Generosity: Not what you may think

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.com

 Generosity begins with forgiveness, bridge building, compassion and

Proceeds deliberately to healing and salvation.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’

6 He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.

7 ‘Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? 8 Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”’

The above text is the Revised Common Lectionary’s Gospel lesson for this Sunday but as it often happens, we need to consider the verses either side to get a better grasp of Jesus’ teaching for us today.

Let’s go back a couple of chapters and examine the contexts so we may more fully appreciate what Jesus is saying in today’s reading. Let’s get back in the flow of the Spirit’s teaching.

Chapter fifteen begins with the Pharisees sneering at Jesus for eating with ‘sinners’ – read, ‘the lost’. Jesus teaches us that rejoicing comes from finding what was lost. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. All three parables conclude with celebration and rejoicing. The Greek word for ‘rejoicing’ implies the laughter and fun that happens when friends and family eat together. When rejoicing happens, it is often around a meal. In the parable of the lost son and the prodigal father, we are witnesses to the celebration that happened at the big BBQ of the fatted calf.

The first context then is rejoicing at a meal with those who had been lost (sinners) but who had now been found.

Chapter sixteen begins with a parable for everyone but with the Pharisees, particularly in mind. Jesus tells a story of a crooked boss who recognises the criminal qualities of his crooked manager and praises him for it. It was the culture of the Pharisees for many of them to be engaged in the politics of financial usury. They had a culture of cheating poor farmers out of their land and entitlements and would rather favour someone who showed similar sly acumen for criminality than for those they had cheated.

He goes on to say that the Law was preached up until John the Baptist but the Gospel of God’s Kingdom, which is extraordinarily attractive, causes people to want it and be a part of it but the Law of God must have its way. Jesus continues to teach about the Law and the consequences of sin which absolutely exposes the sin of the Pharisees to public scrutiny. While many were trying to force their way into God’s good graces, Jesus explains that there is no escaping God’s Law and its judgment.

The chapter finishes with the last verse of a parable teaching exactly about these things, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.’ Of course, the One who did rise from the dead was the same one who made the Sinai Covenant redundant; made it the old covenant. He was the same one who established a New Covenant by which all of creation may be redeemed and set free from sin, death and the power of the devil to test and tempt, Jesus.

The second context moves from the first, ‘those who have been lost’, to those who caused them to be lost even further; disenfranchised from their land and from their worshipping community and from safety and wellbeing.

But wait, there is more on this and there is better too. We have a huge reason to rejoice in chapter 17.

So, as we move into today’s reading we must consider who is lost and how we may have been a cause.

Luke 17:1-19               (NIVUK)

Generosity out of the ashes of Sin. Faith, calling and salvation.

1 Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 So watch yourselves.

‘Stumble’ is a translation of the Greek, ‘skandalon’ – a stumbling block or stone on a pathway. A tripping hazard.

Looking back at the previous chapter we can see that greed, bad business, and bad politics have led the Pharisees to place tripping hazards in the path of all those they have cheated of their land and their status within the worshipping community of Israel. The Pharisees had created generational poverty among their own people. Because they are also the spiritual leaders and teachers of Israel, this is classified as ‘abuse’ in our terms. The abuse they had inflicted on gentle souls had caused so many to turn their backs on the temple (church), on God as God was taught and on God’s favour which for all intent and purpose seems to have only been for the rich and privileged.

Every human being is subject to their own sinfulness and the Pharisees themselves had been led by others to stumble at some time. Many Pharisees however, had elevated their sin into outright criminality. Living double lives as those who claimed to be holy and righteous, while simultaneously teaching the people they had broken to do the same. Teaching them how to look after number one at the exclusion of others. When we are hurt and can’t get passed it, we are likely to become what we hate. And so they drove the disenfranchised into poverty and in many cases into illegal activity, think of the tax collectors and other thieves and of all the many women and children who were lost into slavery and prostitution. The theme of causing others to be lost continues.

We continue, ‘So, watch yourselves.’

‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying “I repent,” you must forgive them.’

There are several words for sin in the Greek of the New Testament. This particular word, ‘hamatia’, is originally an archery term, and means to miss the mark, the target or the point. The point being love. As love is the focus of all the Scriptures and all of Scripture is about our relationships with the people around us and with the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have loved us since before the beginning of creation (see Hebrews).

I don’t know about you, but I have struggled with a number of unhealthy attitudes and behaviours over the years and I know I have gone back to God time after time to beg his healing forgiveness and ask for help not to go back to those old ways of thinking and acting. I know he forgives me but I have to keep going back to him. Jesus is asking his disciples to forgive others in the same way. He wants them to exercise the same loving patience. Jesus also wants his disciples to be resilient and courageous, to endure and persist in life and with their friendships, at all costs. Their sinning friends are lost and someone needs to find them.

No matter how many times a person repents and fails again, Jesus calls us to forgive them. What does that mean and what does it look like? Well first, some definitions for two Greek words that give us a fuller picture:

Repent: ‘metanoia’. To realise after the fact that what was said or done was regrettable, shameful and that guilt is appropriate. It is to return to the scene of the crime and attempt to build a bridge of friendship again.

Forgive: ‘aphi-aymi’. Part 1. ‘Let it go and put it behind you’ is the best way I can describe the meaning. ‘Let it go and put it behind you.’ Choose not to hold a grudge, it is a choice to hang on to a grudge or to let it go. Part 2. Proactively build a bridge from your side of sin’s divide, to show goodwill and love for the one who is lost. Build a bridge to go looking for the lost one even when they are struggling to repent.

We are now learning how to find the ‘lost’ and restore them to God’s community and to God.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’

Forgive like that! Lord increase my faith as well. The disciples recognise instantly their lack of spiritual, emotional and even physical resources. Friends that keep coming back to repent for the same old things time after time wear you down. God give me the strength to seek the lost as you do.

6 He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.

What an absurd picture. How many mulberry trees have you commanded uprooted and planted into the sea lately? It may be easier for us who live by the sea than for those who live in the centre of the continent 😊, but still?

The disciples already have faith! There is plenty of evidence. They clung to Jesus and his every word. They followed him around the countryside, slept rough more often than not, lived on lean rations and took abuse from Samaritans and Jews alike. What is Jesus saying about faith then? Fortunately, we live on the other side of the Cross to the first disciples and we can see from the whole New Covenant writings that faith is a gift. As a gift, we can choose to use it or not. It’s not about quantity, it’s whether your faith is switched on, or off. The disciples didn’t need more faith; they needed to exercise what they had. Maybe Jesus is only being half absurd with the mulberry tree comment. Perhaps he is saying that there is no problem so great that faith cannot overcome it. Our issues are with the outcomes. Faith always overcomes but not always as we would like it to.

Perhaps ‘faith’ here is about bridge-building since the conversation in these chapters is about living together well in healthy relationships. No grudge is so large you can’t let it go and put it behind you. No temptation or test so overwhelming that faith in our Triune God would ever be wasted.  No sin is so grave that it cannot be forgiven, and the broken space in your soul healed. Healing for the one who has sinned and the one who has been injured by the sin.

7 ‘Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? 8 Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”’

This portion of the reading seems to be an awkward section. At first glance, it seems not to fit the themes and contexts so far. So, let’s tease it out.

We are the servant in this story, God is the master. Perhaps the rich Pharisees were thinking of themselves as the master and those they had caused to be lost, as the servants? Great wealth has the ability to get us off target and focused on ourselves rather than on the true target, Jesus our Saviour and the ‘lost’. So, we are the servant in this story, God is the master. This is about a change in perspective for us; a way of seeing that is new to our previous experience; a transformation of our being, our soul that moves us from someone who believes they are deserving of being served to one who is called and so, willingly submits to being the servant of others.

The word translated as ‘unworthy’ is a particularly difficult word to translate word for word. It means, ‘someone who is indebted to another’. In Jesus’ story, the servant, that’s us, is indebted to the master, and that’s God. Jesus is asking us to get our thinking straight and to see the world as he sees it. That which is created will always be the indebted servant of the creator.

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’

 The word ‘pity’ here also translates as ‘mercy’: we misunderstand Both today as they have a lesser meaning than they used too. ‘Pity’, these days, means to feel sorry for someone and ‘mercy’ usually is taken for a desire not to be attacked or injured, ‘don’t hurt me’. Back in the day, when these words were understood in their original usage both were meant to be understood as, ‘please have compassion on us and do something that will help us in our troubles’. The lepers are not asking for Jesus pity as we understand pity today. They are not asking for warm fuzzies. They are asking for the ‘master’, to do something that would ease their suffering.

 

14 When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’

‘Get up and go’, is a command from Jesus to stand as a healthy man in good standing with his community. He is no longer a leper. The priest has verified this and now he is free to return to his family and friends – and live as one who has been healed and saved.

‘Your faith has made you well’. ‘Well’ is from the Greek word ‘sozo’. Now there are other in the New Testament for heal, like the commonly used word ‘therapeuo’ from which we get the English words therapist and therapeutic. Luke, however, has chosen to use ‘sozo’ which means ‘to save and to heal’. These men were cured by The Redeemer, The Saviour. When he saves us, he heals us! Heals our souls for sure, and sometimes our bodies too.

Healing leprosy with a word is almost as absurd as telling a mulberry tree to uproot itself and jump into the sea. While that was a metaphor, this is not. With a word, Jesus healed ten lepers all in one brief moment. With one brief act of Faith in the Father and the Spirit, Jesus healed them of an incurable disease. No thanks from the other nine lepers and we are to suppose that some of them were Jewish? The Samaritan, ex-leper, returns full of …… that’s right, thanksgiving and rejoicing. He was no longer lost. This non-Jew, this gentile had been found and the consequence of being found was restored to full health, a welcoming into the Trinity of eternal, easy, healthy, joyfully dancing relationship a.  But I digress somewhat.

In John’s gospel, Jesus says, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends.’ Now we are friends of the creator and serve with him. Together we search for the lost and build bridges for those who are disenfranchised from God’s community, damaged by sin and now lost, alone and unsafe.

Together we let go and put behind us the sins of others and we sit at the table with them, laughing and having great fun.

P.S. Palm 23 says, ‘You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies’.

We lay a table every Sunday of bread wafers and wine or grape juice to enter into the deepest possible moment of relationship with our saving God and with one another in holy community. At this table the lost and found gather together to rejoice. Laugh and be glad!

‘Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’

1 Chronicles 16:31

Footnotes:

a. I have written before on the divine dance or ‘perichoresis’ which is a circular dance of relationship. See, https://sometimeslectionary.church/2019/02/08/4th-sunday-after-epiphany-yr-c-where-earth-and-heaven-meet-pt-2/ and at https://soakintheriver.wordpress.com/2019/02/11/what-is-heaven-and-will-i-go-there-whe-i-die/

In theological terms, since the 3rd century and the largely because of the hard work of St. Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea (Nicaean Creed), Christians have spoken of the relationship between Jesus being fully human and fully divine as this wonderful dance. The same description is applied to the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For a much richer description of our life in the Triune God, you may like to read:

  • Richard Rohr’s book, ‘The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your transformation’ or
  • Baxter Kruger’s, ‘The Great Dance’.

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