God doesn’t owe us anything

Pentecost 20 – 2016

Luke 17:(1-4) 5-10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whom we are pleased to serve. Amen.

An irrelevant piece of information: I am a Queen’s Guide. What that means is that I conscientiously fulfilled a number of requirements that enabled me to demonstrate that I had skills in a number of areas including cooking, camping, orienteering, sewing, collecting and so on. Over a number of years I earned badges of sufficient variety and quantity that I was deemed to have passed the requirements to receive the highest award in the guiding movement. It took a great deal of effort and though it barely matters now, I was glad to have my hard work recognised. Gaining the award was celebrated with a huge campfire, lots of singing, a special name and a certain amount of ceremony.

There are many things that we do with an expectation that we will be rewarded. Whether it is our school or university results, promotions at work, the success of our children or sporting prowess there is usually some sort of scale that tells us how well we have done, particularly how well we have done in comparison to others. So we get grades for our academic work, pay rises for promotions; we glow in our children’s reflected glory and accept medals or trophies for sporting success. When we have studied, worked or trained hard, it feels good to be rewarded for the effort we have expended.

Yet, even in this society which values and rewards success and achievement, there are still many who do things without any thought of reward. For example, the homicide detectives who put their personal lives on hold as they work tirelessly to ensure that a killer is found and a family is given some sort of answers in the face of awful tragedy[1]. They at least sometimes get thanked or commended for their sacrifices. There are however, literally hundreds and thousands of carers who look after an elderly or sick parent or spouse or who spend a lifetime caring for a child with a disability. These, the most draining and most demanding of tasks come with little to no recognition and yet those doing the caring mostly do so selflessly and lovingly – their only reward the knowledge that their parent, spouse or child is receiving the very best care that they can give.

Today’s gospel combines a number of Jesus’ sayings, that don’t necessarily seem to fit together until we remember that it is during Jesus journey to Jerusalem that he instructs his disciples. From the time that Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” (9:51) we have been confronted with a number of difficult sayings about discipleship – “let the dead bury the dead”, “no one who doesn’t not hate mother or father is not fit to be a disciple”, “take the lower seat”, “take up your cross” and so on. Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem and he does not want his disciples to be naïve about the cost of following him – a journey that leads to the cross.

It is in this context that we have to look at this morning’s collection of sayings.

Jesus has recently told the complex parable of the dishonest steward and the challenging parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Now, as if Jesus hasn’t made enough demands, he warns the disciples against being the cause of someone else’s failures and insists that if someone offends them they are to forgive seven times each day!

No wonder the disciples respond by asking Jesus to increase their faith! What Jesus is asking of them must seem to be impossible – they are going to need all the help they can get.

As we have heard, Jesus’ response is two-fold. In the first instance they don’t need any more faith than they have. Even their small amount of faith is sufficient to achieve the impossible and even the improbable. What faith the disciples do have comes from God and God who gives them faith can use that faith if only they take the risk of faith and allow God’s power to work through them.

Secondly, Jesus reminds the disciples that it is important that they do not exercise their role in the believing community with the hope of reward. Serving God and serving each other should be its own reward[2]. In other words, the disciples and now ourselves live out our discipleship faithfully as our response to God’s presence in our lives, not because we are looking over our shoulder and hoping that God will to tap us on our shoulder and say “well done”.

The story of the slave and master is a reminder to them and to us that we cannot earn our own salvation. As Tom Wright puts it: “We cannot put God in our debt”[3]. The story is a warning against the temptation to try to build up credit points for ourselves, to rely on our own efforts rather than on what God has done for us, to create a superficial image of goodness and obedience, or to arrogantly think that we are as able as God to pass judgement on our own behaviour. In other words, if we serve God only for what we think we can get out of that service, then we have misunderstood.

Everything we have we have from God, including our faith. As disciples we serve God willingly and happily, not reluctantly or ungraciously. We serve God not with any thought of what we will get in return, but in joyful gratitude for what we already have.

Faith is not a duty or a burden, but a privilege and a gift. Surely that is sufficient reward for what little we may do in return.

[1] A detective who worked on the Jill Meagher case wiped away tears as he reported that over the years he had missed his children’s birthdays including his daughter’s 21st.

[2] We do not have to be uncomfortable about the image of slavery. Slavery was so commonplace in Jesus’ time that the original hearers would not have taken any offense in thinking of themselves as “worthless slaves”.

[3] N.T. Wright. Luke for Everyone. Great Britain: SPCK, 2002, 204.

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One Response to “God doesn’t owe us anything”

  1. Betty Dingle Says:

    Thank you dear Marian,

    Not easy passages to read and understand. These words from you are very important. My love Betty

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