Notes from the sermon by the Revd Dr Angela Birkin 16th September 2018
Luke 17. 1-19
May the spoken and written word lead us to the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
At first sight, at first reading, Luke appears to have strung a number of sayings of Jesus together, with a healing miracle tagged on to the end. However, Luke’s stated aim in writing his gospel is to put down an orderly account for Theophilus, which means ‘friend of God’, and therefore for us, so it is definitely worth taking a close look at what he has written and thinking carefully about it.
Luke makes clear in the first verse of our reading that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, those who are following him, hoping to learn from him, not those who are disinterested observers or opponents. If we wish to learn from Jesus, then we need to listen to his words.
Jesus gives the disciples some tough teaching about leadership, against a mind-set that works against justice and compassion for the “little ones” that is for those in need, and against mind sets that obstruct the restoration of those who have done wrong to community of faith.
Jesus’ disciples, you and me, are to seek actively for the restoration of the person who has sinned, not stand at a distance and shun them. Moreover, the disciples, you and me, are to forgive without limit.
In response the disciples plead “Increase our faith”. They speak for us all I’m sure.
It’s very easy to read Jesus’ reply to the disciples as a rebuke said with a stern voice and even sterner facial expression. Unfortunately, the words written down by Luke don’t convey the body language of Jesus, his tone of voice, the twinkle in his eye. What if Jesus wasn’t being severe but playful and encouraging, kind and loving? It isn’t so hard to believe is it?
“Even with faith the size of a mustard seed – just a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy, smidgeon of faith, you can do anything, even something as crazy as tell a mulberry tree to uproot itself and jump into the sea.”
If we hear Jesus speak with the voice of love, we hear him tell the disciples that they already have enough faith to do whatever is required of them. We hear Jesus tell us that we already have enough faith to do whatever is required of us.
And people of faith do move mountains, they do change the landscape. I think of Elizabeth Fry and prison reform, of Dr Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the USA, and I also think of my Sunday school teacher way back when, Mrs Wowra, who was a lollipop lady and who is more than a little responsible for me standing here now. You I’m sure will think of others. People of faith at All Hallows’ have changed and are changing the landscape.
Interestingly Luke in his gospel portrays faith not so much as possession, something you have, but as a disposition, part of a person’s character or nature, something you are. For Luke faith leads to faithful behaviour, and so the disciples in effect ask Jesus to “make us faithful people”
This leads us to the parable of the slave and slave-owner in verses 7 to 10 of our reading, which is difficult for us to hear and learn from today.
We recognise slavery rightly as a great evil and a blight on the world. Jesus is not approving of slavery by saying this parable, he is not saying that God is a slave-owner and that we are God’s slaves, but he is using a well-known reality of village life in his time to teach us something about faithfulness.
A small landowner or farmer would have one slave to do all the various indoor and outdoor work. The slave who is simply completing his or her work does not by doing so place the master under any obligation to reward the slave in some way. In the culture of the time this was important because to thank someone, for example for the master to thank the slave, would not simply be polite but would place the master in debt to the slave.
The point that Jesus is making is that in living faithfully, in living lives obedient to God, his disciples, including us, should not expect a reward or honours, should not have a sense of entitlement.
To live faithfully is to recognise that remembering those in need with justice and compassion, and forgiving those who have done wrong, actively working for their restoration into the community of God’s family is the ordinary everyday stuff of being a disciple of Jesus, of being a Christian. It is not extraordinary work; we are not extraordinary people in doing that work. But we are loved, each one of us, by an amazing, extraordinary God, who loves us because God sees each one of us as extraordinary and lovable.
I love the healing miracles of Jesus, when we see the kingdom of God breaking into our fallen and needy world and we get a glimpse of heaven, of a time when there will be no more tears or pain or discrimination, and the healing of the ten lepers is a cracking miracle, but as Luke writes it the healing is almost incidental to the story of the gratitude of the one who was healed and returned to Jesus.
In Jesus’ day the term leprosy would have been used of any number of skin diseases as well as of the disease we know as leprosy today. People with leprosy were marginalised, separated from family and friends and unable to worship at the temple as they were considered unclean and impure. The ten men kept their distance from Jesus, demonstrating the isolation demanded of them, and called out to him for mercy, for healing, for salvation.
By sending the men to the priests Jesus was ensuring that they would be accepted back into their families and into the worshipping community, thus fully integrated into religious and everyday society. All ten were healed but only one returned to thank Jesus, the one who, as a Samaritan, was doubly marginalised. Jesus sends him on his way saying, “Your faith has made you well.”
In the way he writes this healing miracle Luke challenges us, for what can we do but approve of the action of the sole healed leper who returns to show gratitude for his healing, who behaves as a truly faithful person and who prostrates himself before Jesus as one would before God. Then in a surprise development Luke tells us that the one who returned was a Samaritan, a foreigner, an outsider, despised, not one of us.
Physical ancestry, nationality, genealogy and religious purity meant a lot in Jesus day. There are plenty of people concerned with them today. We humans seem to find it quite easy to point out what we think makes us different, what we think makes someone ‘other’, inferior, less-deserving.
When it comes to God’s healing love, to salvation, our so-called differences matter nothing. God loves us because God loves us because God loves us. God also loves the person who lives next door who we find difficult to like for whatever reason.
We have done nothing to deserve God’s love, we can do nothing to repay God for that love, but we can live faithfully and with gratitude.
We can say thank you to the one who gives us life and holds us in loving hands, who created this beautiful world and the dear people and animals who enrich our lives, and whose love was made manifest in our saviour Jesus Christ. And we can endeavour to love and forgive others as God loves and forgives us.