Today’s lectionary passage (Luke 17: 5-10) is about faith and duty. In the passage the two seem to be interlinked. The disciples ask about faith and the story told in response is about duty.
It is another in Luke’s series of strange, hard to understand passages. Another one where there will be as many interpretations as readers. Another passage where I am glad that I am freed from approaching the texts in a way that seeks for the “right” or the “only” interpretation.
As always, one of my main considerations with any passage is how does the tale speak today. Is it relevant? Can I learn from it? Does it help me live my life in a better way?
The poor disciples must have been mind-boggled. They had just heard story after story about acceptance, diligence, listening, honesty, shrewdness, not causing harm to another, to name a few of the themes.
I think they must have felt as if they were falling well short of the mark! That is a feeling I suspect most people can identify with. Not feeling good enough, wanting to be better. I know I thought that lots of times. Not in any self-pitying way, but simply wishing I could do more.
The disciples expressed it in a simple request, “Increase our faith.” They still didn’t get a straight answer. They were given a metaphorical answer that if they had enough faith they could uproot trees and plant them elsewhere. Of course, it is not a literal analogy. No-one moves trees by faith. There have been a few instances of people who can bend spoons (mind over matter) but I never heard of anyone moving a tree. Correct me if I’m wrong!
Those who have visited us will know that we have lots of trees in our garden. Big, solid, old trees. We love our trees. It is part of the draw towards the Celtic saints and lifestyle. Their love of nature which illustrates the times and seasons, reflecting the whole cycle of life. Occasionally one of our trees starts to wither and has to be removed for safety. It happened this summer. Experts were called in and they chopped the tree down, they observed that getting the roots out would be a whole different matter. Roots are not easily removed. Directly in front of our lounge windows we have two small bushes. They have been dead for a few years. even so we can’t get them to move. Someone suggested that we tie a rope round them , connect them to the car, drive forward to try and pull them out. Not a helpful suggestion as that would entail removing the fence and churning up the lawn! Nevertheless, it illustrates how hard trees are to move.
To say, a grain of faith will move a tree is setting an impossible task. So, at this point, I have to wonder if Jesus is telling the disciples that their thinking about faith is faulty. It is not going to be this wonderful thing that they can be given to them to enable them to perform impossible tasks. Nor will it miraculously enable them to meet all the standards that seem to be required in the previous stories.
An illustration is then given which, at first glance, seems to change the subject completely. A story is told about slavery. Of course, slavery is abhorrent in contemporary times, but at the time these words were penned it was common for the rich.
Yet, continuing in the theme of the previous stories, these are more confusing words. They twist in an unexpected way. The disciples are asked hypothetically if a slave had just come in from the fields would they be invited to take a place at the table. In light of previous passages, I would want to give a resounding, “yes”. Surely, the message of the gospel is equality, kindness, sharing resources and caring for those less fortunate. Those would seem a fitting explanation of what faith would look like.
But not so in this tale, the answer is not yes but no. The slaves are expected, after a days’ work, to don aprons and serve, with the implication that they receive no thanks for their continued work. The punchline is that ultimately the slaves consider that they have only done their duty. So, I ask myself, is this faith? Is this how faith is increased? Doing our duty in serving our fellow human beings without hope or expectation of further reward.