Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Luke 17:1-10 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 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. 3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” 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.'”
Everyone likes praise and recognition. Everyone likes a “way-to-go!” or a “high five” when achieving success. Everyone likes to be thanked for hard work. Whether it’s a cake-and-punch reception for “employee of the month” or coffee and donuts expressing appreciation for church volunteers, people like praise and recognition.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus waved a red flag against those craving praise and recognition. Instead of desiring appreciation for our efforts, servants of the Lord should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (v 10).
Why did Jesus wave the red flag? Because he knows his apostles. And he knows you and me. He knows the human condition: sinful pride by nature. Pride showed itself in wanting to be like God back in the Garden of Eden. So Jesus waved the red flag not only to keep our sinful egos in check but also to destroy our pride and encourage us to follow him in his humility.
Why did the apostles need a “humility reminder”? They needed a reminder because Jesus is here calling them to service that will be very tough, even frightening, but might also become dangerously ego inflating.
Earlier in this section from Luke, Jesus gave lengthy instruction to the Twelve centered on caring for the “little ones,” meaning the least, the lowly, the “tax collectors and sinners” (15:1). These “little ones” are those unlikely believers who trust in Jesus, in contrast to the arrogant Pharisees who felt no need to repent. Jesus exhorted his Twelve to care for these sinners who have died to their own attempts to justify themselves. And so he instructed the Twelve not to cause any stumbling blocks for these “little ones.” Furthermore, he exhorted his Twelve to forgive constantly the sins of those who repent: “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’?” (vv 1–3).
In response to this instruction, the apostles, almost in so many words, said, “What you want us to do is tough! Give us power to do it! Increase our faith!” The apostles acknowledged that constant forgiving is tough. Preserving these repentant souls from stumbling is tough too. Frankly, it was a terrifying call to service! But Jesus responded with encouragement. Even though the apostles are terrified—they perceive their faith as needing to be increased—Jesus says that they have enough faith. Faith, whether small or big, is a gift from God. God will give them the faith they need to accomplish these tasks.
Following instruction and encouragement, Jesus addressed a temptation to which the apostles might yield as a result of any success in this tough, terrifying calling. This was the temptation of an inflated ego. This temptation is why Jesus gave the apostles a humility reminder: “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’?” (vv 7–10).
Should the disciples find success in preserving believers from stumbling and in constantly forgiving, Jesus told the Twelve they shouldn’t feel they “deserve” any praise and recognition. They simply were doing their duty; they were doing what Jesus expected them to do. Indeed, Jesus humbled his apostles. He beat down their natural human pride and sinful desire to feel that some celebration over their success should take place. No donut-and-coffee reception between services! No “apostle of the month” award ceremony for the apostle who forgave more sins than others. Jesus reminds them that they are “unworthy servants,” that they have “only done what was [their] duty.” Those words apply to you and me as well.
At times, this call to humility is hard for us to accept. This call is hard to accept because we have a natural disposition that craves attention—a disposition that makes us covet the spotlight, makes us boastful and proud of all our successful accomplishments, whether accomplishments in our family, at our job, in our church, or in other vocations into which God places us. And, as it turns out, this calling is rather thankless.
We may feel that calling attention to our successes is justified because doing our duty is tough. After all, serving as a godly husband or wife in sickness and in health, serving as a faithful parent when adolescence pushes all our buttons, serving as an honest employee or employer when temptation arrives to cheat the company or to cheat an employee out of time or money, serving as a patient youth or widow or widower dealing with loneliness and sexual temptation—all of this serving is tough. Furthermore, aside from these vocations, constantly forgiving those who sin against us, as our Lord exhorts us in the Lord’s Prayer, tests our compassion and love for others.
Yet Jesus encourages us as he encouraged the apostles. You have faith, which he gives you. Your faith rests on him, your Savior, who, on account of your natural disposition to inflate your pride, to call attention to your vocational successes, took the punishment you deserved. You have not done your duty perfectly. You do not deserve praise and recognition for what you have done. You deserve only death and eternal punishment for what you have done.
But Jesus did his duty perfectly with humility, as the Father’s obedient Servant. By his perfect life and innocent death, Jesus absorbed the Father’s divine punishment on the cross rightly directed at you for your proud, self-aggrandizing attitude. In your place, Jesus received the punishment you deserved. On the cross Jesus paid for your sins. You are forgiven! In your baptism you were clothed with Christ and his righteousness now covers you. Now God says to you, “Well done my good and faithful servant,” because what He sees when he looks at you is the service of his Son, Jesus.
Baptized into his death and resurrection, you no longer require recognition based on your success of serving in the challenging vocational responsibilities God gives you. Instead of coveting praise from others, you rest on Jesus’ service for you, his taking your sin and death. Because you are in Christ, his humble service is the object of your faith. His serving, regularly served to you in the Lord’s Supper, gives you strength to go about doing your Christian duty as God’s humble servant, loving God and loving your neighbor, in the various vocations God gives you.
What if you are selected “mother of the year” or “volunteer of the month” or “most productive employee”? Maybe the “employee of the month” parking spot is yours! Jesus doesn’t say to shun these demonstrations of appreciation. Jesus’ words instead instruct us Christians on how we are to accept gratitude.
Living in Jesus’ Service for Us,
We Now Receive Recognition as God’s Servants
Who Simply Do Their Duty.
We accept gratitude as servants, living in Jesus’ service for us, servants who in response to God’s love for us in Christ humbly say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” Amen.