By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 2, 2022
Luke 17:5–10 (ESV)
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”
Today we listen to one of the hardest parables Jesus gives. The parable of the unworthy servant. This parable is difficult because it seems to go against so much of our ideas about God.
I have been a pastor for twenty years. I just realized this as I was studying. Twenty years. You might think that after that amount of time I would not be surprised about what I read in scripture, but I am every single day I open my bible. I am surprised because I am always learning. I am always growing. The moment we stop learning, the moment we say we know all we need to know is the moment we stop growing. And in that moment, when growth ceases, atrophy begins to set in. And when our spiritual life begins to atrophy, we die. We shrivel up and dry out. We were once grapes on a vine, but now we are little more than raisins. Raisins are nice for some people but they are nothing like a plump grape. Some might go as far as to say that they are nothing like the original fruit.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” There is sort of a transitional moment here. We know Jesus’s closest followers by two titles: disciples and apostles. We tend to use them interchangeably but there is a difference. A disciple is a student, or one who follows. When we regard those that are in a cooperate ministry with Jesus as disciples, Jesus is the one that is doing the work and everyone else is either assisting him directly or are just listening. An apostle is slightly different. To be an apostle you first need to be a disciple. You need to know the teachings of your rabbi, or his yoke. This is what Jesus is speaking about when he makes that famous statement that we all quote on our worst days: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV) This is his teaching, his manner of life, it is his lifestyle. This is the armor of God that Paul encourages us to put on, it is not armor but the yoke or the lifestyle of Christ.
Once a disciple has put on the yoke of a rabbi, they conform to the teachings and the directions of the rabbi. They follow his pathway and walk in his way. While in the yoke you are walking side by side with the teacher. Eventually as you have walked as a disciple, as you have grown into the yoke of the rabbi’s teaching you are then sent out to take that teaching to others. This is an apostle. The sent ones, the envoy or representative of the rabbi. Today we begin to see a movement from disciple to apostle. At the beginning of this chapter Luke writes, “And he said to his disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.’” Jesus says this to his disciples.
That is a heavy burden. What happened to the whole my yoke is easy stuff? Well, a yoke is still a yoke. One does not wear a yoke unless there is a reason. Jesus is showing them the seriousness of this lifestyle. He is showing them that to follow him, to be his disciple is difficult. It is difficult because a disciple of Jesus is more than a disciple, but apostles. In verse five, “The apostles said to the Lord,” do you see the transition. Do you feel the burden being transferred.
We go into this teaching right after the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, so I want to make sure we have the proper context because so often these verses are used improperly. Remember last week I mentioned that the rich man was not sinful because he was rich, but because he had the power to do something and yet did not use it to lift up the entire community, but instead he used his influence to continue to fund his own extravagance. Jesus follows this story with the teaching on temptations to sin. The temptation he is speaking of is the temptation of the rich. The temptation to neglect the community around you so that you can have more. And if we then train the little ones to live that same lifestyle, we have created something of horror, government.
I say this in jest, yes, but there is truth to it. We create a cycle of rich and poor, or exploiter and the exploited. And this cycle crushes those within. We might think that it only crushes the poor, but we would be wrong. Just look at history. Every tyrant that exploits his/her people live in fear of the people they rule. They are all crushed and that is why the millstone analogy is so fitting. But when we are tempted to live the lifestyle of rich and poor, those with power and those without, we perpetuate this system. These are the governments or the kingdoms of men. Crushing force used against crushing force so that we can use crushing force some more. This is why I say all war is inhumane, it is because it shows the horror of governments. And yes, I do think some governments are better than others, but all kingdoms of men are based on those that have and those that have not. They are filled with people that will use their power and influence to gain more at the expense of others. And this is the temptation that Jesus is warning us about. We were called to something different. We were called to break the crushing cycle of retribution and exploitation. We are called to forgive.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” notice again, they are no longer disciples but apostles. Jesus had just told them to pay attention to themselves, because they are being sent out into the world to break the cycles of exploitive power. And they look at themselves and they each see where they are weak. Remember these are people that believe that Jesus is going to be the king, the Messiah that will restore Israel to its greatest glory. They want to be the wielders of power. Some even sent their mother plea for the best seats in this emerging power structure. The desire to exert power over others is alluring. The apostles recognized that they had these powerful desires, so they ask that Jesus would increase their faith.
What are they asking or what are they saying? We are your apostles, if you increase our faith, we could use the power of men better than all the others. Give us more and we will break the cycles. Increase our abilities and we will overcome the world.
Jesus says to them, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
This is a sad parable. So often we look at this from the perspective of increase. If we just had the faith of a mustard seed, we could be healed. If only you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could have wealth. If only you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could have everything your heart desired. Increase our faith!
This is not what Jesus is saying. He says, “if you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea. And it would obey you.” The other gospel accounts have similar statements about faith but Luke’s is different. In other discussions about faith like a mustard seed a mountain is being moved but in Luke it’s a mulberry tree. In the other accounts we are led to believe that with just a little faith, the impossible can be done. They are filled with hope that if we trust Jesus even the most immovable objects could be brought low. But Luke speaks of a tree being uprooted.
Why a tree and what does this have to do with faith? I come from an agricultural background so of course the mention of plants piques my interest. A mulberry tree, some would say that Jesus is speaking of a sycamore or a fig tree, but from my study I think mulberry is proper. But this tree is a weed. It is an invasive species that the Hebrew people had laws or teachings about. You are not to allow this type of tree to grow within seventy-five feet of a cistern. Why? Because this tree has deep roots. The roots will break into the cistern and it will deplete your water supply. I grew up on a dry land farm in Kansas so this is important to me. In arid farming water is more important than gold. You will adjust your practices to make sure you keep the maximum amount of water stored in the soils so that the crops can use it. Trees as beautiful as they are, are a plague to crops and to range lands.
I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and during my childhood there was a massive fire that went through Yellowstone National Park, and forest fires were of great interest to our nation. We had ad campaigns with Smoky the Bear telling us that only you can prevent forest fires. And this raised our awareness to the dangers of uncontained fires within a forest. But this campaign had a consequence that many do not recognize, it caused us to focus on forests too much and we neglected other ecosystems. Trees growing in an area with lower water availability are environmentally devastating. A tree will suck the water out of the soil causing the area surrounding it unable to support further growth. We often think it is only the shade that prevents growth but there is more to it. We love trees, and even I love trees, but when we allow trees to grow in Kansas or in other areas that were naturally plains, we cause water shortages. These shortages are becoming more apparent over the recent years.
The Hebrew people understood that certain trees caused greater problems. And the mulberry tree was one such tree. The problem with trees like this, is that they are aggressive. They want to grow, if you look out in our own church yard you will see evidence of this. We recently cut down two trees in front of our building and from the roots every week saplings are attempting to grow. Hundreds of them trying to grow and establish themselves. Once a tree starts, more will emerge. And once they take hold, they are difficult to eliminate. Smoky Bear told us, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” but the range management researchers at Kansas State had their own campaign to support the systematic burning of grasslands, Blazey the Bison says only you can prevent forests.
Jesus directs the apostles’ attention to this invasive species, this mulberry tree. Once it gets established it will continually seek to grow. It will continually seek to leech the soil of the necessary water and nutrients until it leaves the community arid and depleted of everything of value. Only you can prevent forests.
The apostles say to Jesus increase our faith, and he is telling them you are already infected. The tree is already growing and you are powerless to prevent it. The corruption of power has already taken root and is sucking the water from your cisterns, and you have accepted it. It is not about increasing our faith, but that we are not even in the right place. We want the increase; we are currently Lazarus but we want to be the rich man. We want to switch the balance of power to back the current poor instead of the current rich. But we fail to recognize that if the system does not change all that does is start the cycle anew, only we are the rich that are exploiting the poor.
This rightfully shocks the apostles. They thought that Jesus was on their side. They thought that the whole reason for the Messiah was to restore Israel to a seat of power. We often get trapped in that trap as well. We like to think that God is indebted to us. We do good works, so we should be repaid. We twist the teaching of Jesus when he says store up treasures in heaven, and we believe that we can command God to release those storehouses to bless us here on earth. But that mindset is sin, it misses the mark.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping seep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” Jesus reminds them of life. We live within the systems of men. We are currently under these systems, and we must work within those systems. They lived in a system of masters and servants. The servants do the work in the fields and they come in from the field and they prepare the table for the landowner. They have a duty that they must fulfill or trouble will occur.
“Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?” The answer is no because they do what is expected of them. If they refused to do what is expected they will be punished, but we should not expect paise for meeting the expectations. A student that usually gets c’s on their report card that continues to achieve a c average is not going to get special recognition. But what if they get an A instead? And what happens if the student that usually gets A’s suddenly brings home a C? Expectations are all around us, and I admit that these expectations often annoy me. I work hard for what I have, and when I cannot afford to buy something for my son, it really annoys me when he complains. Is it not enough that I have met the expectations? The reality is that we do not get praised for what we are supposed to do.
“So you also,” Jesus continues, “when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Jesus is telling us something profound in this parable. We have a great challenge before us. We have mulberry trees sucking the water out of our cisterns. We are constantly attempting to pull the weeds, to trim back the brush, and to clear the fields. We are struggling hard to do what is right in the eyes of God and of men. We are working and working. But often we get distracted. We feel as if we are being exploited, we feel poor and we want to be rich.
We want to be the ones that call the shots, we want to have the power. We cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” We want to be plump grapes, but often we are dried up raisins. Increase we say. But are we living in faith? Are we walking within the yoke of Christ? The temptation of power is all around us, some of us might wield some of that power within the systems of men. But how are we using that power? Are we perpetuating the crushing cycles of the kingdoms of men, or are we breaking those cycles? The mustard seeds of faith cannot take root while the mulberry trees are depleting the soils. Repent. We want increase but before we can obtain that we first must do our duty.
God created our first parents and placed them in the Garden, and he commanded them to go into the world and spread that garden. But in our desire of greater knowledge, we listened to the deceiver instead of God, and in our desire of knowledge of good and evil we brought death into the world. Our duty remains, we are still called to spread the influence of God throughout the world. We want recognition for this, but we are doing our duty. Does God honor us when we participate with him in this ministry, yes. He gives us life through Jesus. He grafts us into the vine once again and we can again produce grapes instead of something dry and shriveled. We are restored to our place, but that does not mean we have the right to take on the role of the exploiters. That is contrary to the will of God, and that is sin. We are simply called to do our duty. We are called to become people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is our duty and that is our glory. Serve God first and afterward you will eat and drink. Afterward we will share in the feast of the lamb.
We are servants yes. We are called from the beginning of time to participate in God’s creation to extend the borders of Eden throughout the earth. But we are more than mere servants, we are Friends because we know what our master is doing. We have knowledge of his plans and we are called to participate and reason with him as we go out into the world to perform the duties, he has entrusted to us. We have honor only when we stay connected to him. The moment we begin to think too highly of ourselves we begin to walk away from him. That is why we as Friends sit in silence, so that we can commune and communicate with God. We read the scriptures, we discuss and we study, we serve and we minister, but we must constantly return and know that He is God and we are servants. And in the silence, we allow God to remove the Mulberry trees and to break the millstones that hang around our necks. We sit in the silence not because we have the strength in ourselves to do our duty but because we need him to restore what the weeds have diminished. The only way we can have increase in our faith is when we return to him. When we repent and acknowledge that he is God and submit to his leadership in all that we do.
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