The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” --Luke 17:5
Until the summer of my 15th year, I don’t think I really understood the meaning of “hard work.” That summer, I worked with a crew of three teens for “Mr. Smith,” a retired man who cut lawns for local businesses. Mr. Smith was an unrelenting taskmaster. Under the hot sun we shoveled dirt, trimmed grass and mowed lawns from early in the morning until our fifteen minute lunch break. Sometimes, on very hot days, he would let us stop for a moment to get a drink of water. Sometimes. After lunch, go back to work until mid-afternoon. I would have liked to resent Mr. Smith for driving us so hard, but it was difficult to do that. He worked harder than any of us. I don’t remember what he paid us, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t much. I do remember that there was rarely, if ever, any thanks or praise for our efforts.
My summer working for Mr. Smith always comes to mind when I read Jesus’ parable about the master and the slave in this week’s Gospel lesson. Even more, his attitude toward us seems to echo through Jesus’ punchline, “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.” Ouch.
While the appointed text for this week is only verses 5-10, we really need to read the whole passage from verse 1 for Jesus’ parable to make any kind of sense. (In fact, I would recommend reading the whole thing in worship on Sunday, if that is your responsibility.) After upbraiding the Pharisees in the previous chapter, Jesus holds up a higher set of expectations for his disciples/apostles. While he warns them that they will stumble, and even cause others to stumble, he calls upon them to hold one another accountable and to practice a radical kind of forgiveness that doesn’t ever give up on winning over an offender. The apostles are so stunned by these expectations that they exclaim “Increase our faith!” The parable suggests that the disciples shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for doing what was expected. Even if what was expected (that is, forgiving again and again and again) seems completely out of reach.
In the end, the exasperated exclamation that lies at the axis of this text proves to be the key that unlocks the meaning of Jesus’ seemingly impossible expectation. It is faith that releases the power of forgiveness. But, as we see as the Gospel story unfolds, it is not our faith, but Jesus’ faithfulness to the death that opens the door for God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness to overcome sin, death and the devil. God’s grace doesn’t depend upon how hard we work, but upon how hard God works for us. And (gulp) like Mr. Smith, God works harder than any of us! (Though nobody would have accused Mr. Smith of being gracious!)
We may think that God’s great expectations for us are impossible. And, for sinful humans like us, they often are. But, through faith, we are strengthened to keep striving to keep from stumbling, from putting stumbling blocks in front of others, to repent and forgive, and to bear witness to the love we have come to know through Jesus Christ. Even more, we are reminded that God used even these stumbling disciples to share that love with the world… …and can and does use us to do that too.
Pray for the little ones of our world and all those who yearn to know the power of forgiveness in their lives.