Monday, June 1, 2009

Be on your guard!

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’

The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’

- Luke 17:1-10

At first reading, this passage looks rather hard indeed. It's preceded by a teaching on mercy, and the importance of realizing in our lifetimes the need we have to listen to those who have come before us preaching mercy and the essential equality of all people before God (the story of Lazarus and the rich man). Those who fail to practice mercy or compassion have truly failed in their duty to listen to the prophets, and to undertake to follow spiritual teachings.

Jesus emphasizes here the duty of the disciples and followers themselves. There are certain things - teachings - they must obey. Compassion and mercy are the rule of his kingdom and if we fail to do our duty to show this ourselves, then we fail as disciples. He sets down instructions for how to deal with transgressions. While the consequences of hurting one who has less power ("little ones") than oneself are serious in this discipline, forgiveness after repentance is the rule. It doesn't matter how many times offense and repentance happens - forgiveness is the rule. And rebuke for transgressions - speaking honestly - is also the rule.

I feel that once again Jesus illustrates using a strong and potent example to make his point about faith (the mustard seed and the mulberry tree) - and this is not meant to be taken literally! The word "slave" used here is translated as "servant" in other versions. (I must admit I found it rather strange to think that the fishermen and others who are his followers would have the means to be slave owners.) But, as usual, Jesus is illustrating a point. The "slaves" are meant to be understood as those who serve Christ. Disciples are to be servants. To do our "job" as disciples is to be of service, to follow the rule of mercy or compassion is merely to be doing the dutiful job of a follower. Jesus realizes - in these "hard" teachings - that he asks a lot of those who follow. But he reminds them, and us, that this is what is expected of those who are members of this kingdom and who are themselves teachers - and examples - of the faith.

Elsewhere, Jesus says that "my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:20). For myself I think it is important to remember that we are bound by certain teachings, the "logic of the kingdom" and its rule of mercy and compassion - or even simple kindness, and the modest humility that is its natural component. I don't think it's inappropriate to think of this as a duty, something to which we are bound through identity - a chosen identity. To identify ourselves as Christian means we bear a duty to act as a Christian, if only to serve as an example of our faith. So often, I have found, it is in this oh-so-stressed quality in Jesus' teachings that we fail to live out our faith. Thankfully, I don't have to be perfect in my expression - but I have the duty to try.

G.K. Chesterton is famously quoted as saying, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." Lord, increase our faith.

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