If we see our relationship with God in the world’s transactional framework, we are doomed. We can never earn our way to freedom.

Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’”

Faith Beyond Expectations

Last Wednesday night, Dale and I took the metro downtown to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church for an event called The Big Sing. It was led by Reverend John Bell, a musician and leader of the Iona community in Scotland.

Between all the music he led us to sing together, about 150 of us, he told a few stories. I thought of this story he told as I struggled with the challenge of preaching this parable in Luke that ends with the apparent equivalence between followers of Jesus and ‘worthless slaves.’

John Bell told us one of his father’s favorite stories that he repeated whenever he had a new audience was about two nuns walking through the wilds of Scotland when they came to a big stone wall. On the wall was a sign that said, “Nudist Camp.”

One nun said, “What on airth do ya think that means?”

“I’m sure I would nah know,” said the other, “and the wall is too tall to see over.”

Her companion said, “How about I bend down and you stand on m’ back and look over? You can tell me what you see.” And so she did.

“Well, what do you see?” asked the bent-over nun, now serving as a step-stool.

“I just see a bunch of people,” she said.

“And what are they doin’?”

“Not much, just walkin’ around.”

“And are they men or women?”

“I can’t tell,” she said. “They’re not wearin’ any clothes.”

I know, you’re thinking, “How’s he going to get back to the gospel passage from that story?”

But, here it is: It’s difficult to tell what a passage is, much less what it means, when it isn’t wearing any clothes—that is, it isn’t wearing the social cues we’re used to that indicate, “Oh, here comes a morality tale,” or “Here comes a poem,” or “here comes a theology lesson.”

Now we can tell that this is a pair of parables, one hyperbolic image of someone with the faith of a mustard seed telling a mulberry tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea (though why anyone would want to do that is a mystery). The other is the image of a master-slave relationship that ends with Jesus telling disciples that after they have done everything disciples are commanded to do, they should expect no thanks or recognition, they should instead say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Here’s what I find so puzzling. These parables are told in Luke in response to the disciples’ exclamation, “Increase our faith!”

In response, Jesus gives them a scolding and a theology lesson.

In my experience and observation, scolding doesn’t often increase faith. My own response to scolding is to feel demoralized and heavy-hearted and, especially if I feel it is unjustified, angry.

I live in a world in which a theology lesson wears the clothing of gentle argument down a path of insight and intellectual rigor; and faith is increased by a story wearing the clothing of inspiration—hope and courage leading to great world-changing results.

So, a story that tells me, “If you had a miniscule amount of faith, the size of a tiny mustard seed, you could tell a mulberry tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea and it would obey,” and it tells me I don’t have much faith at all because I can’t do that.

And then, I hear this story that starts with, “Think of yourself as a slave owner; what do you expect of your slave?”

And then it turns the tables and says, “Remember, you’re not the slave-owner, you’re the worthless slave relative to God.”

As a theology lesson, this second parable gives us a framework for understanding the most severe expressions of John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity—we are without merit; our good works, no matter how good, are not enough to earn our salvation.

One of the difficulties of this passage is that it was written in a foreign culture when slavery was a legal consequence of indebtedness. You could become a slave because of either your own debts, or, if you were a child, having parents who sold you into slavery to resolve their own debts.

It was so prevalent that the first readers of this parable would have been somewhat desensitized to the evil. Jesus’s point was that, if we see our relationship with God in the world’s transactional framework, we are doomed. We can never earn our way to freedom.

Maybe the closest contemporary equivalent is boot camp. I don’t mean the kind of boot camp that people pay for to get a good weekend full of fitness. I mean actual boot camp.

A classmate of mine from high school, a star on the track and cross-country team, joined the Marines right out of school.  He told me about the first morning exercise, the drill sergeant ordered them to run two miles, twice around the perimeter of the camp, as fast as they could.  That was Nolan’s distance.  He ran like the wind and not only finished first, he lapped more than half of the runners on the second mile.  He sat down on a bench just past the finish line and lit up a cigarette.

When the drill sergeant approached him, you will have to imagine what he said, because I will not quote him accurately from the pulpit.  Suffice it to say that the drill sergeant did not congratulate him or express any admiration for his speed and running fitness. He instructed him, and I paraphrase, to put out his cigarette and get back out there and run and keep running until the last man finished.

What makes Jesus’s parable so difficult is that there isn’t much in the way of narrative scaffolding, of literary context in Luke—it just seems to pop up here in the middle of things without a segue.

But let’s think about Luke’s context, and how the first readers of his gospel would have heard this. The gospel would have been read aloud to a gathering of people who sat together at a table in someone’s home.

They would have heard this story of the kind of transactional relationship they lived with every day. The early church was full of people who lived on the edge economically. Some were, in fact, slaves. Many more lived with the reality that they were one economic disaster away from being enslaved.

So, putting ourselves around that table in the first century house church, we hear this story and we get it—in a purely transactional relationship with God, God is the owner and we are the slaves.

But then, something amazing happens.


Exactly what the parable tells us we would not expect—for the slave owner to invite the slave to come and sit down at the table with the slave-owner—is exactly what happens.

After reading the stories of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection, we hear these words inviting us to join at the table with Jesus, not as our owner, but as our host:

“Giving thanks, he blessed and broke the bread, and their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”

And at the table together, where all expectations are shattered, we find our answer to that plea, “Lord, increase our faith.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.