A sermon on Luke 17: 5-10 by Nathan Nettleton
With two elections in the space of a few months, we are all rather used to the lengths politicians will go to persuade us that they’ve earned our votes. In the world of politics, the attempts to earn the favour and gratitude of the population are pretty blatant and easy to identify. But in recent years, I’ve slowly become aware of the extent to which I am constantly striving to earn the love and favour of everyone around me, including God. It is a lot more subtle than what the politicians do, and a lot harder to deal with, and it is ultimately futile, frustrating and self-defeating. And since I reckon I’m not alone in this, and it is an issue that comes up in tonight’s readings, I thought I’d try to unmask it and explore it a bit with you.
Before I do, I want to point out up front that I wrote and preached this sermon six years ago. I rework sermons reasonably often, and I don’t always point it out, but I’m doing so tonight because otherwise there are some individuals who may think this is directed specifically at them. If the Holy Spirit directs it at you, that’s fine by me, but I wrote this long before I knew anything about what is going on for you right now. I probably would have written a new sermon, but funnily enough, after trudging home from yesterday’s Grand Final, I didn’t really feel up to it. Drinking beer and listening to heartbreak songs was more the order of the evening!
In the reading we heard from the gospel according to Luke, Jesus tackles this issue of striving to earn favour, but he comes at it from a rather unexpected angle. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with what the disciples are asking. “Lord, increase our faith!” Who among you has ever prayed to God to give you more faith? Seems like a perfectly good thing to do. And although we didn’t hear it, this request had a context which makes it seem all the more like the only reasonable response. Jesus has just been giving them a talking to about the very high standards of behaviour expected of them. He says that if they do or say things which cause other people to stumble in their discipleship, then they’d be better off being thrown into the sea wearing concrete boots. And he goes on to say that when other Christians sin, we are to be straight with them and call them to account, and I don’t know about you but it seems to me that we are mostly pretty allergic to actually doing that in our day and age. And then he says that if another Christian does the wrong thing by us and then asks our forgiveness, we are to forgive them, and we are to go on forgiving them even if they do the same thing seven times a day and keep asking forgiveness again. I reckon I’d be concluding that they didn’t really mean it by then and getting agro about it, but Jesus says that’s none of my business. I am to keep taking their repentance at face value and go on forgiving them over and over. So it is when faced with these sort of superhuman expectations that the disciples throw up their hands in exasperation and say, “Lord, increase our faith!” And no wonder, I reckon.
But Jesus is rather dismissive of their request. “If you had faith the size of a poppy seed, you could tell a giant oak tree to go jump in the lake and it would.” Now we usually react to this response by hanging our heads and feeling inadequate. You may remember the wonderful spoof on this in the Adrian Plass diaries, where he reckons he need to build up to this slowly so he spends few hours trying to muster up enough faith to make a fork move a few inches across the table!
But that’s not what Jesus is trying to get us to aspire to. When he says if you had enough faith you could move mountains, his point is that you don’t and you can’t. And that that is not about to change. He is taking the mickey out of the very idea. He is saying you don’t need more faith; that faith is not something you can build up extra reserves of to enable you to do miraculous things. Faith is not a thing that you can have measurable amounts of, more or less. Faith is something you do. Just get on with living with integrity and loving one another and stop trying to measure your performance on some sort of faith meter.
But then he turns the idea back on itself and uses an illustration which seems rather perplexing in the circumstances, because it doesn’t immediately seem to be about faith and how we go about exercising it sufficiently. He points to the example of a person who owns a slave and how you don’t go out of your way to shower the slave with gratitude every time they do their job. So it is with us, he says. When we have done all that God requires of us, we should just say, “We are only slaves, and we have only done our job. Nothing special.”
Now we tend to squirm a bit uncomfortably at this illustration, for several reasons, and the first is that it casts God in the role of the slave owner, and that’s not a very appealing image. It is hard for us to get back into the mind set of a society that didn’t bat an eyelid over slavery. Maybe thinking about other illustrations would help. How many of you have ever rung up the water company just to thank them for keeping the water supply coming to your taps? Me neither. Why not? Is it because we are all a bunch of ungrateful sods? Or is it because we have a right to expect that they will do what they are paid to do and we are entitled to just take it for granted?
Or for those of you who are partnered. You don’t make a special point of thanking your lover every week for not having an affair with someone else, do you? You may well be thankful that they didn’t, but if you were needing to say it all the time, it would probably be more an indication of insecurity and distrust than of loving gratitude. You have made commitments to one another and you both have a right to expect those commitments to be honoured. If your partner kept thanking you for not having an affair, you’d probably be offended at the implication that you might become an unfaithful and untrustworthy person at any moment. Jesus is saying the same thing. In baptism you made certain commitments to God. You are not owed any special thanks or favours simply for doing what you said you would do and fulfilling the normal expectations of any Christian.
Now the connection to the question about acquiring more faith is not obvious here, but I think what Jesus is doing is not so much discussing the question as unmasking the motivation behind it. We think that the tough demands of accountability and forgiveness are the hard part of what Jesus has to say, but Jesus is turning it back and saying that the reason we find that so hard is because we are really having even more trouble with something else: the basic nature of our relationship with God. And I, for one, am absolutely guilty as charged here. I know the truth in my head, but I haven’t yet grasped it deep in my bones. The truth has yet to set me free, because my knowing of it is too superficial.
What Jesus is exposing in me here, and perhaps in some of you too, is my false belief that I can earn God’s love and grace, and that I have to. Even though I might understand the theology of grace, and be able to stand up here and preach it, in the inner workings of my psyche where my basic motivations and expectations operate, I am still striving harder and harder to try to please God and earn God’s love. I am still driven by an expectation that nothing good is ever given for free, but that good things only come to those who prove that they deserve them. And part of my sickness is that the standards I imagine I am needing to achieve just keep getting bigger and bigger and more and more unattainable. Yesterday’s accomplishment becomes tomorrow’s minimum expectation and the love and acceptance I crave seem always like the carrot on the stick, just out of reach, but close enough that I can keep deluding myself that with just a little more effort I’ll have it in my grasp.
And the double edged message of Jesus in this passage is just about the hardest thing in the whole gospel for me to hear, and yet it is at the very heart of the good news. On the one hand, Jesus is telling me that I am absolutely right. The standards required to please God and earn God’s love are unattainable. They are always out of reach. If I mustered every ounce of strength and determination and understanding I will ever have in my life, I could still do nothing more than my basic duty as a Christian. I could still never exceed the basic expectations of faithful discipleship. I would still be just another worthless slave who has done nothing more than my job and has done nothing worthy of special rewards. And that half of the truth leaves me still desperately hungry for the love and affirmation I crave deep in my bones. All my striving is in vain. The joy and freedom of knowing I am loved and cherished and valued continue to elude me.
But that is not all Jesus is saying. By unmasking the futility of our desperate striving and confronting us with this bad news, he is pointing to something else. He is preparing us for the gospel, the good news, even though he is acknowledging how much difficulty we will have accepting it. He is telling us that our efforts to earn God’s love and grace are not the gospel at all. In fact they are a classic form of pagan religion. They are little different from sacrificing a lamb to the gods to ensure good crops. They amount to an attempt to purchase God’s favour, to pay the price that will put God in my debt and oblige God to give me what I have earned.
But the gospel which Jesus embodied and to which Jesus is pointing here is nothing like that. God’s love and favour are given to us as a free gift, and given to us in reckless abundance. Whether we do anything God asks of us or nothing God asks of us, God loves us and cherishes us and offers us more joy and security and freedom than we could ever imagine. There is nothing we can do that could make God love us more, and nothing we could fail to do that would make God love us less. And if there is any quid pro quo in it, any earning in the relationship at all, it is that God has paid such a huge price for us, has made such enormous sacrifices for us, that God has earned the right to our love and gratitude and commitment. It is not that we ever have to earn God’s.
Now I don’t know about you, but something in me rebels against that. Something resists that good news. I think it is a lack of humility and a fear of trusting. Because accepting this gospel means letting go of my control over my own destiny and I don’t like letting go of control. As long as I have to earn God’s love, I am still in control of the relationship. If God is obliged to reward my efforts, then I can double my efforts in order to extract double the blessing. I can keep God responding to my initiatives instead of putting myself at the mercy of God’s initiative. And for the same reason this distortion of the relationship makes me prone to self-righteousness and an arrogant sense of superiority, because even though I can never get good enough, I can out-perform others and look down on them and feel that at least God might reward me for the best effort.
But if God’s love and grace are sheer gift and not something I can earn and control, then I must stand empty-handed and vulnerable before God. I am utterly dependent, and unable to gain what I most need by my own efforts. I must put my trust in God, knowing that God does not owe me anything and that nothing I can do will make any difference to the likelihood of God loving me and cherishing me. And I find that very scary. It is a terrifyingly vulnerable place to stand.
But the truth is that all my efforts to earn God’s love are proving futile anyway. Clinging to control of the relationship has not meant that the relationship has been producing what I was hungering for. Quite the opposite. All it has done is turn me in on myself and shut me off from the experience of God’s love and grace. God has never stopped loving me, but I have turned my back and not allowed that love near. As long as I am still driving myself to ever greater efforts to earn it, I am not free to just open my hands and accept the gift that is offered on a plate, right in front of my nose. As long as I am trying to control it and measure it and extract it from God by my own efforts, I am quite unable to just sink into the waiting arms of God and drink deeply from the wellsprings of grace. But the love and grace are always there, yearning and longing for me, even more achingly than I yearn and hunger for them.
When we stand up in a moment and recite an affirmation of our faith, it is not in order that we might impress God with our sincerity. When we pray for the world it is not earning us extra points for our diligence and effort. And when we hold out our hands to receive the broken bread, it is not in the expectation that it will prove to be some kind of spiritual steroid to build up our faith and enable us to perform at a higher level. We do these things because God has sacrificed everything for us and poured out love and mercy and desire and grace on us in lavish abundance, more than we could ever comprehend, more than our hungering hearts could ever consume. And we do these things so that we might write the gospel story into our hearts, that we might act it out and so come to know, deep in our bones, that it is only as we release our controlling grip and stand empty-handed and vulnerable and trusting before God, that we will enter into the joyous freedom of those who know themselves beloved and drink deeply from the wellsprings of mercy and grace.