Read This Page in My Language
Sermon: Luke 17:1-10
Pentecost 20 – October 27, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
In January 1961 newly-elected President John F. Kennedy gave his inauguration speech on a cold day in Washington, D.C. One of the most memorable lines from that inaugural speech was, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s statement has long been viewed as very wise encouragement to all Americans, especially young Americans.
Today, however, it would seem that there are many Americans who have turned that encouraging statement around and are more often asking what their country can do for them. In other words they’re asking, “What can the government give me? What kind of benefits does the government owe me?”
As a result we hear a lot today about entitlement, that people think they’re entitled to certain benefits. And some will argue that millennials and young people, even young children, are being raised with a destructive entitlement mentality that is creating very spoiled children and young adults with very unrealistic expectations about life.
If we Christians are not humble and careful we can also develop an entitlement attitude in our relationship with God, as if God owes us something, as if we have a right to just expect certain blessings from God because we’re Christians.
Today we’re going to consider that we’re
PRIVILEGED, BUT NOT ENTITLED
These ten verses from Luke’s gospel actually contain about four different topics that don’t seem to be connected. But there is a connection, and we’re going to begin in the middle of the text with the disciples’ request to Jesus, “Increase our faith.”
Do you ever wish that God would increase your faith, give you a greater faith, a stronger faith? I’m sure we’ve all felt that way at some time. Maybe we’re going through a bad time in life with lots of troubles and we find ourselves having a really difficult time trusting God to care for us and make all things work out for our good. And so we say to God, “Increase my faith. Make me trust you more.”
The disciples of Jesus had exactly the same experience. Jesus had just given two admonitions to his disciples, two very serious responsibilities. They were to be very careful that they didn’t set bad examples and lead other people into sin, especially young or weak Christians or little children. He also commanded them to be forgiving to a fellow Christian even if that fellow Christian sinned against them many times.
The disciples didn’t disagree with what Jesus was telling them to do, but they had a very difficult time imagining that they could fulfill those requirements. Could they really live such careful lives that they never set a bad example or led someone else into sin? Could they really be so forgiving to someone who had seriously sinned against them and hurt them? And so they rather desperately said to Jesus, “Increase our faith! Give us the strength to do what you say.”
How would you expect Jesus to answer that request to increase their faith? We might at first think that Jesus would commend them for such a wise and humble request and say, “That’s a wonderful and honorable request. I will increase your faith. I will give you such a strong and wise faith that you will always set good examples and be forgiving again and again to a fellow Christian who sins against you.”
Jesus’ response wasn’t anything like that. Rather he said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Over time Jesus would give his disciples more faith, but at this point he was saying to them, “You do have enough faith right now. As a matter of fact, the faith you have right now, even if it seems very small or weak, is still enough faith to pray to God and make extraordinary requests and have those requests answered including uprooting a mulberry tree.
Most of us don’t know what a mulberry tree is, nor would we have any reason to ask God to uproot one and throw it into Lake Michigan, nor would it be God’s will to do such a thing. But if it was God’s will and we made that request with the even the smallest faith, it would happen. That’s how powerful faith is.
That kind of powerful faith is a real privilege. It’s a gift that God has given to us. It’s such a privilege because we are born without faith. As a matter of fact we’re born dead, spiritually dead, in our sins. God is the one who has had mercy on us and made us spiritually alive. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul writes, “It is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” In that verse Paul is saying that faith is not from within us, it’s a gift of God.
Faith is such a privilege because of the most important thing we believe in and what we receive through our faith. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins. We believe that Jesus rose again from the dead and that all our sins are forgiven. By faith we believe that we will have eternal life with God. By faith we believe that Jesus is going to come again to judge the world.
And with such a powerful faith goes very important responsibilities. Faith makes itself evident in how we live our lives. Faith makes itself evident in our thoughts, words, and actions. Genuine faith and love for God who has saved us from our sins encourages us to love God and love our neighbor. It encourages us to live according to God’s commandments.
Therefore remember once again those commands that Jesus gave to his disciples, those commands that they couldn’t imagine they could keep without a much greater faith. Set good examples in your words and actions so that you don’t sin and lead someone else into sin by your bad example. Be especially careful in respect to little ones, those who are young or weak in their faith or little children.
We may not realize it, but people watch us Christians all the time to see what we’re going to say or do. Little children watch parents and other adults. New Christians or young Christians look to older Christians for examples. And they pick up on sin and weakness in other Christians very quickly and unfortunately often use it as an excuse to sin. Jesus wants you and me to know that we already have strong enough faith to be good examples to others so that they don’t sin.
Jesus’ other command was to be forgiving to a fellow Christian who has sinned against you many times. In the Lords’ Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us.” It’s easy to say those words, but like the disciples we’re sometimes overwhelmed by that responsibility. But again Jesus would tell each of us that we already have strong enough faith to be forgiving to those who sin against us. We can forgive as Jesus forgave all of us.
Jesus concludes this text with a parable that seems to have no connection to the preceding words about faith and good examples and forgiveness. But there really is an interesting connection. The disciples were concerned that they didn’t have enough faith. With this parable Jesus is warning us that if we do have a strong faith, if we do our best to set good examples to others and don’t lead them into sin, if we are able to be forgiving to those who sin against us, if we are able to do all that Jesus commands, we are not entitled to special recognition from God or special blessings. We are still God’s humble servants in need of his mercy. Our faith in Jesus that saves us from our sins is a gift of God. It’s a generous privilege.
So we are privileged as Christians, but we’re not entitled to anything. Jesus tells this parable then with a surprising ending. When a servant comes in from a long day of work we might expect his employer to tell him, “Come, and sit down with me and have supper.” No, the employer is going to tell him, “Get my supper ready. Serve that supper to me, and then you can eat.” And that employer isn’t going to give any special thanks to the servant. The servant is just doing what he’s supposed to do.
Jesus makes his point: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Do you think that’s a little harsh? Shouldn’t we expect something from God? Aren’t we entitled to something? After all, we believe in him when many others don’t. We have faith in Jesus when many others don’t. We try to live godly lives as Christians when other people don’t. And it’s getting harder and harder to believe and live as Christians in this very hostile society and world. Doesn’t that count for something? Doesn’t it entitle us to something?
Jesus’ answer is clearly no. We are privileged and blessed to have faith in Jesus, to be forgiven and saved. But we aren’t entitled to anything. All that we have in this life and in the life to come is by God’s mercy and grace. It’s all an undeserved gift. We haven’t earned any of it. God doesn’t owe us anything.
A member of our congregation who’s now in heaven was one of those Christians who had some pretty enormous problems in life, some family problems and severe health issues and lots of chronic pain. One day when I was visiting her I asked her if she ever questioned God, if she ever got a little frustrated with God. Before I could even get the foolish question out of my mouth she answered, “No. I never question God’s goodness.”
I learned a good lesson that day from her example. She was someone who knew how privileged she was to have God’s love and forgiveness. She knew exactly what it meant to be privileged as a Christian but not entitled to anything. She knew exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
May God give all of us the wisdom and faith to understand and believe those words and live our lives according to them. Amen.