Years ago when I was a stay at home mom with little ones, I participated in the “Welcome Wagon.” It was a fellowship for new families moving into the area. We had a babysitting co-op, craft groups and dining groups ,which included a gourmet cooking group. If you have seen my kitchen, you know that I have collected cook books for over fifty years. One of my favorites at that time was called The Silver Palate Cook Book and it often called for various types of gourmet mustard: Dijon, coarse mustard with honey, mustard with Cajun spices and other tasty varieties. The mustard seed is very small and the plants grow into shrubs. Mustard seed is quite nutritious in that it is more than 40% protein. The mustard seed was used by Jesus as a model for the Kingdom of God, which initially starts small, like faith, and grows to be the biggest of all garden plants. Some of the recipes in my cookbook took a lot of faith to prepare but the time and effort were worthwhile in the end result. What matters to Jesus is not the quantity of our faith, nor how long it takes before it blooms but if we put our faith into service to build up the Kingdom of God.
Mark Sheerin is currently a financial planner for a wealth management firm in Atlanta, Georgia. He is chief operations officer and part owner, overseeing business for the company and implementing client portfolios. He used to work in third world countries for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that tackles the causes of poverty and injustice worldwide for children, families and their communities. He has been asked if working for the financially well off or for the poor is a greater mission? He wrote an article for Christianity Today. “If poverty is understood in terms of social constructs rather than economic ones, the playing field levels between the refugees and the investment banker. I did not come to call the truly faithful to the mission field, the less faithful to the pastorate and the barely faithful to finance,” said Sheering. Sheerin maintains that finance and feeding starving children both amount to good work in God’s eyes. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and its effects in all forms and in every place. Fighting against economic injustice through World Vision or through a financial planning firm are both mandated by God. Both tasks are valuable, both tasks seek redemption of broken systems and fallen people. Instead of digging wells, Sheerin now walks through the jungle of probate with widows. Instead of sponsoring children, his firm partners with families through difficult, end-of-life decisions.
Not everyone would agree with Sheerin’s conclusion, but most of us would acknowledge that a life of dutiful faith can be lived in many different types of employment and careers. Luke 17 is one of five places in the gospels where Jesus comments about a mustard seed. Three speak of the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:1-32; Mark 4:30-33; Luke 13:18-19), one speaks to the disciples to explain why they were unable to cure a demon possessed boy (Matthew 17:20) and today’s text which responds to the disciples’ request that he increase their faith. Because of the size of mustard seeds, we tend to parallel this metaphor as a comment on the quantity of faith one possesses. NOT SO! Jesus is responding to the disciples’ request for more faith but their need is not for more faith, only a redirecting of the faith they have toward dutiful service to God rather than grandiose exploits.
There is not a heroic figure in this parable like the Good Samaritan, it does not tug at our heartstrings like the Prodigal Son, and no one gets shut out of heaven as in the Rich Man and Lazarus account. This parable has to do with “your servant,” who labors long hours in the field and is expected to fix dinner for his master before having any food himself. Point is: Does our servant deserve thanks for doing what is expected of him? Does your employer deserve thanks for giving you eight hours of work? NO and NO! Jesus says to the disciples seeking more faith, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ ” (NIV). “Unworthy” really bites because it implies that no matter how much we do in service to God, we are only doing what is expected and it is impossible to do more than what is expected of us. We can never put God in our debt. In relationship to God, we are always servants. We do what we are told to do and should not expect special credit.
Even though the parable tells us not to expect divine thanks for serving God, there are times when someone says “Thank you” in a heartfelt way. When we see someone lifted from trouble because of our efforts or they relate some remark from a Sunday school lesson that helped them to make a positive career choice, we are uplifted and encouraged. It is nice to experience “warm fuzzies” occasionally, but in Jesus’ parable, he stresses that we should serve God because it is the right thing to do. Doing the right thing brings a satisfaction of its own. Today young couples work long hours and their bodies are in overdrive to achieve everything listed on their daily planners. Sometimes indoor household chores are divided and sometimes outdoor chores and the car care belong to one person alone. If either partner were to come home late, find the table set and pleasant aromas emanating from the kitchen, it would be greatly appreciated. Both people live in the house and keeping it clean, laundry done and meals on the table is shared responsibility. Why should either person be thanked for doing what is necessary to live decently? There can even be satisfaction in serving God when no thanks seems to be forthcoming. Responsibilities are part and parcel of any gift (When my kids were younger, I used to tell them that when they opened a gift, they were obligated to write a thank you note. If they did not want to write the note, do not open the gift! It was surprising how many notes they wrote), including the gift of faith which the disciples had sought from Jesus when they asked him to increase their faith.
The parable Jesus told invites us to see ourselves in relation to God as servants in our work, our church role, in moments of leisure and in the unexpected things that come to us and require a response. We do not earn our way into the Kingdom of God but we are granted entrance because of God’s graciousness to us.
There is an old story about a man seeking entrance into heaven based on good work and has been adapted to Mr. Sheerin’s experiences:
The man came to the Pearly Gates and asked St. Peter for admission. “On what basis?” Peter asked. “Well,” said the man, “I worked most recently in the world of financial management and I worked hard to follow God’s will.” “Yes,” said Peter, “But we expected that.” “Well, earlier I worked several years at low wages in the mission field. I tackled the causes of poverty and injustice in the Third World. I worked directly with children, families and their communities. I even helped people escape from human traffickers.” “We know” Peter said, “but that all needed to be done.” “I have worked hard to be faithful ever since God called me.” “And your point is?” said Peter. “That is all I have got! There is nothing more but the grace of God.” “Exactly,” said St. Peter, opening the gate. “C’mon in.” If mustard were like faith, would a little dab do ya? How big a dab do you need?