Saturday, 5 October 2013

“Come here at once and take your place at the table!": a sermon (Luke 17:5-10)

In part of our lesson from Luke’s gospel, we hear:

“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!’ ”

What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it the sort of thing we’d expect to hear from Jesus?  I’ll read this passage again.  Ask yourself “Does this sound like Jesus?”

“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!’ ”

Does this sound like the sort of thing Jesus would say? 

It’s important to note that that we find this section only in Luke’s gospel.  Now, Luke’s gospel was written for the purpose of making the life, mission, and teachings of Jesus intelligible to the mostly Gentile congregations that developed around the Mediterranean as a result of Paul’s ministry.  These communities lived in the context of the Graeco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire, rather than in the context of the Jewish culture in which Jesus lived. 

This fact is very important because the relationship of the master and the slave in this story reflects the hierarchical order of the Graeco-Roman world much more than it reflects the more egalitarian culture of the Jews. 
·        First of all, the Jews rejected the practice of slavery.  The Jews regarded themselves as the descendants of freed slaves.  They worshipped the living God who was in the business of freeing slaves.  As a result the Jews saw slavery as a very evil practice.  In a Jewish context, a wealthy person may have had paid servants, who were free to look for other employment, but not slaves.
·        Also, in the Jewish culture in which Jesus lived, a master who treated a servant as arrogantly as the master did in this passage would have been ostracised by his neighbours. 
·        As well, in the Jewish context in which Jesus taught, a lot more backchat from the servant toward the master would have been expected, much more backchat than merely a meek “We are worthless slaves …”.

With many of the sayings of Jesus, we find them in more than one of the gospels.  With these sayings, we can see how the passage evolved from the earliest gospel – Mark – through to the later gospels.  We can also note how the different cultural settings of the gospel writers affected the presentation of Jesus’ message.  With all that, we can have a reasonable idea of what Jesus was trying to get at in some of his more difficult sayings.

With this passage which occurs in only one gospel, it’s far more difficult to find the core words of Jesus behind the words of scripture.  I’m pretty certain, however, that something important was altered here between the time when Jesus spoke these words and the time when Luke wrote them down. 

This is particularly the case when we come to the statement “We are worthless slaves…”.  Throughout his life, Jesus encouraged the people with whom he came into contact to view themselves as being people of worth, as being people whom God valued.  Jesus never regarded anyone as being “worthless”.  I could not see Jesus ever encouraging anyone to regard themselves as being “worthless”.

But there has been a problem with this idea over the years in Christianity.  Over the years, many Christians forgot the way that Jesus valued all people.  Instead, some Christians developed the notion that, as a human race, we’re all very, very bad. 
·        Sometimes they wrote books of theology that talked about the “total depravity” of humanity.
·        Sometimes they wrote prayers where the congregation says that we’re not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table.
·        Sometimes they wrote hymns where the congregation sings about “a wretch like me”.

In all this, many Christians have been taught – sometimes by ministers, sometimes by Sunday School teachers, sometimes by family members – we’ve been taught to regard ourselves as being “worthless”.  And it is a fact known to many mental health professionals that many Christians – and particularly Christians who grew up in conservative faith backgrounds – have real problems with low self esteem.

In response to this, we need to affirm clearly that, in his life and in his actions, Jesus never regarded anyone as being “worthless”.  Instead, Jesus taught that we are all loved and valued children of God.

As we read today’s gospel, we can celebrate two things:
·        In the meal we regularly share in our worship, God does for us exactly what the master in Jesus’ story does not do for the servant.  God greets us, saying “Come here at once and take your place at the table.”
·        As well, we have through the life of Jesus – and through this meal which we regularly share - an assurance that God never regards us as “worthless servants”.

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