A Motivating Message
You want to be motivated to lead a Christian life. Okay, I'll motivate you. But you know motivational speakers aren't known for their tact. They shock; they hurt; they upset, but do they motivate? We'll see.
You are unworthy servants. You cause people to sin. By your bad moods you cause your spouse to be embittered toward you. By your complaining, you bring grief to your parents' lives. By despairing, you lead others away from faith and confidence in God. By being a pessimist and a skeptic, you cause others to think evil of those in authority.
You're an unworthy servant. By your actions and inaction, you lead little ones in the faith to sin. Shape up! Change now! Jesus Himself says that it would be better for you to have a millstone for a life jacket and be thrown into Lake Travis than for you to continue to cause someone else to sin.
You're an unworthy servant. You don't rebuke your brother or sister when they sin. The Christian life to you is like TV life where all behavior is acceptable. But you can't follow Christ and not rebuke the sins of those who claim to be your brothers and sisters in Christ. You are your brother's keeper. You're guilty of great sin if you allow the sins of fellow Christians to go unrebuked. And you're crazy if you think God will excuse you for not doing it because you're a sinner too.
Now's the time to be different. Now's the time to take God at His Word rather than follow your feelings. Now's the time to take your own sins and those of your fellow Christians seriously. But I'm afraid you're just unworthy servants. You don't care about your sins or the sins of others. What's more, if someone does repent, you don't forgive. You have time limits; number limits; size limits. A person who fails to say they're sorry soon enough it too late. A person who says they're sorry too many times is doing it too much. A person who sins too seriously is too far gone for your forgiveness.
Are you ashamed of how you've served so far? You've brought sin into people's lives; you haven't rebuked the sin that's there, and when people have repented, you haven't forgiven them. Do you think this is an acceptable performance? If you fail 3 out of 3 performance standards at work, do they just wink that away? Of course not. Then why in the world would you think God should accept it? But you know what? Not only do you think God should accept your unworthy, failing performance, you expect to be rewarded, recognized, patted on the back for it.
Come on; let's be honest with one another. You expect God to be happy with you because while you may cause other people to sin, you really don't sin all that much yourself. And sure, you don't rebuke sin in your fellow Christian, but neither do you publicly condone it. And so you do have a hard time forgiving the penitent, you don't actively hate them. You expect God to reward your unworthy service because it is better than others. But He does not. He condemns it. He judges it, and He promises to punish it.
Now you're motivated to do better, aren't you? You'll be better at not causing people to sin, rebuking sin, and forgiving sinners. You'll stop looking for rewards and pats on the back. You'll serve the Lord all day long and come here and serve Him some more. Today, right now, you'll start being a more useful servant of the Lord!
Guess what? Even if somehow you were able to never cause anyone to sin, rebuked sin every time, forgave every penitent sinner, and even if you served like a dog never expecting reward or recognition, you would still be an unworthy servant. That's what our text says. After working all day in the field, after coming home and serving flawlessly before God, you still would have to say, "I am an unworthy servant."
I know our insert translates "unworthy servant," but the Greek word comes from one meaning "need." Literally Jesus says servants having worked all day and night should say to their master, "You need not pay us." "You owe us nothing." No matter how good we are, no matter how faithfully we serve, God owes us nothing at all. So if you work daily in the fields of the world without causing sin, rebuking it and forgiving sinners and then come here on weekends to serve at church, God owes you nothing: no thanks, no appreciation, no recognition. You've only done your duty.
There goes the wind out of my motivational sail. Why should I strive to live a Christian life? Why should I serve my Lord all week and come here on weekends to serve some more if I get nothing in return? Why should I do anything at all here or out there if all I'm going to hear from the pastor is: "You're an unworthy servant. God owes you nothing."? Where's my motivation?
It's true; you are, I am, we are unworthy servants. But it's also true that we are graced servants. Grace is free, undeserved love and mercy. You can't earn grace or merit grace from your Master. No matter how hard you try, no matter how long you work, no matter how good you do, you can't deserve grace. This is the point of the parable, but it's missed because our insert translates, "Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?" The word isn't 'thank' but 'grace.' The phrase literally translates, "The master certainly wouldn't have grace toward the servant because he did what he was commanded to do, would he?"
If grace is free, then even the servant who works all day and cooks and serves all night can't earn or deserve it. He could earn money but not grace. Your child can earn his allowance, but he can't earn his birthday gifts; they're undeserved, unearned gifts of your grace. They're given because of what's in your heart, not because of what your child did or didn't do.
God has grace in His heart towards us. The Epistle tell us that God has called us not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time. God didn't look at how people served or didn't serve and say, "That person doesn't deserve grace, but this person does." No, God looked at His only beloved Son and said, "For Jesus' sake, I will be gracious to these unworthy, undeserving servants to whom I owe nothing."
But what about the harsh punishment we deserve for causing people to sin, for not rebuking or forgiving sinners, for expecting to be rewarded for only doing our jobs? God did punish those sins. He put those sins on Jesus and let you go free without them. God was not gracious to His beloved Son. When He cried for mercy, grace and help on the cross, God the Father turned a deaf ear, a blind eye, and a cold heart. But for you, God has nothing but open ears, seeing eyes, and heart warm to every plea.
What about your sins? "O those," says God, "I want you to forget them." But I have caused people to sin. "I forgive you." But you don't understand, "I have winked at serious sins." "Don't mention it; those sins are gone. I forgave that 2,000 years ago." But what about the fact that I've not forgiven the penitent? "Yes, " says God, "That's very serious. There's only one thing I can do. I forgive you completely because My own Son paid for that terrible sin completely. You can forget even that sin because I have."
Thank God for such complete grace. Thank God that it's impossible for me to win such grace. If I could somehow win, deserve, earn grace, it would never be certain because I could never be certain I had done enough to be sure I had God's grace. Because it comes to me for Jesus' sake, I can be sure. Grace isn't based on what I've done today or failed to do today. I can't tell myself I have God's grace because I've served faithfully today. And just as important, nobody, not devil, conscience, or others, can tell me I don't have God's grace because I've served unfaithfully. Grace comes to me freely because of what Jesus did, not because of what I do or don't do.
Have you sinned terribly, seriously? No matter what you've done, I assure you than in Jesus God is gracious to you. In Jesus, He has complete delight in you saying to all of heaven, "That's my boy!" "That's my girl!" God doesn't see the terrible things you've done. He sees only what Jesus has done, and even more astoundingly, He sees you as the one having done it.
How can it be that God sees me as doing what Jesus did? Not by working, deserving or earning, but by believing. Faith grabs hold of what Jesus did. Faith doesn't do anything, but it receives everything Jesus did. The text teaches us that a tiny bit of faith receives all of what Jesus did. Faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed receives all of what Jesus did in place of sinners. The admonition of this text is not "have more faith," but "have faith." If you think this text admonishes you to have more faith, then you're back to trying to be motivated to try harder, be better, do more.
The text teaches us not 'have more faith' but 'have faith' that all of God's grace is yours because of what Jesus did. When the devil accuses you of causing sin, use God's grace in Jesus against him. When your conscience says that you don't rebuke or forgive sin like you should, use the grace of God in Jesus against it. When others say you don't do enough around the church, use the grace of God in Jesus against them. Because of grace, you can say to the devil, your conscience, and to others, "You're right! I don't do enough. I am an unworthy servant. God doesn't owe me a thing and I owe God everything. But the story doesn't end with my sinful failings. The grace God has towards me for Jesus' sake assures me that He sees me as holy as Jesus is and as useful of a servant as Jesus Himself."
The grace of God that is mine for Jesus' sake, not threats, not promised rewards, and not motivational speakers move me to go on trusting and serving God in Christ in this Christian life. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XX (October 17, 2004); Luke 17: 1-10