“Did Jesus Really Say That?”
Luke 17: 7-10
A sermon of Nathan Lewis preached at Chehalem Valley Presbyterian Church in Newberg and at Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, on May 10, 2009
Have you ever heard someone misquote Jesus? My favorite is the occasional person who says, “As Jesus said, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’” We tend to make Jesus say what we believe to be true. As my friend said, “We should follow Jesus who said, “Look within yourself and you will find the truth.’” Jesus never said either of these two well-turned phrases of popular religion. Of course, a good number of us incorrectly think that Jesus’ speech is wholly devoted to the notion of sentimental love. Our little text today is often overlooked, largely unknown. Did Jesus really say that? Once we discover what Jesus has actually said we have the challenging task of rightly interpreting him.
Jesus does not endorse or commend a class society. Neither does he prohibit us from employing servants and holding them to their stations. Jesus does not instruct us to refrain from expressing gratitude to our servants. Jesus is a master of isolating a common experience, one to which his listeners could instantly relate. He is a master at concisely painting the picture, drawing us into the situation and then dropping the bomb. His particular technique in this speech is to make us think of ourselves as the owner of the ranch. We easily jump into the hypothetical role and situation, glad to be the wealthy landowner in control of other people. Subcons-ciously, we think more highly of ourselves than we ought and are secretly glad to discover that Jesus thinks highly of us as well. Jesus even excuses us from the pressure of expressing gratitude to a servant. After all, have we not hired this servant, paying him a wage to complete these many chores?
While we are dreaming of being the landowner, able to afford servants, Jesus drops the bomb. His teaching point is delivered to us as he surprisingly reassigns us our role in the scenario. In his final sentence he makes us the servant! Wait a minute! Did Jesus really say that? I was enjoying my role as master of the house waiting for Jesus to deliver his moral lesson – something along the lines of – “It’s best for you not to develop familiar relationships with the hired help; if you do they will not respect you and do their work to your satisfaction. You must command their respect rather than encourage their affections.” But Jesus does not deliver such a lesson about our being rulers, controllers, and masters. In his final sentence he jerks us around, forcing us to consider ourselves as the servant.
The lesson Jesus has in mind for us is this: As we complete our God-given duties, we do not demand a reward or even an acknowledgement, but rather we are content to do what we have been designed and commissioned to do. Heaven is filled with myriads of voices praising and thanking God. There is little room and script in the heavenly courts for God praising and thanking us, saying, “I’m am so impressed that you made so many right choices and worked so diligently to arrive here. You made the right choice. Welcome to heaven!” The air of heaven is filled with these words: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being…. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
This lesson of Jesus informs our daily lives in this present realm. As servants of God our attitude is informed by the script Jesus forces into our mouths: “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.” Is it not refreshing to hear a young soldier say as he is decorated for bravery, “I was only doing my duty”? Do we not correct the child who constantly begs for a prize for completing a chore or memorizing a Bible verse? There are some chores a child must do because he is a member of the family. In our home, once the mandatory chores are complete, a child may complete “dollar jobs,” for which he is paid. We have all met an individual who has a chip on his shoulder, thinking that he deserves respect, more payment, a better position and increasing glory. This kind of a person is hard to stomach. We instinctively desire to pull him aside to say, “As servants of God, we realize that we don’t deserve anything.” How delightful is the person who is “content to fill a little space if God be glorified!”
A tradesman who knows his duty and completes it efficiently and joyfully wins our admiration. My particular handicaps make it necessary for me to hire a handyman and I delight in watching a person make light work out of that which would tempt me to curse inanimate objects. I love to interact with people who love their work. I respect those who know their duty and complete it joyfully and expertly. Ultimately, in everything we say and do, our design and purpose is to glorify God. Jesus is calling us to be content in our duties. Would you rather hire an electrician who loves his work and who completes it efficiently and expertly, or would you rather hire a person who takes breaks to complain about his trade and to dream in your presence about doing something more glamorous? Beware the electrician who wants to be a film director. As servants of God our duty is to glorify God, praising him, returning our gratitude to him, and turning every mundane chore into a display of his transforming grace and comprehensive truth. As servants of God our duty is even more so our privilege to serve in the name of God.
Did you notice that the servant in Jesus’ little speech has to do everything? He not only is the field hand – the planter and the shepherd, but he is also the house servant – the butler, the maid, and the cook! Did Jesus really say that? What’s his point? Most of us have felt the overwhelming burden of multiple tasks, the weariness from never-ending work. Few of us experience this fatigue and stress as much as mothers of young children. Few of us have the sanctified response of many mothers, who at the end of the day say, “I am only doing my duty.” If only our duty was to complete a manageable amount of work each day! Life under the common curse has brought increased pain, frustrated labors, never-ending chores, the constant invasion of new problems, more resilient viruses and few, precious few quiet moments. Jesus presses his point calling us to be the servant who says in the context of the common curse, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.”
It is not Jesus’ intention to whip us into shape toward a life of works righteousness. Only Jesus can deliver this little speech to us as the One who has perfectly fulfilled it. The big surprise is not that we have been instantly recast, no longer the master but the servant. The big surprise is that the divine Master, left the glories of heaven and humbled himself, taking on the form of a human servant. Jesus’ lesson for us is not to simply do what he has done, but rather to live according to what he has done. Jesus alone by the infinite demand of divine justice atoned for our sins as he died upon the cross. As we sing, “No other work save thine; No other blood will do.” “Jesus walked that lonesome valley; he had to walk it by himself. No other one could walk it for him; He had to walk it by himself.” Jesus took upon himself the role of servant and “became obedient to death, even death on the cross!” Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy. Just as the servant in Jesus’ speech had to plant the crops, tend the sheep, cook and serve the meal, and even dress his master, so Jesus has completed all of the work demanded by his heavenly Father of infinite justice. Everything necessary for our salvation Jesus Christ has accomplished to the satisfaction of the Father.
Upon the cross Jesus cried with his final breath: “It is finished!” All has been accomplished! The only One among us who can say: “I am worthy,” nevertheless says continually, “I was only doing my duty.” And how has the work of reconciling us to God through the tortuous valley of suffering and undeserved death, even the pains of hell itself, become the duty of Jesus Christ? God the Father was pleased to make it the Son’s duty and the Son was pleased to voluntarily take it up as his duty.
A mother suffers the prolonged agony of birthing her child but at the first cry of her baby her tortured face instantly turns to joy. The baby’s first glimpse of his mother is a smile. So it is with our Lord Jesus, the Suffering Servant. He suffered death by crucifixion. The infinite Son of God suffered the humility of the grave. But on Sunday morning God the Father raised him in glory and honor. The risen Lord Jesus, his face no longer contorted in agony turns his smile toward his followers. He says to us, “Do you love me? Feed my lambs.” The ascended Lord Jesus has no regrets for suffering. He does not waste any heavenly space with thoughts or words about how under-appreciated he is in the world. The heavenly courts surrounding him are filled with the continual praises of the angels. The multitudes of heaven sing: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants! Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns! Let us rejoice and be glad, and give him glory! For the Marriage Feast of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean has been given her to wear!”
As our One and Only Mediator between God and Man, the Man Christ Jesus presents us to the Father as servants worthy of eternal bliss in heaven. The work of Jesus perfectly completed for us lands us on Judgment Day to hear the voice of the one Servant who has fulfilled his duty, “Well done, my good and faithful servant, enter the joy of your Master.” Let it be said of each and everyone of us. Amen.