We are unworthy servants
Sermon based on Luke 17:1-10 | October 2, 2022
One of the questions that I’ve been asked as a pastor is this: why do we have young children sit through church? I know that anyone who’s ever wrestled a squirmy two-year old in a pew for an hour has had Sundays when it didn’t seem even worth it to come. The objection is that young kids can’t understand anyways, so why torture them and their parents? It would be easier on parents to have their kids put in childcare during the service so that they can have an hour of peace. Some churches do have a staffed nursery for just this purpose.
But, believe or not, the reason we keep parents and children together in worship is not for parents to show Jesus how much they are willing to suffer for him. It’s because children are listening; children are learning long before they can talk or put things in their own words. How do kids learn to speak? They listen and they eventually repeat what they’ve heard, even if they don’t fully understand what those words mean. Here at church, our pattern of worship teaches the words of our faith and after the words are learned, meaning is later attached to them.
How did you learn the Lord’s Prayer? My guess is that your dad didn’t sit you down when you were four years old and explain that the word “hallowed” means “holy” and when we say, “Hallowed be thy name” we’re praying that God’s name be kept holy among us by holy living and teaching the truth of God’s Word. No, he took you to church. He prayed with you at home. You listened and eventually you started speaking the words. After you knew the words by heart you learned what they mean and you’re probably still learning what they mean.
I bring this up because Jesus has some words that he wants all of his followers to learn to say. We heard these words near the end of our gospel reading today: So also you, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants. We have only done what we were supposed to do.” We are unworthy servants who have only done our duty.
Now, I’m not going to make you memorize these words, but it really wouldn’t hurt to put to memory words Jesus tells us we should say. It also wouldn’t hurt to spend some time unpacking what these words mean.
We are unworthy servants. “Unworthy” and “servants” make an odd combination of words. We might wonder: who is not worthy to be a servant? A servant is already in the lowest position. Is anyone really unworthy of taking out the garbage or unworthy of weeding the garden? If I asked one of my kids to help wash the dishes and his answer way, “But Father, I am unworthy of such task,” I’d probably tell him that he’s also unworthy to have dessert that night. An unworthy servant is someone who understands that he has no business being in the house of his master.
With these words Jesus is teaching us something about our relationship with our God. Have you ever met people that talk about God as if He were their servant? “God, I know I’ve been ignoring you for a couple of years, but you’d better fix this problem for me. God, I know the Bible says this, but I don’t like it so I’m ignoring that part.” It’s true that Jesus also describes our relationship to God as a child to their father. We are children of God, adopted into his family through baptism. He is our Heavenly Father. I suppose that with changes in parenting some kids are used to being in charge and telling their parents what to do. But Jesus wants us to know that this is not the case with our Heavenly Father. We are his children, yes, but we are also unworthy servants…and I should point out that the word translated “servant” could also be “slave.”
There is a part of us that doesn’t want to be a servant; a slave really, of anyone. I want to be free! But realize that, according to the Bible, complete freedom does not exist. The question is not: will you be a slave? It’s assumed that you are a slave in the sense that you have a master. The question is this: “Who will be your master?” There are only two choices: either God or Satan. I realize that may sound dramatic to people who don’t believe in God and who would disagree they are slaves to the devil. They might even say they don’t believe the devil exists! Jesus calls the devil the Father of lies and one of his greatest lies is that you can be your own master. You can call your own shots. That works for a while. A person could go through their whole life imagining this is the case. How do you finally know that you are a slave? What’s the ultimate proof? When your master calls, you listen. The Bible says that we are all born slaves to sin and because we are born in sin we die. When death calls, you will listen and then it will become apparent who you were really serving in this life.
The grand story of the entire Bible is this: God so loved the world that the sent his one and only Son. Why? So that by his death on the cross and the payment of his innocent blood he could purchase us out slavery and purchase us as his own. We call this redemption. You were bought at a price. You were redeemed by Jesus to be his own. He didn’t have to do it. In fact, you and I didn’t deserve it. This is why Jesus instructs his disciples to say, “We are unworthy servants.” An unworthy servant is filled with deep gratitude at the opportunity to serve his master. An unworthy servant doesn’t long for the good ole days back when we were slaves of sin and the devil. An unworthy servant finds joy in service and is fiercely loyal to his master. An unworthy servant doesn’t think, “God really is lucky to have me.” No, after faithful service she says, “I am an unworthy servant, I have only done my duty.” If Jesus says these are the words we should say after our work here on earth is done; don’t you think these same words ought to shape our lives right now?
We are unworthy servants. We have only done our duty.
Today, we’re beginning a new Bible Study here at Redeemer that looks at our mission and purpose as a congregation. In many ways, it comes down to believing and living these words. Christ has made us his servants; he has redeemed us to be his own. This means we belong to him and our lives as individuals and together as a congregation are lived in service to him.
What is our duty as unworthy servants? A servant’s duty is to do what the master commands. We could look at the 10 Commandments or turn to all sorts of places in the Bible, but Jesus highlights several of those commands right here in our gospel. Jesus told his disciples “Watch yourselves” and he was talking specifically about living or acting in a way that causes someone else to stumble in their faith and fall into sin. We know that we live in a world that has fallen away from God. We should expect to see the wreckage. We should expect to find temptations that try to pull us away from God like a dog chasing a squirrel. But if we grow careless, we could ourselves become the reason someone else stumbles in their faith. How many Christians haven’t struggled because they see hypocrisy in the lives of others who claim to be Christians themselves?
This is especially true for people who are in positions of influence: pastors and teachers and parents. To make his point, Jesus says it would be better to have a rock the size of a small care tied around our neck and to be pushed into Lake Superior than to cause someone else to stumble in their faith.
Jesus says that we also have a duty to rebuke and forgive sin. The mark of a Christian’s life is not perfection, but repentance and forgiveness. It is not hypocrisy to sin, it’s hypocrisy when we refuse to acknowledge our sin and correct it. It’s hypocrisy when we refuse to forgive the person who has sinned against us. Of course, this is easy for me to say. It’s another matter to put down your pride and tell your wife, “I’m sorry.” Or to admit to your children, “I was not acting in a Christian manner when I lost my temper.” It’s hard to speak the words Jesus has actually given us to say when others have hurt us and let us down; to say, “I forgive you” instead of, “It’s ok” or “don’t worry about it.”
To be an unworthy servant is to know that my God forgives me even though I said I’d never do it again, and then I did. He forgives me more than seven times a day and, therefore, I should be ready to forgive the person who sins against me and repents seven times in a day.
The apostles who were listening to Jesus were right to say, “Increase our faith!” This is no small thing. To forgive the person who has deeply hurt you may be a daily struggle. Increase our faith so that we, who are unworthy servants, would reflect the same love and compassion that our master has for us. And if you have any question about that love, consider that Jesus was right when he said that after a servant has done all their work; after they’ve weeded the garden and taken care of the livestock, they should not expect to come in, sit down, and have their master wait on them. No, the master sits and the servants serve him. That’s how it works. But we know we have a different kind of master. We are unworthy servants and still he chooses to serve us. He invites us to come to him today and he feeds us with his own body and blood that in him we have life.
Yes, he invites us to come to listen to his words and to bring our kids so they learn as well. Christians want to learn the words of the faith. We learn what to say and, over time, we begin to see what these words really mean. We see how they change everything. So listen to Jesus today and learn to say, “We are unworthy servants. We have only done our duty.” Amen.