Thursday, October 3, 2019

Faith to Forgive

Sometimes, when we say something to a friend or colleague, it touches a nerve we didn't know was raw. An innocent comment about a person or a circumstance can set someone off in ways that surprise us. This Sunday's reading from Luke 17 feels a little like that.

We start in verse 5, in which the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. At first, Jesus' response in verse 6 seems to track with our expectations: "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." That's a hard but honest and reasonable exhortation to stop worrying about having more faith and celebrating the faith that they have. I'd love for someone to wave a magic wand and grant me more faith. I do believe that faith itself is a gift, but it seems to be a gift that is given through struggle and discipleship.

When we continue with verse 7, however, things seem to have shifted out from under our interpretive feet. Jesus continues, "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'?...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!'" What happened?

There are a few possible approaches. One, and perhaps most simply, is to divorce the second part of our reading from the first. Gospel writers were always stitching together pieces of the tradition, and sometimes things get fastened together that don't follow sequentially. In other words, maybe Jesus' instructions about having faith aren't being clarified by his words about serving as a slave and being content with having done your work without receiving praise for it.

Another is to try to fit them together consequentially. This is tougher. The second half of Jesus' response seems to be a correction. Because it uses the image of a slave serving at the table as its subject, it seems to be communicating to the disciples that they, too, should serve without wanting credit. They should think of themselves as slave-like. If that's Jesus' response to their request for more faith, why? Was their request for more faith in some way a request for more credit? Were they asking to be equivalent with their master? Does wanting more faith somehow imply rivalry for leadership? Maybe, but that doesn't sound right.

A third way requires us to go back a little earlier in the chapter and read Luke 17:1-4. In those verses, Jesus offers instructions to his disciples on how to handle sinners in their midst. If a disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender. If there is repentance, you must forgive. To get that latter point across, Jesus says, "And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." That's a tough lesson. Following Jesus requires radical forgiveness--not only of those on the outside of their fellowship but even of those on the inside--those who should know better. Even if someone in your fellowship sins against you seven times in one day, if that person comes asking for forgiveness each time, you must forgive. How in the world is that possible?

"Lord, increase our faith!" Those words are the disciples' response to Jesus instruction about forgiveness. Jesus asks them to forgive, and the disciples immediately recognize their shortcomings, and they ask for faith. And what is Jesus' reply? "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you'd be able to say to a mulberry tree..." And what does he want them to know about that? "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!'" In other words, radical forgiveness may not be easy, but it's your job. Don't expect to get a cookie just because you forgive the way you have been forgiven.

It's Thursday, and I don't yet know where my sermon will end up. I'm drawn to the hollow ache of Lamentations and the bitter violence of Psalm 137, but the exhortation to radical forgiveness is important. I sense that they might all come together, but it's almost always a bad idea to try to preach on multiple texts that aren't explicitly linked together. Pray for me.

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