It's Not About You! It's About Christ for You!
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A man, positive that he’s done enough good works to enter heaven, stands in line for the final judgment. Coincidentally, Mother Teresa is one spot ahead. The man then hears God saying, “Frankly, Teresa, I expected a whole lot more out of you.” (A Jeff Pulse sermon opener cited by Peter J. Scaer.)
Of course, like all such jokes with the judgment or entrance into the pearly gates as its theme, this one is also apocryphal. It’s never going to happen. But it does contain an element of truth. There isn’t anyone, even Mother Teresa, who is going to make it into heaven based upon good works or personal merits. All our righteousness is like filthy rags. Jesus says as much in our text, Luke 17:10: “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.”
Pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it east to accept, does it? How would you like to work for a boss like that? One, who in essence, tells you, “Don’t be expecting any ‘attaboys’ from me. You’re only doing your job. You’re barely meeting the minimum requirements.” Would you feel appreciated? Would you feel like a valued employee? Being in a sort of middle-management position at Wal-Mart I get to hear complaints about this kind of thing way too often: “Management doesn’t care about us.” “The only time they ever say anything is when I mess up; they never tell me when I’ve done a good job.”
Honestly, there are some workers who don’t deserve a whole lot of praise. Still, given today’s workplace dynamics, I can’t imagine any good manager coming right out and saying to his or her best employees, “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.’”
But what makes this verse doubly shocking is who speaks it. It’s not the manager of a modern business. It’s not a king addressing his subjects. It’s not even a master addressing one of his household slaves. It’s Jesus, speaking to His disciples, teaching them about sin and temptation, forgiveness and faith, salvation and judgment day, and how they all work together.
Jesus launches the first salvo: “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.”
It’s a two-fold announcement. A bitter pill to swallow. The word translated “temptation to sin” is skandala. We get the word “scandal” from it; something offensive, a stumbling block to faith. If you offend someone by your witness, it’s so serious a sin that it would be better to be thrown into the sea wearing a millstone necklace. And then, Jesus adds this little caveat: “By the way, it’s impossible that you won’t offend.”
This will play out publicly in the lives of the disciples. Peter will deny Christ three times and later must be rebuked by Paul for mixing works back into the Gospel. Or how about Judas who will betray his Master? And then there’s the whole bunch of disciples who will hide in fear after the crucifixion—refusing to believe what Jesus had taught them, refusing to believe the women who return from the empty tomb. Clearly, they will be guilty of an offensive witness that could lead many astray. Clearly, according to Jesus, they will each earn a fate worse than a terrible watery death.
And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus piles it on: “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.”
Another tough bit of Law. Why, it’s difficult enough to forgive someone once or twice when they’ve sinned against you… but seven times? Lifelong friendships are known to fall apart after a single transgression or a couple of perceived transgressions over a period of time. It happens! The ability and desire to forgive a transgressor repeatedly is beyond what you or I are able to muster.
Jesus’ disciples apparently realize their shortcomings and take the consequences seriously. So they say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” They reason that with more faith, they will be up to the challenge. They’ll be able to live without offense. They’ll be able to forgive. They just need more faith. Jesus replies, “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.”
So, if the disciples just had faith the size of a dinky little mustard seed, they could do something more spectacular than forgive and not offend? This leaves the disciples with one of two conclusions: either they don’t have much faith (because they can’t move trees by talking to them), or else they misunderstand faith. We’ll get back to that later on.
Like everyone else since Adam and Eve, the disciples are frail children of dust, a dangerous combination of egocentric sinner and self-righteous hypocrite. So Jesus seeks to strip them of any trust in themselves. Where they’ve thought they’re doing pretty good at toeing the line, He tells them that they haven’t even come close. And then, He delivers the knockout punch: “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’? 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’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 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.’”
Now, that’s a blow to the old ego. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the disciples are to excel. They manage through heroic efforts to live long lives in which they give no offense, and that they forgive everyone no matter how much they’ve been hurt. Let’s say that they make proper use of faith and even move a mulberry tree or two to the sea. It’s not going to happen, but let’s just say it does. What then? Do they deserve extra praise for going above and beyond the call of duty? Is the Lord especially pleased that they’ve done such an excellent job?
No. Even if the disciples do everything that they’re supposed to—if they’ve kept every last bit of the Law, then—finally!—they’ve only done what they were supposed to be doing all along. They’ve only achieved the level of unworthy servants. They’re finally meeting minimum expectations.
Do you see what Jesus tells His disciples? To them, pure and holy obedience of God’s Law is so impossible it seems that any improvement must count for something. They suppose that when someone is doing better than they were before, the Lord must be impressed. But Jesus says otherwise: When someone keeps all of God’s Law perfectly, when they have faith that can move a mulberry tree, when they’ve forgiven every wrong done by someone else, they’ve finally done the minimum of what God has been telling them all along. That’s a tough standard. Perfection is satisfactory, and nothing less comes close. Everything else merits worse than the millstone.
Is there any hope for the disciples? Yes. But first, let’s bring us into this sermon. You and I expect people to do their jobs. We’d don’t give fist bumps to the cashier for giving us the correct change at the checkout counter. We expect the correct change. Police officers don’t generally take the time to thank citizens for obeying the law. If they pull you over, it’s probably because you’ve done something wrong. Do you get the idea? When people do what they’re supposed to do, that doesn’t merit extra praise or a party. They’re only doing their duty.
You and I have jobs to do, different vocations that the Lord gives to us: employee, boss, parent, child, husband, wife, student, teacher, congregational member, citizen, etc. With each of those vocations comes a set of requirements, expectations, things to do—a lot of requirements, expectations, and things to do. And frankly, even though we expect other people just to quietly do their duty, we sure don’t mind some recognition and appreciation for all that we do.
But here’s where the rubber meets the road. When we figure we’ve done a pretty good job of being a Christian, we expect that that meets with the Lord’s approval. If we’ve done a little bit better at keeping the rules, we expect the Lord to take notice of our success. But it is really success?
The Lord warned His disciples against bringing offense. As a Christian, you are called to live a life that serves as a witness of God’s goodness and mercy. Any sin that you commit, then, has the potential of giving a bad witness, of causing offense to others; and it is certainly already an offense before almighty God.
So, do you ever grow impatient? Angry? Could you ever be caught looking at something you’re not supposed to? Doing something that you shouldn’t be doing? Do you ever participate in off-color humor, just to fit in? Ever nod approvingly at some sort of gossip or prejudice that’s being expressed? All of this brings offense and could cause someone to stumble. Therefore, the Lord says, for such sins it would be better for you to take a plunge in a millstone lifejacket.
Now, note this: Jesus doesn’t say that, if you offend less, that you’ll get a smaller millstone. You’re either sinless or you’re not, pretty good is not good enough. God doesn’t grade on a curve. In fact, if you live a perfect life where you cause no sinful offense to anyone, what does it mean? It means that you’ve finally done what you were supposed to be doing all along. It means no millstone; but it also means no special achievement, either. In fact, you’ve finally qualified to be called an unworthy servant, nothing more.
The Lord warned His disciples to forgive, even forgive the same sinner seven times in a day. But forgiveness doesn’t come easy to the Old Adam. We bear grudges far too easily, and it’s pretty natural for us to remember the sin and use it to our advantage later on. And we often mouth words of forgiveness even while we still resent the sin. Now, imagine someone sinning against you not once, but seven times in the same day! Each time, they say they’re sorry. What does the Lord require of you? What does He say about such a situation?
“Forgive him seven times, and more if necessary. And remember: if you do forgive him seven times, it doesn’t make you a super Christian. It means that you’ve finally done what you were supposed to be doing all along. You’ve finally reached the level of unworthy servant, nothing more.”
Do you see what the Lord tells us here? His Law demands the impossible—obedience that we cannot do. And even if we did the impossible, it wouldn’t be anything special. It would only be our duty. No wonder the disciples said, “Increase our faith!” So we should also pray.
But be careful here, too, because so many misunderstand faith. Sadly, many teach that faith is something that enables you to do whatever miracles you desire and that as your faith increases you can actually stop sinning in this life. But if that’s the case, then faith is something that teaches you to rely on you, not Christ—as long as you believe enough in Jesus, you can use His power to do what you want. Maybe you can be perfect, show yourself to be a worthy servant before God.
But all of that’s wrong. It misunderstands faith in a way that takes the focus off of Christ and puts it onto you. When that happens, you’re a most unworthy servant indeed. In our text, Jesus is doing His best to strip from you any sort of hope that would fail you, so that you might trust in Him alone. The faith He gives isn’t going to do the opposite and teach you to trust in your own works and power of believing.
It’s not about you! It’s about Christ for you! Properly understood, faith is God’s gift to you, and faith is what believes the Word and all the promises of God. And it is by this faith that you are delivered from the millstone around the neck and everlasting condemnation. Faith believes what God says about His Law and the consequences of breaking it. Old Adam says, “I’ll show God that I’m good enough.” Faith, on the other hand, acknowledges the brutal truth. By faith, you confess, “I am a sinner, for I have failed to keep God’s Law. For that, I deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. Even if I kept God’s Law perfectly, I would only be doing what was expected of me; therefore, my far-from-perfect works do nothing to save me.” In other words, faith acknowledges the truth that you are sinful and need a Savior, as Scripture declares. So moved to contrition and repentance, your faith delights to hear what the Bible says about your Savior, Jesus Christ. Hear this Gospel now, that your faith might be strengthened.
Jesus was the worthy Servant for you. As the Son of God become flesh, He kept God’s Law and obeyed His Father’s will perfectly. He did this for you in order to make up for your sins, to credit you with His perfect obedience. Faith trusts and rejoices that Jesus became flesh and lived a perfect life for you. The worthy Servant became the suffering Servant for the sins of the world. Rather than hang the millstone around your neck for your sins and offenses, God the Father hung that weight of sin on the shoulders of His Son as He hung upon the cross. Because Jesus took your guilt and suffered your sin, He now declares you “not guilty,” forgiven. And because He is the Lamb who was slain, He is worthy of more than recognition for His holiness. He is worthy of all power, riches, honor, wisdom, strength, glory and blessing (Revelation 5:12).
But that’s not all folks! The Lord doesn’t stop there. Risen again from the dead, He comes to you to increase your faith. Remember His story in the text, where he speaks of the master who rightly expects his servant to serve him a meal. According to the Law of God, you’re less than an unworthy servant. Even if you do not sin, you’ve only done your duty. You haven’t earned the right to sit at the table while your master waits upon you. However, according to the Gospel, that’s exactly what Jesus does! According to the Gospel, you’re far more than a servant. You are His beloved child whom He’ll feed and nurture now and forever.
Through His means of grace, the Lord gives and maintains your faith. He enables you to do what you could not do yourselves. Things like believe, confess, enter heaven, speak the truth, rebuke the sinner, and forgive the penitent. Here in His house, your Master serves you. As He washed His disciples’ feet and pronounced them clean, He washes you and pronounces you clean in the water and Word of Holy Baptism. He welcomes you to His Supper and feeds you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sin and to strengthen you faith. He speaks words of healing as He forgives your sins in His absolution.
It’s not about you! It’s about Christ for you! There is, then, no room for pride which would try to earn points toward heaven. Nor need you sink into despair because of your sin. No, you need not fear being unworthy, for the Master makes you worthy, declaring you to be His beloved child. More than seven times, but again and again He declares this gracious good news: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.