Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Once upon a time, a mother overheard her son in prayer. She listened for a while and discovered that he was sharing his plans with God and then giving God some directions on how to help. She interrupted: “Son, don’t bother to give God instructions. Just report for duty.”
Glendon Harris has written in typical style: “Duty is not one of your glamour words.” He continued, “It has a hang-dog look of drudgery and dullness.” Actually, there is that side to it. Duty has a major pitfall in it that should be enclosed with barricades and marked with many diamond-shaped signs. Duty to God, country, family, friends, or any noble cause can be fulfilling and beautiful. Duty to duty is empty and almost always ugly.
Francois Mauriac illustrated this danger in his story, The Woman of the Pharisees. The main character was the grande dame of the valley. She had all the money, houses and land she could ever want, and felt duty-bound to help the poor people in her village. She visited them regularly and provided gifts that she deemed fit their needs. Invariably she also left behind a bit of wisdom or a lesson about life–a constant reminder that, with a little more ambition or a little more thrift, they could improve their situations.
She never left a poor family’s house without making them feel worse for her having been there. She depressed them with her dutiful visits and gifts. They hated her for giving them and hated themselves for accepting them. She had a duty all right–a duty to her own reputation as a rich woman, duly concerned about the poor. Harris noted that the story reminded him of an epitaph written by C.S. Lewis:
Erected by her sorrowing brothers
In memory of Martha Clay.
Here lies one who lived for others.
Now she has peace. And so have they.
Jesus doesn’t call people to be pains-in-the-neck to others, nor does He call us to be dutiful drones or doormats. But He does call us into service. There is a world of difference between the Pharisees’ religion and the faith-life of the Gospel. One is a dutiful obedience to cold Law. The other is willing and faithful obedience to a warm and living Christ, who not only is our Way to eternal life, but also showed us the way to abundant living.
This Sunday’s Gospel contains three lessons from Jesus on service. Each has one of His word pictures to illustrate the point. First, Jesus warns against offending “little ones” in the faith. In His day, the reference would have included the little ones we usually think of. In addition, however, it would also include others who, like children, are often ignored and overlooked as lesser persons. It would include people like Lazarus, the beggar in last week’s parable, and the “tax collectors and sinners” who often came to Jesus. These neophytes in the faith could fall away because of the careless behavior of those who are strong. The disciples were to be leaders. Their words and behavior were to be an example for others–not an offense to them.
The offense Jesus refers to is revealed in His Greek word skandalon. In ancient literature, it described the trigger of a trap or a lure into a snare. Many years later, Paul used the word to describe the possibility of causing weak Christians to sin by ignoring customs that they considered a moral issue. He wrote that if the possibility of eating meat offered to an idol would cause a weak brother or sister to sin, he would eat no meat at all!
In our day, new members of churches and those new to the faith are occasionally turned off forever by the caustic comments and criticisms of those who have sort of been around forever. It usually happens because new folks are not afraid to try new things. “Old” members may find that threatening, or oppose it for no other reason than they never did it that way before. When it causes the “little ones” to back off and slow down their projects, it is sad. When it causes them to fall away from the faith, Jesus says it would be better for the offending ones to be dropped into the sea with millstones (so large they must be turned by mules) tied to their necks!
Jesus’ second lesson is about forgiveness. He begins by saying that if we know people are sinning, we should rebuke them–point it out, rather than pretending it will just go away. When they repent, we are to forgive. In fact, even if this process occurs seven times in one day, we are to forgive over and over again. When the disciples heard that, they responded, “Lord, increase our faith!”
It is a fascinating response. Confronted with this same lesson today, most people would say, “You’ve got to be kidding!” The disciples knew Jesus was serious. They also knew He was asking a great deal, but most of all they knew it was impossible to do without a very strong faith. Jesus pointed out that it was not a matter of more or less faith, but of faith pure and simple. A faith the size of a mustard seed (pretty small) could make a Sycamine (Black Mulberry) tree be uprooted from its present spot and planted in the sea.
Jesus is not interested in Mulberry trees being planted in seas. The fact that the trees are known to have an extensive root system simply illustrated the extraordinary power of even a tiny faith. Jesus was interested in extraordinary, beyond the ordinary, forgiveness. The most unbelievable forgiveness in the world is that which He spoke from the cross. Yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe it. Our believing results in actions even more remarkable than moving mountains or Mulberries.
For too many people, faith is a noun or an object–something they keep in a file drawer, like a death insurance policy, or something they keep in their wallets, like that travelers’ check left over from the last vacation–in case of emergency. For Jesus, faith is more like a verb. It is the act of believing–the actions of believing! Faith is truly the force that is with us!
The final lesson is all parable. There was no eight-hour workday (let alone six) for servants in Jesus’ day. When a servant came in from working in the fields, he simply changed hats, removing his farm cap and donning a chef’s hat. Once he had prepared it, he would serve the dinner. Only then could he sit down and eat. Then he would clean it all up and hit the sack in preparation for the same thing tomorrow. He would not expect the master of the house to serve him dinner because the “poor dear” had worked so hard in the field, nor would he expect any commendation for preparing and serving dinner. That was his job. Jesus closed the story with: “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.'”
After reading this parable, an elderly gentleman entered his pastor’s office and announced, “Well, here I am, reporting for duty.” Somewhat surprised, the pastor asked what it was all about. The man shared his reading and then said: “A few months back I told you that I thought I had put in my years of service in the church…that it was time to let the younger ones do the work. Now I know that I have a calling, not a union contract. There is only one way to retire and you’re not going to preach my funeral for a long time. Besides, I miss it! I was successful in business, but I don’t miss working. I was happiest serving God as faithfully as I knew how. I can’t get along without that!”
A similar story comes from another church. A woman who had been Sunday school superintendent for 24 years was approached by one of the teachers. “I’ve been teaching for four years now,” he said, “and I’m ready for a break. You need to find someone to take over.” “I’ll do that,” said the super. Then she continued, “You know, I’ve thought about quitting this job many times, but God has never shown me a better way to serve Him, so I keep at it. How are you going to serve God now?”
It’s a better than average question. What is your answer?
Christ’s struggle against evil, intolerance, ignorance, selfishness, fear, hatred and every other force contrary to His way is our continuing struggle. Every time a battle is finished or a threshold is crossed, we need to turn to Him and say, “Well, Jesus, what’s next?”
I am convinced that we do not need some renewed zeal for duty. Duty too often has a sense of owing and paying something back. We could never pay Christ back for what He has already done, let alone what He continues to do every day. What we “little ones” need is the spiritual milk of the Word and Sacraments–the answer to: “Lord, increase our faith!”