Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Luke 17: 5-10, Service and slavery in the ministry of the Church
Luke 17: 5-10
5 Καὶ εἶπαν οἱ ἀπόστολοι τῷ κυρίῳ, Πρόσθες ἡμῖν πίστιν. 6 εἶπεν δὲ ὁ κύριος, Εἰ ἔχετε πίστιν ὡς κόκκον σινάπεως, ἐλέγετε ἂν τῇ συκαμίνῳ [ταύτῃ], Ἐκριζώθητι καὶ φυτεύθητι ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ: καὶ ὑπήκουσεν ἂν ὑμῖν.
7 Τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν δοῦλον ἔχων ἀροτριῶντα ἢ ποιμαίνοντα, ὃς εἰσελθόντι ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Εὐθέως παρελθὼν ἀνάπεσε, 8 ἀλλ' οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω, καὶ περιζωσάμενος διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ; 9 μὴ ἔχει χάριν τῷ δούλῳ ὅτι ἐποίησεν τὰ διαταχθέντα; 10 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ποιήσητε πάντα τὰ διαταχθέντα ὑμῖν, λέγετε ὅτι Δοῦλοι ἀχρεῖοί ἐσμεν, ὃ ὠφείλομεν ποιῆσαι πεποιήκαμεν.
5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6 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.
7 ‘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”? 8 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”? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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!”.’
Serving without reward
The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday week [6 October 2013], the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, are: Lamentations 1: 1-6; Psalm 137: 1-6; II Timothy 2: 1-14; Luke 17: 5-10.
The Gospel reading (Luke 17: 5-10) is a short one. Do you find it difficult to preach on a short reading, compared with a long reading?
In this reading, we are told that our relationship with God makes obedience to God a duty to be fulfilled and not an occasion for reward.
The apostles in this reading have asked for an increase in faith. But I imagine, once again, like so many other occasions, are missing the mark. They want an increase in faith rather than a deepening of faith. It’s one of those moments when the people involved think that quantity matters more than quality, and Jesus replies by giving a good illustration of how they might considered the concept that in many cases less may mean more and more may mean less.
A mustard seed is small, but look at what grows from it.
Even if our germ of faith is small, if it is genuine there can be real growth beyond what we can see ourselves.
We do not need more faith. We need faith that is alive and growing. And a small measure of faith that relates to God is more important than a faith that we use to seek attraction to ourselves.
Do we expect extra credit and rewards for our ministry other than knowing that we have answered the call of God and the call of the Church?
Do we expect our faith to sow seeds for the faith and deeds of others that bears fruit for which we gain no praise or glory?
Are you prepared for a life of service?
There are two Greek words for service in this short passage:
In verse 8, note how the word to serve, διακονέω (diakonéo), relates particularly to supplying food and drink. It means to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve, wait upon. It is the same term that gives us the word “deacon” in the ministry of the Church.
The story is told about a young curate in his first year of ordained ministry, and who was attending a parish function for pensioners. When he was asked by the rector’s wife to go around the tables and top up the cups of tea, he protested, insinuating that this was not what he had been ordained for.
“Oh,” said the rector’s wife. “Did you not know it’s a deacon’s job to serve at tables.”
In the New Testament, the service of this type of servant is different to the role of a steward or a slave. It means to minister to someone, to render service to them, to serve or minister to them; to wait at a table and to offer food and drink to the guests. It often had a special reference to women and the preparation of food. It relates to supplying food and the necessities of life.
The second word, δοῦλος (doulos), in verses 7, 9 and 10, refers to a slave, someone who is in a servile condition. But it also refers metaphorically to someone who gives himself or herself up to the will of another, those whose service is used by Christ in extending and advancing his cause.
Are you expecting to be a servant and a slave in the ministry of the Church?
When you become a priest, remember that you still remain a deacon.
Indeed, should one of you become a bishop, you will still remain a deacon in the Church of God, a slave and a servant of God and of his Kingdom.
What sort of trees are referred to in this reading?
Why did Jesus refer to a mustard seed and a mulberry or sycamine tree, and not, say, an oak tree or an olive tree?
The word “seed” in verse 6 is the Greek word κόκκος (kokkos), which describes a seed, a grain, or a very small kernel. He uses the example of a mustard seed first of all – the Greek word is σίναπι (sinapi), which refers to the small mustard plant that grows from a tiny, miniscule seed.
But then he mixes his metaphors and refers to another tree. What sort of tree is referred to in verse 6 in your Bible translation: mulberry (NRSV, NIV, RSV, NKJV, NAS) or sycamine (KJV)?
Martin Luther rendered the tree in verse 6 as a mulberry tree. The mulberry tree is found in two species in Palestine: the black mulberry (Morus nigra) and the white mulberry (Morus alba). It is part of the same family as the fig tree. The black mulberry tree is known for its medicinal properties, which may explain why this could have been the tree referred to by Luke the physician.
As small children, perhaps, sang of us sang or played to the nursery rhyme or song, Here we go round the mulberry bush. Another version is Here we go gathering nuts in May. The tune is also used for the American rhyme Pop goes the weasel and the Epiphany carol, I saw three ships.
TS Eliot used the nursery rhyme in his poem The Hollow Men, replacing the mulberry bush with a prickly pear and “on a cold and frosty morning” with “at five o’clock in the morning.”
Of course, mulberries do not grow on bushes, nor are they nuts to be gathered in May. And the mulberry is not a very tall tree – it is best grown from tiny seeds but reaches a crown height of only 1.5 to 1.8 metres from the ground, the height of an adult, and with a stem girth of 10 to 12 or 13 cm or more.
So, not a very big tree at all; indeed, more like a bush, as in the nursery rhyme, and less than a tree – and easy to uproot too.
However, the Greek word συκάμινος (sikámeenos) refers to the sycamine tree, which has the shape and leaves of a mulberry tree, but fruit that is like the fig.
Others think the tree being referred to is the sycamore fig (συκόμορος, Ficus Sycomorus), a tree we come across a little later as the big tree that little Zacchaeus the tax collector climbs in Jericho order to see Jesus (see Luke 19: 4).
The sycamore fig (Ficus Sycomorus), the mulberry (Morus nigra and alba) and the fig (Ficus carica) are all related and belong to the same family Moraceae. And the sycamore fig (Ficus Sycomorus) is the sycamore tree of the Bible:
• He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamores with frost (Psalm 78: 47).
• Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore fig trees ...” (Amos 7: 14).
• The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedars as numerous as the sycamores of the Shephelah (I Kings 10: 27; see also II Chronicles 1: 15; II Chronicles 9: 27).
• Over the olive and sycamore trees in the Shephelah, was Baal-Hanan the Gederite. Over the stores of oil was Joash (I Chronicles 27: 28).
• “The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stone; the sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place” (Isaiah 9: 10).
The sycamine tree is not naturally pollinated and is pollinated only by wasps. The pollination process is only initiated when a wasp sticks its stinger right into the heart of the fruit. Thus, the tree and its fruit have to be stung in order to reproduce. The ancient Hebrews incised the fig before maturity with a special knife, which explains the reference in Amos 7: 14. The task of Amos may have been to make the incision, not to pick the fruit.
However, Jesus is talking not just about the fruit but about also the depths to which the roots of the sycamore fig reach – sometimes as much as 120 metres. The sycamine tree has a large and deep root structure, one of the deepest root structures of all trees in the Middle East. This is a vigorous and robust tree that grows in dry conditions and that can grows to heights of 9, 10 metres or more.
Because the roots of the tree go deep into the earth, it is difficult to kill. It taps into a water source deep beneath the surface. Even cutting it to its base does not guarantee its death because its roots, hidden deep under the ground, draw from underground sources of water, allowing it to keep resurfacing again and again.
So imagine how much faith is needed to command such a tree to uproot itself – faith to wither a fig tree or move a mountain (see Matthew 17: 20 and Matthew 21: 21).
Faith in God is powerful enough to face all impossibilities. Hopefully, this is what has taken you here to begin your preparation for ordination. You may feel you have been uprooted, and have been placed in a sea that in your first week you are feeding it difficult to swim in, to survive in.
But remember that little seed that was sown in your heart that grow into your first responses to a sense of call and vocation.
Later in this passage, Christ talks about the value of feeding and drinking within the context of service. While you are here preparing to be slaves and servants of the Gospel, of the Kingdom, feed regularly on Word and Sacrament, and on fellowship with one another. Neglect none of these. Allow that seed to be nurtured here. Put down deep roots, not in this place, but in Scripture, Reason and Tradition.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is based on notes for a Bible study in a tutorial group on 25 September 2013.