Oct. 6, 2019
2 Timothy 1:1-14
A few weeks ago the Jesus whom Luke presents to us tells us to sell all of our possessions. Last week it was a weird parable about Lazarus and the rich man. Before that it was the dishonest manager and the confusing instructions that we “make friends for ourselves with dishonest wealth.”
I was talking to colleague about the barrage of difficult passages from Luke that we’ve been reading and she said, “I know! It’s like: can’t you just say something that makes sense?” Well, “evidently not,” seems to be the answer as we read today’s passage, which sounds as if Jesus disapproves of the disciples’ request for more faith. He’s just finished warning them of the perils of interfering in the faith of another and the requirement to forgive and forgive again a repentant offender. Apparently challenged by Christ’s demands, the disciples respond, “Increase our faith.” It seems like a reasonable request from fallible people who, like us, may not always be so sure about their capacities to forgive or to have faith, for that matter. And in reply, Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could command this tree to be uprooted and thrown into the sea.”
We tend to hear it as a “Ye of little faith” kind of passage. One author writes, “We hang our heads with the apostles, suffering the scold we know we deserve. If there is one thing we have come to expect from Jesus, it is the constant reminder of how short we fall.”[i] Maybe this inclination describes you, and maybe it does not. If it does not, good for you! If it does, it may keep you from hearing an alternative interpretation of Christ’s words. Maybe he is saying, “If you had faith the size of this tiny little seed – and you certainly do! – you’ll be able to do remarkable things.” Maybe he’s saying to them, “You have all the faith you need. Stop clamoring for more. Stop letting your fears of inadequacy hold you back. Get out there and do the works of faith! Get out there and start forgiving, start healing, start serving, start loving. Embrace the marginalized. Care for the poor. Lift up the lowly. And, find God in the doing of all of this.”
This, in the end, is the message that most of my commentaries suggest. Dennis Sanders in the Christian Century sums it up. “Being faithful is doing what God would have us do in the world even when we think our faith is incomplete and doesn’t measure up. God doesn’t need us to believe enough. God calls us to be faithful – to seek to do God’s work in the world.”[ii] Here, the commentaries all suggest a faith of action, a faith of doing. And, I agree that that’s the message. At least, it is to a large degree.
But, there’s the second part of our passage that I believe has something to add. There’s that part about a slave and his master that in today’s world is hard to hear, but in ancient Rome would have computed a bit more easily. Jesus says, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’” The answer then was obvious: no one would. Now, of course we’d argue, “I would.” “I wouldn’t have a slave to begin with. So, I’d free that slave and I would pay him for his work, and if he was hungry I would invite him to dinner.” But, to get caught up in the morality of slavery here is to be caught up in a distraction. The end of the message is that Jesus likens his disciples to slaves, to people who before their master hold no power and are entitled to nothing.
I’ve always struggled with the notion of total human depravity and the over-the-top Christian language (especially of the Reformers) about being “utterly devoid in our goodness and prolific in our evil,” (in Calvin’s words.) But, I think that Jesus, here in Luke’s Gospel, is thinking along somewhat similar lines. And, as distasteful as these lines seem to be on the surface, they are part of a bigger message, and in that bigger message they are very much a part of the Good News.
It is key that these words are meant for Luke’s church. They aren’t meant for interested individuals who are seeking literary inspiration, or for seekers loosely familiar with what Christians believe. These words are written for people who in their experience of Christ have come to experience something of the eternal goodness, mystery, and beauty of God. They had come into the presence of the Infinite, the Holy, the Sacred – the utterly Transcendent – in the Spirit of Christ, and in the midst of that overwhelming presence they had discovered the depths of their human frailty and their complete inability to, by their own power, access this God. They were, like slaves, powerless before the Really Real.
But, that is only part of the story. The other part of the story, which Luke’s readers understood, is the depth of divine generosity and grace in this God – this utterly transcendent God’s – desire to come to them, claim them, and love them – to be incarnate among them, born in vulnerability to them, teach and heal them, love them and suffer by them, die at their hands a horrible human death only to rise again and return to them in order to share God’s very Spirit with them. Luke’s readers came to this text knowing the remarkable grace of divine love that now claimed and shaped their lives, even though it didn’t need to in the least. In the light of that grace their utter dependence on God wasn’t even a question. Compared to this God they were as powerless as slaves, which makes God’s love for them and God’s will to use them all the more miraculous.
In his letters to Timothy, which have been among the lectionary options for the past few weeks, Paul keeps talking about true life or “taking hold of the life that really is life.” Today he writes to Timothy for the “sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.” I heard these words in a new way this time around. In the past I assumed that this life referred to the life of Christ that was alive in me, alive in us all – even if it may feel somewhat elusive. But, I’m not so sure this time. This time I’m hearing Paul talk about a life this is not ours. It is Christ’s. Taking hold of this life is taking hold of Christ, taking hold of the one who can do what we cannot, taking hold of the one whose faith is perfect while ours is not, taking hold of a savior who offers us his hands so that we might do what we otherwise could not.
Into his hands we can place our lives, (just as Paul says to Timothy.) Into his hands we can place all of our incomplete and imperfect acts of faith, because in his hands those acts of faith will reach far beyond our own reach. In his hands the simple gifts of bread and juice become his presence served back to us. In his hands our love for neighbor becomes love for the world, our food for the hungry becomes food for the soul, our forgiveness of others (and of ourselves for that matter) grows into redemption. What we offer into his hands becomes more than what it would otherwise be. And, this, I believe is really Good News. In fact, it is the best reason I know for being here today. May we give our lives anew to him this morning.
[i] Kimberly Bracken Long, FOTW, Year C, Volume 4, page 140.
[ii] The Christian Century, Sept. 25, 2019, page 19