Text: Luke 17:5-10
Last week I read an article about John Kennedy Jr.’s death in 1999 due to a plane crash. The article said that he had just enough experience in flying to be dangerous. He was told not to fly if he could not see the horizon but he ignored that instruction and he and his wife and her sister took off in a bad storm with little to no visibility. John experienced what is called black hole vertigo where your instincts lie to you. Because of his inexperience he trusted his instincts even though his instruments were telling him something else. Experts believe that he ended up actually flying upside down, so when he pulled back to gain altitude instead he flew them into the ocean and they were killed upon impact.
It occurred to me that this accident is a very good analogy about why we need to rely on the Word of God for our life’s direction. God’s Word is our instrument panel. It is all too easy for us in life to get our own form of black hole vertigo and become disoriented. It is all too easy to have our instincts lie to us. And if we ignore the instruments, and trust our instincts, then the results could be tragic, both in this life and in the life to come.
Our Gospel lesson today is an example of our need to trust the instruments, because Jesus’ teaching here goes against our instincts. Jesus tells what seems to be a kind of harsh story that ends up having us call ourselves “unworthy.”
Telling folks that they are unworthy certainly goes against our instincts. In fact we have spent a good deal of time doing just the opposite. Barney and Mr. Rogers told us continually how wonderful we are. Some sports have quit taking the score so that everyone will feel like a winner. In some competitions every kid gets a trophy so no one will feel slighted. I once attended an awards ceremony where every kid there got an award.
I don’t doubt the motives behind these actions but I do question the outcome. By not listening to Jesus about real life and trusting our instincts we have created a society that is flying upside down. We have a society where we have to have safe places in universities for students to go to in order to recover when they have heard something with which they don’t agree. We are asked to ignore the reality of the person in front of us and instead ask them how they self identify. We have become a society where institutions are pulling out of states and punishing them financially because the state won’t allow boys to go into girls’ bathrooms. We have followed our instincts and we are flying upside down.
So let’s for a moment ignore our instincts and take another look at our instruments. Let’s ask what would happen if we do as Jesus said and considered ourselves unworthy. What might be the results of following that view of life.
First let’s put the story in its larger context. Our lesson today starts out with the disciples asking for more faith. The reason that they are asking for more faith is that Jesus just told them that if your brother asks for forgiveness even seven times a day still you are to forgive. The common thought of the day was that if you forgave someone three times you were a righteous man. But to forgive seven times every day? That’s why they asked for more faith. But Jesus in essence tells them that they don’t need more faith, they just need to do it.
And so do we. Fr. BE has told us that forgiveness is THE basic attribute of being a Christian and he is so right. If we fail to be forgiving then we can forget about any further spiritual maturity. Unforgiveness becomes a damn that holds back God’s blessings. Jesus taught us to pray every day for God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s not something for which we need more faith, we just need to do it.
I believe that the reason that Jesus tells the story about the unworthy servant, right after calling on the disciples to forgive, is so that they will avoid a common mistake that happens to folks when they walk in the path of righteousness. A very subtle form of pride begins to grow and while they would never be so crass as to put it in these words, they develop an attitude that because they are walking in the path of righteousness that God is in some way indebted to them.
I know this because it happened to me. About 30 years ago I went through some extremely difficult times. Some of it was of my own doing but some of it was beyond my control and I got angry with God about it. Here was my thinking. “I have been following you Lord and being faithful and doing all that I knew to do and then you allows this garbage to happen to me?”
Did you hear it? That was pride. I was in essence saying that God owed me because I had been a good boy.
If that sounds like the book of Job it is and it was Job who taught me what my response should have been. Job thought that because he was a righteous man that God owed him a hearing. But when God does show up Job does an about face and he repents and says, “though He slay me yet will I trust him.”
So it is a good thing to consider yourself unworthy. It avoids the trap of pride. There is something very liberating in admitting that we are unworthy. Conversely it is a terrible burden to attempt to be worthy. That was the way of the Pharisee. Recall this passage also from Luke’s Gospel.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
So Jesus tells a story to demonstrate that God is never indebted to us, no matter how faithful we are. When we have done everything God asks us to do we are still not worthy and He is not obligated to us. That is reality and Jesus is teaching us to live in that reality. It is why I love that we pray the Prayer of Humble Access right before we receive Holy Communion. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table….” That is not groveling, it is expressing a reality. But it doesn’t stop there.
The reality of our unworthiness leads us to the next reality as we continue the prayer. “…but Thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” I find it interesting that also in Luke Jesus tells another story about servants and master but this one has a very different ending. This is from Luke 12. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he (meaning the Master!) will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.”
Here Jesus tells us the Lord will bless our faithfulness. So when we put the two stories together we conclude that while God will bless our faithfulness He is never required to do so and we will never be worthy enough to receive it. It’s all about GRACE.
There used to be a character on Saturday Night Live named Stuart Smally who would look in a mirror and give himself affirmation by saying “I’m good enough and smart enough and doggone it, people like me.” That is what you do when you are trusting your instincts but the instrument panel tells us that is flying upside down. To fly right we must accept that we are unworthy. This creates a life of humility and that is important because James tells us that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble (4:6). But it doesn’t stop there
When we accept that we are not worthy and embrace humility it opens the door to another important attribute and that is gratitude. If you keep looking for God to treat you as you think that you deserve, then you are going to live a life of anger and bitterness and depression.
First of all you really don’t want God to treat you as you deserve. I certainly don’t. Why? Well compared to Charles Manson I may be a good guy but compared to Mother Theresa I’m a self absorbed jerk. So if I am judged on God’s scale of holiness I wouldn’t stand a chance. So please, please Lord don’t treat me as I deserve.
But secondly when we are aware of our unworthiness then any good that comes to us is received as a gift from above rather than something we have earned. This way we live life with gratitude in our hearts rather than with a sense of entitlement. The former makes a saint. The latter makes a brat.
I love being around people who see every day as a gift and who delight in the simplest of things. People who are filled with gratitude build up those around them. In this way they end up building up the Church and expanding the kingdom. And so St. Paul says in a number of His letters that we are to give thanks in everything. We are to be a people of gratitude. But it doesn’t stop there.
When our cup runneth over with gratitude, what spills over is joy. Jesus said that He wanted His joy to be in us and for our joy to be complete. I submit that this path is how we come about it. We move from unworthiness to gratitude and from gratitude to joy.
Next week is the Feast of St. Francis and when you read of his life you see this pattern very clearly. He was certainly known for his humility but he was equally known for his joy. In fact Francis had so much joy in his life that he has been called God’s Jester.
If you have been around Christians in other parts of the world, especially in third world countries, you will see the same pattern. They are humble, they are thankful and they are joyful. They are so much so that it is convicting to be around them. Further their joy is evangelistic in nature. People in those countries come to faith seeing this fruit in Christian lives.
This path from unworthiness to joy also explains why all the things that we look to bring us joy fail in the end to do so. They say that the two greatest days in a man’s life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it. Stuff doesn’t bring us joy. But what about sports? Well if you are a Titans fan you can’t remember ever having joy. We eat and drink to find joy and that only leads to diets and hangovers. But the joy that flows from a grateful heart, the joy that comes from the gratitude of being accepted in the Beloved, that is the living waters that Jesus talks about.
So we can see from all of this that Jesus’ story about us being unworthy servants is not only true but it is for our good that we embrace it. It not only leads us to the path of joy but it ensures that we are not wasting our lives flying upside down. Amen.