The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 2, 2022 – World Communion
Most of what Jesus said blesses many people, but some of what He said bothers many. Today’s scripture bothers many, including me. Thus, pastors often avoid preaching on this scripture, and I’d bet the majority of us have never heard a sermon on it.
So what bothers some of us about it? First, it tells a parable that involves the heinous institution of slavery but says not one word against it. It is one of those parables that Jesus formed by taking an everyday scenario with which his audience was familiar and using it to make a timeless point. Back in Jesus’ day, slavery was universally practiced by those who had the might to impose it, and the story this parable tells is one to which his listeners could relate, however much they hated slavery. That this parable involves slavery no more implies an acceptance of that evil than the parable of the Good Samaritan implies an acceptance of the evil of robbery. This parable just incorporates a reality which everyone knew then by either firsthand experience observation. In the meantime, everything Jesus said and did was laying the foundation for its abolition.
Jesus told this parable to people deciding whether to become His disciples. Almost every day on His last, long journey to Jerusalem, Jesus went to great lengths to remind them of the great cost of following Him. It is then significant that, while the parable starts by having them identify with the slaveholder, it ends by having them identify with the slave. For to be a disciple of Jesus is to be a spiritual slave – a slave of no human being, but of God. Jesus Himself came, not to be served but to serve, and to give His life for others. Neither is there any thought of making anyone else a slave; the only thought is of making oneself a slave of the God who seeks partners with whom to bless all people.
It should also be obvious that this parable is not suggesting we should become like its slaveholder: a narcissist devoid of empathy or kindness. The man does not care that his slave is tired and hungry from working a full day in his fields, but insists his worn-out slave serve him his dinner before even grabbing himself a snack.
The parable suggests the disciples of Jesus are to take the role of serving the Owner of all people like slaves, slaves who obey His every command for blessing others and who make nothing of their self-sacrificial and diligent service, saying, “We have done only what we ought to have done.” They embrace that their life does not belong to them and that they owe their Owner whatever He asks.
Though Jesus never called anyone a slave, some of His later followers, like the Apostle Paul, called themselves a slave of God. Paul told the Corinthians, for example, “We are not our own; we have been bought with a price.” Paul saw himself as someone who was ever at God’s beck and call – someone who, like this slave, would carry out yet another act of service despite having just carried out a bunch of them, and who, in going that second mile, would see it as only giving his master His due.
The second reason this scripture bothers many of us is that it challenges us to make a radical, unconditional commitment to fulfill God’s every wish, however much self-denial that may take. We take umbrage to that challenge just to the extent we’ve let ourselves be sucked into the spirit of this age. For the spirit of this our age emphasizes asserting our rights, laying claim to what we feel entitled to, and prioritizing our individual needs and desires. With such a mindset, we don’t respect the call of duty and resist sacrificing something we want to advance bigger concerns than our own. But that is exactly what discipleship to Jesus entails.
For several chapters in Luke, Jesus has been reminding would-be disciples that following Him is both a high-reward and a high cost form of life. While it more than compensates for any loss, it definitely leads to our loss of calling all the shots, of setting limits to our obedience of God, and of saying No to putting ourselves out if we receive no appreciation or thanks.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to act like a slave of God. It is to give God the authority and control over us no one else should have. For God is above every human being, including us. Before God, and God alone, we are no better than slaves who owe God, and God alone, an unlimited commitment to do whatever He asks, even if He asks us to work as hard as someone who, after a long day of plowing fields and tending sheep, still has to wait table for ungrateful people who take His service for granted.
To be a disciple is to do whatever God wants us to, no matter what. It is to have our boots on the ground in humble, active and often unrecognized service. Folks living like that become a counter-cultural community that is both unrestricted in national or ethnic identity and unrestricted in resolve to do God’s will regardless of cost.
The church is the world-wide community of people who in the name of Jesus put their boots on the ground to better the world and who build their unity on the common ground of a shared submission to the same Master and a shared dedication to represent His love and justice to all. Let us join them!