|Today’s scripture readings:
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
“The Bible is a peculiarly holy book,” writes the preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor. “It speaks to me not with the stuffy voice of some mummified sage but with the fresh, lively tones of someone who knows what happened to me an hour ago. Familiar passages accumulate meaning as I return to them again and again. They seem to grow during my absences from them; I am always finding something new in them that I never found before, something designed to meet me where I am at this particular moment in time.”
But sometimes we come across a passage like today’s text from the Gospel of Luke. If there was any question that this book was written in another time and place, today’s lectionary reading provides us with a glaring reminder. Far from meeting us where we are at this particular moment in time, the references to slavery in this passage bring us back in time to a period in history predating our contemporary notions of basic human rights. Even worse, Luke’s attitude toward slavery in this passage doesn’t jibe with our modern conception of Christian ethics. This passage from Luke’s gospel doesn’t even sound biblical. What about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God? What about proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor? What do we do when we are confronted with a passage that poses so many problems for modern Christians?
The truth is Luke was writing in another time and place, so we shouldn’t expect him to share our modern sensibilities about issues like slavery. And besides, we don’t have to condone the practice of slavery to understand what Luke is trying to say in today’s passage: Just as we wouldn’t reward a slave for completing the tasks expected of him, we shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for doing what is expected of us.
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to confront sin in their neighbors and forgive it. If you see your friend doing wrong, Jesus says, correct them. If they repent, forgive them. Even if it’s something that has harmed you, even if it’s repeated seven times through the day, if seven times they say, ‘I’m sorry,’ forgive them.”
Forgiveness takes more than most of us can muster. That must be why the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. I was reminded what kind of faith it requires to forgive this past Friday morning as I heard the weekly StoryCorps segment on National Public Radio. Maybe some of you heard it, too. This week’s interview was with Terri Roberts. Ten years ago today her son Charlie walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, murdered five children, and injured five others before taking his own life. Her sense of guilt and shame was overwhelming; she didn’t know how she could ever face her Amish neighbors again knowing it was her son who had destroyed so many of their lives. Later that week the Roberts family had a private funeral for Charlie. When they arrived at the gravesite, thirty or forty Amish came out from around the side of the cemetery and surrounded them like a crescent. “Love just emanated from them,” she said. Ten years later, Terri still pays weekly visits to one of the girls injured in the shooting. She reads to her, bathes her, dries her hair. “I will never forget the devastation caused by my son,” Terri said. “But one of the fathers the other night, he said, ‘None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can’t put a price on that.’” Terri concludes: “Their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us.”
During Lent a couple years ago, several of us read the book Amish Grace, which tells this story in much more detail. While forgiveness seems to have come almost automatically, the Amish would be the first to say that forgiveness is hard work. But they take Jesus seriously when, in today’s Gospel lesson, he tells the disciples, “I know forgiveness is hard. But it’s what’s expected of you. So do it. And just as you wouldn’t reward your slave for doing the work you told him to do, don’t expect to receive a reward from me for doing the things I’m telling you to do. You don’t get a reward for doing what’s expected of you.”
That sounds a little harsh, but think what Jesus is saying here. God doesn’t owe us anything for being good people. God’s favor and blessing are always matters of grace. That means they are undeserved gifts, given to us freely out of God’s infinite goodness. The moment we start thinking that we deserve God’s blessing, we stop experiencing it as a gift of love and start to experience it as a transaction, as if I did this good thing, so God gave me a gold star. This line of thinking leads us down the path of self-righteousness and spiritual superiority, where we end up competing with one another for God’s favor, trying to prove that we’re better Christians than they are. Worst of all, this kind of thinking causes us to see those who struggle on the margins as screw-ups who have failed to earn God’s love, people who deserve the hardship they endure every day. That’s not how God works. When we’re talking about God, there are no rewards for good behavior. We don’t have to compete for God’s love, because God’s love is always given as an undeserved gift.
I like that message, and it is good news. But, for me, at least, there are still some serious problems with this passage from Luke’s gospel. No matter what kind of spin we put on it, it’s hard not to notice that this passage from the “good news” according to Luke assumes the legitimacy of slavery.
Others have noticed it, too. In 1831, Governor James Hammond of South Carolina argued that Jesus never suggested that slavery was sinful: “Although slavery in its most revolting form was everywhere around them,” Governor Hammond writes, “no visionary notions of piety or philanthropy ever tempted Jesus or any of his apostles to mitigate the cruel severity of the existing system. On the contrary,” he says, “regarding slavery as an established, as well as an inevitable condition of human society, they never hinted at such a thing as its termination on earth…. It is impossible,” he concludes, “to suppose that slavery is contrary to the will of God.”
Governor Hammond’s words haunt us today as we reflect on Luke’s gospel reading. It’s not enough to say that we can understand Luke’s message without joining him in his acceptance of slavery; we actually need to stand against Luke. Most of us were taught in Sunday School to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The Bible is full of stories about God’s action on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Mary sings of the God who brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. So when Jesus asks, “Who among you would invite your weary servant to take his place at the table?” the answer has to be, “We would.” We would make a place at our table especially for those who are the least among us, who are used to looking on hungry while the rest of us eat our fill.
We would make a place at our table because of the one who prepares for us a place at his table. For us, servants of God with mustard seed-sized faith who struggle to do what’s expected of us. We hustle around, so hung up on ourselves that we forget to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves. Still, he prepares for us a place at the table. We spend our time quarrelling over earth’s resources, eager to claim more of it for ourselves. Still, he prepares for us a place at the table. Needless to say, the work God has entrusted to us goes unfinished. Some days we actually do more harm than good. Still, he prepares for us a place at the table. Not because we deserve it but because that’s how God’s grace works: a place for each of us at the table.
Day after day, week after week, throughout our entire lives, this cycle of failure, forgiveness, and feast repeats itself over and over again. Jesus calls us as we are, lost and wandering, greedy and proud, weary and broken, to share in the body and blood that remind us who we are: beloved children of God called to live in communion with God and one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004).
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
James Henry Hammon, “Gov. Hammond’s letters on southern slavery: addressed to Thomas Clarkson, the English abolitionist,” accessed October 1, 2016, https://archive.org/details/govhammondslette00hamm.
Kimberly Bracken Long, “Luke 17:5-10: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
National Public Radio, “A Decade After Amish School Shooting, Gunman’s Mother Talks of Forgiveness,” heard on Morning Edition, September 30, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/09/30/495905609/a-decade-after-amish-school-shooting-gunman-s-mother-talks-of-forgiveness.
Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge: Cowley, 1993).
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