Increase our faith

6 October 2013
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22C (RCL)
Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26 (Canticle A)
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Throughout the “green” season of Year C in the RCL, we have been reading of the approaching last days of the kingdom of Judah. Now, it has arrived. The book of Lamentations is a collections of songs and poems about the destruction of Jerusalem. All the glory is gone and the people dispersed. It is interesting to me that the verses we use as a canticle this morning are so hopeful: your mercies are new every morning. Contrast that to the other option, Psalm 137 – how happy the one who dashes your little ones against a stone. The two options present two widely different responses to catastrophe: one of hopelessness and one of faithfulness and hope.

The parable of the servant presented in this week’s reading from Luke is no one’s favorite. We don’t like the idea of saying, “We are worthless servants; we have only done what we ought to have done.” We want recognition for our good work. Everybody likes an “attaboy” or “attagirl” once in a while.

I think it makes sense to read these verses with the first four verses of the seventeenth chapter of Luke. Jesus turns from addressing the Pharisees to addressing the disciples, and the content of the sayings which make up the first part of the chapter are directed toward the life of the community. The chapter begins with a saying about occasions for sin (scandals, or stumbling blocks). It is impossible for them not to arise, says Jesus, but woe to the person through whom they arise. Better to have a millstone around your neck and thrown into the sea, than cause one of these little ones to stumble. Then Jesus says a member of the community must forgive his another member of the community seven times in one day if necessary.

That is what elicits the apostles’ cry, “Increase our faith(fulness)!” It takes great faithfulness and commitment to forgive seven times in one day. How might we do that. Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed . . .” He uses a grammatical construction that assumes the truth of the first part of the “if/then” clause. We might translate, “Since you have faith(fulness) the size of a mustard seed . . .” The difficulty comes in the second part of the statement. Could we say to a mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea”? Would we want to, and why?

Mark uses the saying about having faith in an entirely different setting. After cursing the fig tree, and then cleansing the temple and telling the parable of the vineyard and its tenants, the disciples see the withered fig. Jesus says, “Have faith, and you could say to this mountain, be lifted and thrown into the sea, and it would be done.” In that case, the mountain in question is probably the Temple mount. In Mark’s scheme, the faithfulness of the Christian community will replace the faithlessness of Israel in God’s plan of salvation.

Luke has a different purpose in mind. The mulberry tree is of the same family as the fig (at least linguistic family in Greek; mulberry is sycamine). But, if we connect (as Luke has done) this saying with the saying about forgiving sin, then perhaps the sycamine tree represents the rootedness of sin in our community life. It’s going to take a lot of forgiving to uproot that tree.

In that case, the parable of the servants makes a little more sense. It’s an odd parable. First of all, it assumes that the listeners have servants, which doesn’t seem self-apparent to me when speaking of the Christian community: “Which of you, having a servant. . .” And, then the treatment of the servant by the master seems to run counter to other parables in Luke addressed to servants: “Blessed the servant whom the master finds awake when he returns from the wedding feast — he (the master) will put on his apron and invite that servant to feast.”

Here, the message is, “Don’t expect praise for doing what it takes to keep the community going.” You’ve forgiven your brother seven times in one day? That’s the minimum requirement; don’t expect a pat on the back. It might be worth our while to ask what is the minimum care we should be extending to the members of our community. Might also be a worthwhile question to ask whom we consider members of our community, and then ask what is the minimum required to keep them within the boundaries. And, then, when we’ve done that, not to expect fireworks.

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