Servants at the Banquet
Twenty-five years ago this fall, I started seminary. I wasn’t exactly sure why I was going – I couldn’t point to a particular professional path that would come from it. I only knew that it was the right next step in my life. I also felt certain that I was not “ordain-able” material – that I would not become a minister. I was sure that I wasn’t a good enough person, and that I certainly didn’t have enough faith. Ministers are made of much better stuff than I! I am a very regular person, and regular is not enough.
After only a matter of weeks in seminary, I lost those alibis and excuses about not being enough. I had gotten to know my classmates, and they were as regular as I was, and they felt themselves called to be ministers. Then I began to start getting it: when it comes to faith, there is no such thing as “enough.” There is no enough – no enough-ness – in matters of faith. What could it possibly mean to have enough? To be enough? This isn’t the right question at all. The charge to every Christian isn’t “Do you have enough faith?” but rather, “Are you living authentically the life of a Christian?” This is a massive challenge, and no limp compromise of a question. If the question were really one of “enough-ness” we all could excuse ourselves, for who could ever have enough faith The disciples go down just this road, and Jesus calls them on it.
“Increase our faith!” they say. “Boy, I just don’t have enough faith to do all the things you are asking!” (Jesus had been teaching them about carrying the cross, putting their families and their aspirations for them second to their discipleship, and about giving up all of their possessions - admittedly hard stuff.) The disciples respond “Wow, I’m going to need a lot more faith to do all of that and you’re going to have to give it to me,” and Jesus says, “No, you have plenty.” You have enough. You have all the faith you need. Excuses, excuses.
The real question for disciples in Jesus’ day and in our own isn’t about enough faith – or enough-ness of any kind. The real question to Christ is about how we live our lives. We do, and are, and have enough, thanks be to God. Mustard seeds are infinitesimal. We have that, says Christ. We are enough. We have enough. So, how does that make us live?
In the gospels, the people who are used as examples of exceptional faithfulness are people whom their neighbors would point to as the biggest sinner on the block – “loose” women, tax collectors, Samaritans, those with physical ailments (to their neighbors, people suffering God’s judgment), a Roman centurion. These are all people who are considered moral failures, ethical losers, beyond the pale of respectability. And Christ continually singles them out as examples of faith. He encounters many other people who are certain that their abundant faith sets them above the crowd; Jesus teaches them humility. It is the ones whose faith is “only” the size of a mustard seed, and who ask for no special favors or status but who only live out of the faith they know they have, whom Christ commends for their faithfulness. They have enough; they know they have enough; they do not excuse themselves from the challenges of discipleship but simply live out of the faith they know they have, and so it is more than sufficient. It is more than enough.
And our faith is about more than ourselves. It is about what we can do, and how we can live, but it is also about what we believe God is doing. Perhaps the most important kernel of faith isn’t what we understand ourselves to be capable of, but what we understand God to be capable of. Through faith we remember that the door that we see bolted closed is not closed to God. Faith, for us, means having the spiritual eyesight to see God at work in the small things of our daily lives, and the great challenges of our time, and everything in between. When a woman with a hemorrhage touches the cloak of Jesus, his healing power flows from him and heals her. He tells her, “Your faith has made you well.” Her faith was in him. She believed Christ was capable of something human science had no answer for. Her faith was in what God and Christ could do, and not in her own faith. Her faith was like that in the Book of Lamentations, when the Judeans had seen their civilization destroyed and then endured the horrors of exile. They maintained their faith that, for God, things were still possible that they could only dream of. They believed that no matter that caliber of their own faith, God’s faithfulness towards them endured, and God’s mercies were new every morning. Our own faith isn’t to be focused on its own potential but always on the work of God and Christ – what we can see, and especially what we cannot see.
If we will let it, our faith in God and Christ will transform us. It will change you. It will change who we know ourselves to be. Jesus tells the disciples that having faith in God means becoming a slave of God. It means total transformation. Jesus calls us all “worthless slaves” not because we are people of no worth; we are always of infinite worth. Rather, we are people who understand that nothing is owed to us. We have no sense of entitlement. We aren’t waiting for whatever we have decided is the appropriate acknowledgement of our station, value, and accomplishments. As one biblical scholar puts it, we don’t deserve congratulations for simply doing our job. We prepare the Lord’s dinner and we serve. We are servants at the banquet because we know we belong to Christ. Our faith in him puts us there.
It puts us there with Christ as servant. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Christ is quoted as saying that he came, “not to be served but to serve.” In Luke’s Gospel, he says, “I am among you as one who serves.” If we will let our faith make us a servant, we will find ourselves in the closest company of Christ. His teachings continually call us to identify, like him, as servant. As his disciples began to understand this, they balked. They said, “Well, you’re going to have to increase my faith if you’re going to get me to do that!” And Jesus replied, “You have plenty. Whether or not you will be transformed and join me in servanthood is only your choice.” I so appreciate the words of the great preacher John Buchanan of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church who said that the faith that moves mountains… is the faith that kneels and serves. It is human thinking that says the two are opposites, that says the first is very grand and is what we want for ourselves, while the second is very beneath ourselves. It was not beneath the Messiah.
To be servants at the banquet is not to wipe chins, pour wine, or ladle soup. The banquet is the very Reign of God, the feast of God’s Realm, the realization of the coming time when God is truly all in all, and God reigns with Christ and the Holy Spirit over a total dominion of love, mercy, and justice. Oh, to be servants at such a table! Oh, to play the smallest part in the holy redemption of our suffering cosmos! This is what our faith – as tiny as a mustard seed – invites, enables, and even requires us to do. Let’s let go of our cowardly excuses about not having enough, and instead live into the challenge and promise of the faith we have been given.
To be servants at the banquet is to join Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and others in lifting up the lowly. It is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make a shelter for the refugee, to provide a home for the child born to a family in the deepest distress, to guide the lost, to challenge these powers that govern for their personal benefit and not the people’s, who reify poverty, and blame the poor and uninsured for their plight. It is to carry the cross, to put the Gospel ahead of one’s self-advancement, and to give away one’s privileges and possessions so that all may have enough. The disciples heard this litany and told Jesus he would need to give them a lot more faith if they were to start even trying. Jesus cut to the chase – you have plenty of faith. The choice is yours as to whether to live it.
Like the disciples before us, we need the faith – or is it just the courage? – to live out of our faith. Life is at least as challenging now as it was 2000 years ago. What, then, should be our prayer? Not “increase our faith,” but maybe, “Oh God, help me to summon the courage to live out the faith that I have. Help me to love humanity more than my possessions. Help me to accept that saving invitation to be a servant at the banquet that is the inbreaking Reign of God. May all that I think - and say and do and pray - set the table for the feast of the life that really is the life, through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Lois Malcom , “Commentary on Luke 17: 5-10,” www.workingpreacher.org , Oct. 6, 2013
Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 140-145