Duty and Devotion
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2022
“Duty and Devotion”
Within the last month, the eyes of the world were focused on Britain with the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8. Having served as Queen for an unbelievable seventy years, she was the only monarch that many British citizens ever knew. Her funeral on September 19, with its great ceremony and ritual, was watched by millions of people not only in Britain, but around the world. The day after the Queen’s death (Friday, September 9), The Washington Post carried this large headline: “A Pillar of Duty and Devotion.” That is how the Queen understood herself and that is how many in her country and beyond understood and viewed her as well. In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus’ closing words in the final verse remind us of our own calling as his disciples: “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’” (Luke 17:10). That becomes the theme for today’s message, entitled “Duty and Devotion.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
We are not told of the context in which Jesus spoke these words. He was in conversation with his disciples, but exactly when or under what circumstances are not shared with us. It begins with a warning: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1). The original word for “temptations” (σκάνδαλον) is far more descriptive, and denotes the trigger of a trap used in catching animals. This word is the basis of our own word, “scandal.” Temptations, offenses, can bring with them scandal, which undermines faith and trust not just in ourselves, but in those around us, all of which leads people away from God and into sin. This is the warning that Jesus gives to his disciples then and now. So serious is this that Jesus says it would be better it “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” (Luke 17:2). Anyone who’s ever been to a working mill and seen one of these things in person knows that you don’t want this thing around your neck. “These little ones” (Luke 17:3) are not children, but people who are new or immature believers, and so especially susceptible to being led astray into sin. If Jesus is taking the cause of leading others into sin so seriously, then we must also.
Jesus goes on from here to tell us one of the ways that people can be led into sin is by refusing to forgive them. That’s real, isn’t it? Most people struggle with what it means to forgive at some point in life. To be wronged, hurt or mistreated by another person is never easy. If that is a deep or longstanding grievance, forgiveness almost never comes easily or quickly. We may need help to work our way through this, not just for the other person, but for ourselves. Jesus calls us to something different than an unforgiving attitude or indifference. He teaches us to call out the offending behavior in order to bring about a God-given change of heart and mind, what Scripture calls “repentance” (μετανοέω). It is a turning around; an about-face that leads to walking in a new direction in life. Is this easy? Usually not. Is it needed? Usually yes. It is not about being in a superior position to point out someone else’s faults so that we might have some advantage or power over the other person. No, it is about the love of Jesus that leads us to love others, even when they are unlovable, because that is exactly what Jesus has done for us. As we have been loved and forgiven by Jesus, so we are to love and forgive others, even up to seven times in a day, which is to say, without limitation. This is our duty and devotion.
Because Jesus touched on something that can be so difficult – forgiveness – the disciples cry out in response: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). That should be our own prayer as well. We are going to need an increase in faith in order to live out what Jesus calls us to do. We pray with those first disciples: “Give us more faith; give us stronger faith.” As Jesus makes clear, the power of faith is strong, doing things that seem as impossible as planting a tree in the ocean. But our faith must be in accord with God’s own will and purpose to accomplish what he wants done rather than what we want done. It’s not the quantity of faith, but its genuineness, that is at the heart of the matter here. Faith as small as a mustard seed can do great things.
The astonishing power of faith might lead those who possess it to start thinking that they have some exalted status as servants of God. Jesus’ words here remind us that we are just that: servants of God, nothing more and nothing less. In the final verse of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “when you have done all that you were commanded” (Luke 17:10), and that’s the kicker right there. Can we, in fact, do all that we have been commanded by God? Can anyone? It is true that Jesus tells us, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), but our perfection does not lie in our own obedience and good works. As long as we are in this life, that obedience and those good works will always be tainted with sin and imperfection, no matter how upstanding and righteous these may appear. We have no claim on God except through the obedience and righteousness of God’s own Son, Jesus, whose blood covers all our sin (1 John 1:7). God does not owe us some kind of reward, although Scripture does reveal that God does, in fact, reward good works (see Mark 9:41). Any reward that comes to us from God is based entirely on God’s grace that is given solely through his goodness and mercy, not because of our merit.
At the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world, we can only say in all truth and with all humility: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). Amen.