Sermon for 18 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 17:5-10
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“On Duty Twenty-Four—Seven”
Pastor Paul L. Lintern tells the following story:
The congregation leaders decided to have a special award to honor a member who had been particularly faithful. Nominations had been gathered and the selection committee was conducting interviews of the nominees.
The interviews went very well, until they contacted the last nominee. They had heard wonderful stories from the first candidates, including impeccable references of trust in God, special devotional habits, and well-expressed testimony. But now, the last nominee was uncooperative. She would not even attend the interview.
The testimonies of her references were glowing and her accomplishments made for a long list. The committee really had hoped to honor this woman above all others, but they could not get together with her.
Finally, they got her on the phone. “Why don’t you interview with us? We want to honor you,” the chairperson said.
“Honor me? Faith is not something to honor. To cherish, yes; to acknowledge, yes; to practice, yes; but not to honor. That is like honoring someone who has been given a gift. The gift is the honor and if you want to praise someone, praise the giver.
“As for me, I am just doing my job, and I thank God for this job,” the woman said.
The committee gave the award to someone else. They didn’t want the award to lose its prestige. 1
When I first read our gospel for today, I must confess that I was rather offended, and my response was to argue with Jesus. Somehow it just didn’t seem right or fair to me that a slave who had already put in a hard day’s work in plowing the field or tending sheep should be expected to prepare supper for his master and wait on the latter hand-and-foot before the poor slave could finally sit down to eat and drink. Such demands by the master upon his slave seem out of line, extremely self-centred, and too unrealistic. Yet, in the world of Jesus, that may very well have been the way things were. Also, initially, I confess to being a little disappointed with Jesus himself—is he not condoning slavery and giving legitimacy to such unfair and oppressive practices by telling such a parable as this? After all, wasn’t Jesus a radical of sorts? Didn’t he rock the boat by challenging oppressive customs and swimming against the stream of his day? In this parable, he seems to support the status-quo concerning slavery and give us no inkling of criticism or resistance to it.
For those of us in freedom-loving, democratic societies, isn’t it rather offensive and primitive to extol the “virtues” of slavery? Our societies, ideologically at least, extol the virtues of equality of all peoples. Furthermore, we have grown up in societies with no illusions about authority figures and their use of authority. A lot of us have witnessed the ABUSE of authority figures and their authority. How, after such tragic historical events as the Holocaust can we accept blind, unquestioning obedience to authority figures? After all, many a guilty soldier has tried to deny the acts of evil that they committed by saying: “I only did my duty and followed orders.”
This parable on duty and obedience perhaps is as—or even more—scandalous to our sensibilities as it was to those in Jesus’ day. Is it not a counter-cultural parable for us today? Let’s face it; most of us cannot stomach those words “duty” and “obedience,” can we? They are words and concepts that have become extinct, haven’t they? However, in this parable, Jesus provides us with a rather different picture of God and human relationships. In a sense, it is a counterpoint to other parables, which reward people for their faithfulness.
Here, however, there is no such reward. In fact, the punch-line in verse 10 is quite sobering: “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!’” So much for committees like the one in Pastor Lintern’s story above; so much for recognition dinners and rewards for the most outstanding people of church and society. Even though many of them accomplish outstanding, mind-boggling feats that you and me wouldn’t even dream of accomplishing in several lifetimes—standing head and shoulders above us—no matter! They have only been doing their duty! They and we are “worthless slaves” one and all! What a scandalous teaching that we can NEVER do more than our duty! What’s going on here anyways? Aren’t there always some folks who are “better” than others? Folks whom we can all look up to because they “walk on water” and serve as role models and exemplars to the rest of us? Nope, not according to Jesus.
In the end Luke’s parable uses that straight stick of God’s goodness and grace to measure our assumption that we get what we pay for, that we get what we deserve, that people are paid what they are worth. As long as we try to live life on the assumption that we get what we deserve, that we can earn credit, praise rewards and status by doing more than is required; we are destined to miss the delight, the joy, the peace and the fun of life.
Kaye Gibbons a young novelist, tells the story of four generations of women who have learned the lessons of life. They all understand that life deals us a different hand than we had hoped—often less than we might think we deserve—and that by grace we must learn to live with diminished expectations and compromised dreams. We start out with such high hopes and bright dreams, yet with every decision we make we close off other possibilities and thus must leave behind all those other things we might have done.
At this very point of overturned expectations, however, we discover that life is found in gifts that are given, not earned. In acts of kindness we had no right to expect, in friendship that is given to us, in the causes undertaken for no reason other than they are right and good, in the helping of another that was not undertaken for reward, in all of these grace-filled moments we discover a remarkable truth. The real joys and the real fullness and the real satisfaction of life are found in the grace that comes in doing one’s duty—of being a servant in the kingdom of God. 2
In the end, all is grace, at the workplace, at home or school, among friends and neighbours and the larger community, we as Christ’s slaves never do more than our duty—no matter how much recognition we or our accomplishments might receive. We are, and until the day we die, shall remain, all sinners saved by God’s grace. So as slaves of our loving God, may we continue to obey our Master and do our duty to such an extent that it is not drudgery or oppressive for us; but a wonderful, exciting, graced adventure of perfect freedom twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week!
1 Cited from: Emphasis Vol. 25, No. 3, September-October 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 1995), p. 42.