“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” Luke 17:10
A tree, a table and an apron: three objects mentioned in the Gospel reading can help thoughts about being Christian, three objects that can help thinking about faith, about humility, and about service.
Jesus has warned the apostles in the previous verses that it would be better to have a millstone around their neck and for them to be thrown into the sea than for them to cause harm to the faith of those who were little ones. It is stern stuff that explains why the apostles say in Saint Luke Chapter 17 Verse 5, “Increase our faith!” They realize how inadequate their faith is to the task that lies ahead of them. They cannot have been encouraged by Jesus answer to them in Verse 6, “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.” The disciples must have looked at the mulberry tree and wondered what faith would mean if such a feat was possible. How would they possibly have the sort of faith of which Jesus spoke?
The mulberry tree is a reminder of the weakness of people’s faith, Jesus knows that the disciples would all desert him when the hour of danger came, but would learn from their failings and become strong in their faith.
The mulberry tree is a reminder that faith by itself is not enough, that Christians depend on God. Saint Paul writes in the Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 2 Verse 8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” If one had faith the size of a mustard seed, one might be able to uproot a tree and plant it in the sea, but one is not being asked to do so. All that is being asked is to accept God’s grace, accept what he has done, accept his gift. The mulberry tree is a reminder to Christians that they do not depend on their own efforts.
The tree teaches about faith.
The table teaches about humility.
Slaves were property, they were commodities that could be bought and sold, they were human beings whose value was calculated in pieces of silver. Exodus Chapter 21 Verse 32 places a price upon the life of a slave, if a slave was killed by an ox, then the owner must be recompensed with thirty pieces of silver.
Slaves were people without social standing, without respect. Jesus asks the disciples a question to which they all knew the answer. In Verse 7, he says, “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’?”
Slaves were not people to be treated with equality, they were not people to be welcomed to the table.
Humility is difficult, it is not a popular idea. Humility runs against the way of thinking that tells people that they are entitled to have whatever they want, that they are entitled to be respected, that they are entitled to be happy.
Writing to the church at Philippi, Saint Paul has to remind the Christians there that they are expected to live lives of humility. In Philippians Chapter 2 Verse 3, he writes, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
Christians are to show such humility not because it is their preference, but because it is the way of Jesus, who says Saint Paul, in Verses 6-7 of that chapter, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
The table is a reminder to Christians about their place, if Jesus becomes as a slave for their sake, then Christains should realize they are called to be humble.
The tree teaches about faith that depends on grace, the table teaches about the need for humility, and the apron teaches about service.
Jesus asks the disciples, in Verse 8, whether or not the master would say to the slave, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.” In Verse 9, he warns them them service may be a thankless task, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”
What thoughts must have passed through the disciples’ minds at the thought that they should be like slaves wearing an apron?
In Saint Mark Chapter 10 Verse 45, Jesus makes it clear that this is what his own ministry is about, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
There must have been doubts, questions, reservations among those who were listening. The idea of being treated like someone who would wear an apron like a slave would have been a very uncomfortable thought for those who were free men accustomed to doing and going as they pleased. Some may have wondered whether they would continue to follow Jesus.
The apron symbolises the sort of service that is difficult for people. Itis the sort of service that receives no thanks, the sort of service that goes unrecognized. It is the sort of service that Jesus expects.
Jesus tells his disciples, in Verse 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!'”
How many people are prepared to serve God in such a way?
Jesus’ way runs counter to the ways of the world, it runs counter to a world where personalities matter, where material goods matter, where social standing matters.
The tree, the table and the apron are reminders that Jesus’ way is not an easy way.
A prayer of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits captures a sense of the faith, the humility and the service for which Jesus looks in each of his people.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest;
To give, and not to count the cost,
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
to toil, and not to seek for rest,
to labor, and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do thy will.