Courage and Imagination in Ministry

Steed V. Davidson—October 6, 2010

Luke 17:7–10

Parables make interesting reading and preaching material. Quite often because of their simplicity we believe that we know how to interpret them. Further, because we think that parables function like similes we engage in a relentless drive to identify equivalents in parables. Quite often this approach not only misreads parables, it makes for less than appealing readings. This appears to be the case with this parable of Jesus, peculiar to the gospel of Luke, couched in a number of sayings in Luke. This location for the parable needs to be borne in mind lest we think that we have a continuous narrative rather than a cluster of sayings.

Like several Lukan parables, this one pays attention to the household context of Jesus’ day. It features a master and a slave. Various translations reflect discomfort about whether doulos is really servant or slave, but the NRSV correctly translates it based upon the relationship described here. Yet the translation of doulos seems to be one of the least troubling aspects about the interpretation of this parable. Any conversation about slavery in the Bible becomes refracted through the lens of the history of slavery in this country in good and bad ways. And this surfaces as most interpreters refrain from critiquing what appears to be an abusive relationship. Jesus raises the question as to whether a master exercises compassion for a hardworking slave at the end of the day or insists on more thankless service. Not only do we find little comment or even discomfort about this reality in most commentaries, this description seems normal, in fact acceptable to most interpreters.

Jesus outlines the actions of a slave master. Do you say to your slave at the end of the day come sit with me and let us relax because you have worked faithfully? Or do slave masters insist that their slaves work the fields, tend the sheep, and serve at table without rest? And even after recognizing that this may have well been an overloaded day, the slave master offers no favor or appreciation. Well the general consensus in the interpretive tradition of this text appears to be the former. Slave owners work their slaves to the bone and get as much as they can out of them. And perhaps this is true in slave systems in history. But do you think that the question Jesus poses here requires silence or someone to come forward and to say me?

Let us consider the notion that many believe that Jesus asks this question of the apostles, bearing in mind that for Luke “the twelve” constitutes the apostles. The only thing that leads us to believe this is addressed to “the twelve” lies in their identification in v. 5 asking for an increased faith. The presumption that the response of Jesus in v. 6 continues into v. 7 may be warranted, except when we stop to ask which of the twelve he could be addressing with this question. The question presumes a group of slave-owners. Which ones of “the twelve” would fall into this group? Yet constantly you would read of the application of the message of this parable to discipleship and the necessity of accepting that discipleship stands either as its own reward or that you gain no favor from God for discipleship.

The image of God portrayed in the standard interpretation of the parable appears even more troubling. To equate the apostles with the slave and consequently disciples of Jesus in every age with a spiritual slavery turns God into the slave owner. We already have interpretations that gloss over the issue of overworked slaves, now we have divine sanction for such actions. It becomes problematic to affirm that the actions of the slave owner appear as normal way to treat a slave, but it appears even more worrisome to suggest that God treats disciples as slaves, overworked disciples, pays no regard to the well being of disciples, and even worse offers no grace, no favor, no thanks to disciples. Much of this interpretive trend arises from the necessity of avoiding works righteousness in this passage. Most interpreters remain convinced that an interpretation that says yes a slave can be thanked or better yet be given favor or grace opens up the door for persons to claim that God owes them something for their work. Of course, keeping God as the abusive slave owner seems preferable, because if the slave owner’s actions equate with those of God then the social structure is affirmed. If God’s actions normalize this treatment of a slave by calling it discipleship then issues of work, reward for work, treatment of slaves and slave systems get taken off the table.

Should Jesus’ words here be directed to a group of slave owners, and indeed they should be so read, then what point does Jesus make to them? It seems then that Jesus puts them in the category of slaves. If the punch line of the parable lies in v. 10 then Jesus says to those who are addressed as slave-owners in v. 7 that they remain “worthless slaves” in the end. Certainly such an interpretation alters the way we read the parable as well as its impact. That parables take their effectiveness from their dissimilarity makes such a reading possible. What does it mean for slave owners to be called slaves at the end of the day? They who walk around as the captains of industry, they who command the economy, direct the affairs of state, grease the wheels of power? That they too are slaves suggest that their power stands only as a phantasm. Slave-owners like slaves exist in a web of power where they too act like slaves to the system, slaves to greed, slaves to the ideas of superiority, slaves to principles that convince them that they know what is good for everyone and good for society. They no more control power than they are controlled by external powers. And if Jesus speaks to that group then this parable inverts that power on its head and makes a mockery of slave owning.

The original question that frames this parable also proves instructive for our interpretation of the parable. Rhetorical questions serve various functions and at times we believe that the answer to these questions lie right before our face. The question, “who among you would say” implies the answer no one. Yet it may well stand as a challenge to someone in the crowd to step forward and say yes, I treat my slaves differently. I operate with different principles. I do not always look at the bottom line. I am sensitive to their needs because if I keep working valuable slaves I will lose them all too quickly. I show favor and grace to my slaves so that they may want to stay in my household much longer. I am different. The question may well pose a challenge to some slave-owner to show courage and step outside of the system and not be counted as a slave to the system dutifully supporting something that debases and dehumanizes.

Should we read the parable this way, and then we hear Jesus calling us to act counter culturally and move against the system. We people of faith can easily identify those systems in the world that require our resistance. However, we all too often fail to see the system that we are a part of as problematic. That slave-owner and the social position of the slave remain in the Church’s vocabulary in an uncritical and unexamined way up to today speaks volumes for the Church’s understanding of ministry and those who perform ministry. That ministry and the institutions of ministry become its own system with its unique culture, its own apparatus for rewards and punishments, its mechanism for advancement, its rules to play by to get along and get by suggests that we too need to critically hear this parable. The issue becomes not whether we earn God’s favor or not by our works, but that we wish to remove God from being gracious to those who serve suggests the construction of an apparatus of power to control the lives of those who serve the church. As persons called to serve God in the church and the world we can hear in this parable the challenge to be different from the system and to declare courageously my service will not be that of a slave to the system. An insistence that our practice of ministry will not lead to us being captured and oppressed by systems and thoughts that restrict human thriving, that seek to replicate traditions just for their own sakes, and that keep wheels turning without a sense of direction and purpose. This parable challenges us as to whether in the practice of ministry we find freedom or enslavement.

In these days the church and the world need persons with the courage to be in ministry in a radically different way. This radically different calls upon us to redefine what we understand by ministry not so much from the perspective of what the church needs, but more so what does service to God look like in today’s age. Today the world cries out for persons of faith who would provide more than the usual, more than the expected, break outside of the normal and dare to be different to dismantle the systems that hinder the full liberation of all persons. Now more than ever we need persons who will act against the normal and respectable church culture to fashion new communities of faith, new avenues where persons can encounter God and the grace of God in liberating and renewing ways. Now more than at anytime in the history of the Church and its service to the world ministry requires persons with excitement and enthusiasm unrestricted by the system. Such persons require moral courage. A moral courage that knows that being different is not tied to their worth or determines their worth. It is a moral courage that understands that even in acting against the culture they claim no special or elite status but merely act out their freedom to serve God as joyous loyal committed workers for God. This courage means that we do not play it safe in the performance of ministry. It means resisting the seductions of the system that call us to comfort, predictability, security and ultimately to control. This courage to stand up and stand out means being unafraid to fail and in fact expects mistakes and failures to occur. But this way of serving takes imagination, the imagination that Jesus speaks of in v. 6 to say to the mulberry tree be uprooted and it would obey you. The imagination to be daringly different not simply doing an old thing anew, the imagination to bold in our thinking not merely affirming existing structures to have our way, the imagination to pioneer new ground not reinscribe old habits. This imagination comes from faith in God. An imagination based upon faith in a God who empowers, renews, releases, restores, recovers and resends God’s workers into the world refreshed and energized to serve. This imagination sees service to God through the Church in the world in different ways and responds when Jesus asks, “who among you would” act apart from the crowd, stand out from the normal and the everyday, and be willing to find your freedom in true service.

This parable calls us to see our service to God not in the structure of slave systems but in the freedom of service to a loving God. Ministry in today’s world needs the freedom of service that enthusiastic workers bring. Augustine’s famous prayer helps us to refashion our approach to service by basing it upon our unconditional love for God. In this pray Augustine recognizes the mind and the heart as sites for service. He sees knowledge and love as the basis for serving God. And in so doing we joyfully serve finding our freedom in service to a gracious and loving God:

O Thou who art the light of minds that know Thee, the life of the souls that love Thee, and the strength of the wills that serve Thee. Help us so to know Thee that we may truly love Thee, so to love Thee that we may fully serve Thee, whose service is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.