“We Have Only Done What We Ought to Have Done”

Luke 17:5-10

I offered this image of my dad in a sermon more than twenty years ago now. It was a precious memory of me at the age of five and him carrying me gently in his arms when I was sick. I cannot now remember the particular text this recollection spoke to then. But I do remember him learning that I had spoken of this. I remember the befuddled look on his face. And I well remember his words,

“But Janet. That’s just what a Dad does.”

And of course he was right. In a perfect world — and it is so that my childhood was a sheltered and good one — that is just what dads do. Such tender care is simply a reflection of who they are. And at the time and also those many years later, to him, recognition or thanks were entirely unnecessary.

It seems to me it is precisely this sort of core identity that Jesus speaks of today when he uses a slave as an example of what it is to do what one does because that is who one is.

Now it is so that from my vantage point today, I rather wish Jesus had chosen another way to make his point. Indeed, I well remember sitting in a class a few years ago. I had chosen to write a a paper about the Philippians hymn where Paul speaks of taking the ‘form of a slave (or a servant) even as Jesus did.’ (Philippians 1:27-2:11) It was, in fact, the first time I would have the opportunity to learn among others whose racial identity was different from my own. There were, in fact, some in the room whose ancestors had been slaves. As you might expect, they heard Paul’s words entirely different than I did. I offer this now as a sort of corrective to receiving these words glibly. Indeed, in the days to come I hope to check in with a colleague who, no doubt, will instinctively hear Jesus here in Luke’s Gospel in an entirely different way than I ever can or will. Perhaps you might consider doing the same.

And yet, for all my wishing it different, I get Jesus’ point. He is using a social construct of his time and it would have rung true in the ears of his first listeners. It was expected that people who held certain stations did certain things because of ‘who’ they were. It was a mark of their identity. And as a result, thanks were entirely unnecessary.

And so what is the point for us today? Is it, do you think, that you and I are also to behave as slaves to this world and to do so because this is simply who we are? And if that is the case, what exactly might that look like? In the words offered in today’s Gospel, we are not told. And yet, Jesus has been giving content to this for months by now as Luke has told the story:

  • Indeed, might being who we are as followers of Jesus look like loving one’s enemies doing good to those who hate us/ blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us? (Luke 6:27-28)
  • Might it mean being merciful and showing forgiveness? (Luke 6:36-37)
  • Might it mean being agents of healing and life? (Luke 7:1-17)
  • Might it look like indiscriminately scattering seed (you fill in the blank as to what that seed might grow) and letting our light shine in all ways on all days? (Luke 7:1-18)
  • Might it mean being sent out with a word of peace like lambs in the midst of wolves? (Luke 10:1-12)
  • And oh, might this mean picking up one’s cross as Jesus did? (Luke 14:25-33)

Again and again, Jesus paints pictures of things which behave as what they are. He speaks of things not human like salt (Luke 14:34) and fig trees (Luke 6:43-45)  and yeast (Luke 13:20-21) which simply do what they do because of what they are and today he offers us an example using human beings who we are somehow to emulate. As Jesus did. Even as Jesus did.

I don’t know that I will ever get to the point where like my dad in his role as “Dad,” I am genuinely surprised to even be thanked for being and behaving as who I am as a follower of Jesus. But that certainly is Jesus’ call today.

And yet, even knowing I am not, we are not, there yet, still I yearn for the day when all of us followers of Jesus more and more simply live like that is who we are, “doing only what we ought to have done.” Don’t you?

  • How do you find yourself thinking about the social construct of slavery which Jesus uses as an  illustration today? How will that “preach” in your context? (Who might you talk with who might hear it differently than you do?) Is there a way to redeem it? 
  • I have offered some examples of ‘content’ from Luke’s Gospel in terms of what it means for us to ‘do what we ought to have done.’ What would you add?
  • Paul’s words in Philippians 1:27-2:11 offers an image of what it is to live as a slave as Jesus did. Although not one of our readings this week, it does help me to think more deeply about it. Is it helpful to you? Why or why not?

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