may remember, the man who essentially cheats his master out of what is due him in order that he may save his own skin.  Not exactly another admiring quality we should emulate.  But Jesus is not telling these stories to say this is ‘good’ necessarily, the way things are, he is essentially drawing upon the common stuff of society in order to make a point.  And slavery was a big part of that culture, indeed 30% of the population in that day were slaves.  It was an essential part of ancient economies, and therefore it was not surprising that Jesus would use it to draw some lesson.

Tuesday evening in the class I’m currently teaching on Paul and Paul’s critique of Roman imperial theology we looked at Paul’s attitude on slavery, especially as expressed in his letter to Philemon, written on behalf of the slave Onesimus.  In that letter, Paul clearly expects Philemon to free his slave.  He does not order him to do so, instead he just really lays it on him so that Philemon will do so voluntarily.  Will see, as Paul believes, that Christianity is incompatible with slavery, and thus the principle that Paul uses in Galatians 3:28 that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, in Christ Jesus’.  It is more than just an ideal, it is put into practice in very real and concrete ways.  That Paul does not dwell upon that--does not make a bigger issue of slavery in that time in his letters--was probably more a reflection of the fact that so few slave owners were part of the early church.

Now here the issue is not slavery but rather is service.  And the slave/master relationship is simply a vehicle that Jesus uses to illustrate the duties of discipleship.  And the message is rather straightforward, though it is often twisted to self-serving ends by those who expect to be served by others contrary to the intent of the story. 

Jesus begins by, in effect, inviting us to identify with the slave owner.  Now again, this is one of those instances where it may be a little difficult because it has not been part of our experience, at least it’s been awhile since I have known anyone who was a slave owner, or can relate to someone in that way J.  That’s no longer part of our modern world, thankfully, in most places.  I suspect most of us, however, to try to find something analogous, could relate to the fantasy of winning the lottery.  Anyone have that fantasy?—you’d like to win the lottery or winning a sweepstakes, have Ed McMahon come personally to your door to deliver that $10 million dollar check?  I don’t know if he's still doing that, but to really make it big.  If you watch T.V. you’ve seen, undoubtedly, the Capital One credit card commercials inviting you to fantasize about winning your own island.  My children don’t get it.  They said:  ‘what would we do with an island?’  How would we get there?!  They have not been motivated yet to go out and sign up for a Capital One credit card.  Thankfully.  That whole industry – the credit industry – ironically is not something that frees us to enjoy the good life, but rather is something that increases our indebtedness, that makes us slaves to banks essentially.  For most of our lives. 

Just as we then fantasize of what it might be to enjoy that good life, so too mostly the audience of Jesus, mostly peasants, probably 30% or more slaves, they too could easily fantasize and imagine what it would be like to be on the other end.  To enjoy that good life, to be the one who is served, rather than the one who is constantly serving others.  And doesn’t that feel good.  Now, the duties and expectations of slaves were very well known and never questioned, even if we were a benevolent slave owner.  We were really good to our slaves, we would still expect a slave to do his or her job.  And that meant working in the fields and preparing meals.   And taking care of our needs first because, you see, that’s just what slaves do.  And anything less than that would be contrary to common custom and therefore would stir up all kinds of controversy.  Cause a revolt, you see – can’t let them get out of hand. 

And likewise there’s no reason to thank a slave for fulfilling the minimum expectations.  And from our modern perspective we think that such is heartless, cold, not to thank someone for doing their job.  Maybe it is, but Jesus is not suggesting that this is all well and good, this is the way it should be, but rather it’s just simply the way things are.  So just when we are imagining ourselves benefiting from the way things are, and how good that would be, Jesus makes the big switch.

Now, we’re not identifying with the slave owner, the one controlling the shots, we are to identify with the slave.  And worse, Jesus says, we are worthless slaves.  Teresa Heinz Kerry made the political blunder of the week when she suggested that Laura Bush didn’t have a lot of experience that counts because she didn’t have a ‘real job’ as an adult.  Some made that suggestion worse by pointing out that ‘oh, yeah she did, she had a real job before she was married – she was a teacher and a librarian’.  As if when she became a homemaker and decided to give up that career and instead focus on her family, as if that were not a real job.  Any mothers here want to testify to the job of motherhood?  We all know that yes indeed that is a real job. 

And you see that’s precisely the point – when your job is to be a servant, be it as a Mom or a farm worker, or a hotel maid, or a minimum wage employee in the fast-food industry, in the eyes of society you are more or less worthless.  That’s why we keep minimum wage at its minimum.  Thankfully, Oregon has seen to raise it higher than that of the rest of the nation, shamefully low at $5.15 an hour.  That’s why farm workers to this day do not have the right of collective bargaining.  That’s why that homemakers often are not considered to have a ‘real job’.  So those that think Teresa Heinz-Kerry put her foot in her mouth, need to read this story here.  What would you say of Jesus referring to his followers as nothing but worthless slaves?  It’s another one of those stories where you have to say ‘Jesus, what on earth were you thinking?’  Alienating your base.

Well, I can tell you what Jesus was thinking, I mean that inside track, to know everything that Jesus was thinking that you understand that I have J.  At least my best guess.  Too many people see faith in God as their own personal ticket to heaven.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, then you see it’s all about ‘me’.  It’s about my reward.  That’s why I believe in God – to reward me, so that I get something out of it.  And I think that’s what, in part, Jesus is objecting to. 

A Sunday school teacher with her Sunday school class posed the question to them:  ‘If I sold my house and my car and had a big garage sale and sold ALL of my goods, gave that money to the church, would that get me into heaven?’  Her Sunday school class, well trained, all said:  ‘No’.  And so the teacher went on:  ‘If I came to the church and cleaned the church everyday and if I did lots of good deeds for lots of other people, would that get me into heaven?’  And they all replied:  “No”.  Then she said:  ‘What would get me into heaven?’  Little five-year-old Johnny piped up from the back:  “You’ve got to be dead!”.  Probably a new-comer to the class, you know – wasn’t with the program yet J.

Following Jesus is not about getting to heaven.  It’s not about being rewarded for doing good things.  It’s about doing the right thing because that’s what God expects of us.  Now if we get some reward out it, well so much the better.  But that is not its purpose. 

A patient in a hospital spilled a cup of water, and fearful that he might slip getting out of bed buzzed the nurse.  Not knowing the hospital policy that nurses were to clean up small messes and the custodial crew is called in to clean up larger messes.  The nurse came in, sized up the situation, and said ‘that’s a job for the custodial crew’.  I’ll take care of it for you, and she called the custodian.  10 minutes later, the custodian shows up, sizes up the situation and says ‘well that’s too small a puddle for me, that’s a nurses job’.  Calls the nurse back in and they begin to argue over who’s job it is to clean up the mess.  Well the patient, meanwhile, is about to have a puddle himself, and finally in desperation grabs the pitcher of water and pours it out onto the floor.  “There children, now does that help you decide who’s job it is?” 

The danger of this story in Luke is that we use it to further suppress those who’s job it is to serve.  And we become the nurse who says ‘that’s not my job, it’s beneath me’.  Or we become the master who says ‘serve me first and then you can take care of your own needs’.  Whereas the whole point of Jesus is that we are all slaves.  As Christians we have only 1 master and I’ll give you a clue – it ain’t anyone here in this room!  In other words, in telling this story, Jesus is not supporting the master/slave relationship, he is subverting it.  All slaves = no master.  Save for God alone. 

Thus, THE role model for those who wish to be leaders in the church is the servant.  And Jesus says that over & over in a variety of ways:

The first shall be last, the last shall be first.

Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.

Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.

 

To be a servant requires clear expectations and understanding of that which we ought to do.  And the list is relatively short, according to Jesus.  First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Those are the two that I think we can all agree on.  That’s what’s expected of us.  You want to understand what that means?  Substitute the word ‘serve’ for ‘love’.  Serve the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  Serve your neighbor as you would serve yourself.  Now that’s easy to agree upon, but what else?  What’s next?

The great commandment – go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in my name?  The 10 commandments?  Honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not kill?  You know, these are basic kinds of things.  The repentance of sins?  Certainly that’s very fundamental, these are all important.  But I want to suggest to you this morning that after loving God and neighbor, the most basic, fundamental obligation we have as servants of Jesus is financial.  Being good stewards of the resources given to us.  And the reason I say that is simply because Jesus talks about money and wealth and poverty and all of those related issues more than he talks about anything else.  Through the wonders of computers and concordances I did a little word search on my computer and just listed all the times Jesus mentions money, gold, silver, wealth, poverty, and printed them all out – 7 pages.  I thought it’d be interesting just to read it, but that would take a little long and might be a little tedious, and of course there’s a lot of duplication in there.  But let me just share with you some of the highlights as relevant to this:

Matt. 6:21 Sermon on the Mount: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matt. 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Matt. 19:21 (to the rich ruler) Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Matt. 19:23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Matt. 22:19 Question on paying taxes: Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Mark 12:41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.  43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Luke 12:15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Luke 19:8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”   

Parables

Matt. 13:22 (Parable of the Sower) As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

Matt. 25:18-27 Parable of the Talents &

Luke 19:11-27 Parable of the Pounds

Slightly different stories, both involving stewards entrusted with the money of their master and what they do with it.

Luke 16:1-11 Parable of the Dishonest Steward, concludes:

 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

Luke 16:19-22 The Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (last week)

Luke 12:16-21 Parable of the Rich Fool: … “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. … Conclusion: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

My point is simply that what we do with our money is not a trivial or even a secondary concern – it is perhaps the single greatest indication of spiritual maturity and the depth of our faith in God.  Giving back to God by supporting the ministry of your church is what Jesus would do.  When it come to doing what we ought to do, therefore, making a financial commitment is to the church what voting is to democracy.  It is our most fundamental, basic duty as followers of Jesus, plain and simple.  It is therefore our expectation that every would be disciple, not just members but all followers of Jesus, will contribute of their resources (whatever they are) to building God’s reign here on earth as part of their service, their love for God and for neighbor.

May we all be that faithful.  Doing what we ought to do is one of the things that brings us here to church.  Being a servant of Christ is simply doing what we ought to do.

 


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