Chris Henry: A Joyful Obligation


By the time we reach the seventeenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, the disciples have been sitting at Jesus' feet for quite some time. They have been commanded to leave security behind, along with everything else they hold dear, to set out on a strange and difficult journey. They have been commanded to love their enemies, to forgive those who harm them, to give to all who beg from them. They have been urged to let go of their worries and trust God completely. And, just before our passage, Jesus commands his disciples to forgive anyone who wrongs them - even if it happens seven times a day.

In response, the disciples have an urgent plea for Jesus: "Increase our faith!" It is a reasonable ask, given the context; the disciples sense that they are going to need more faith if they are to follow the teachings of Jesus.

The answer Jesus offers sounds hopeful. All you need, Jesus says, is a tiny little speck of faith, about the size of a mustard seed. That much faith unlocks whole new worlds of possibility. And implicit in Jesus' words is his conviction that the disciples already have at least that much faith. In other words, Jesus asks his disciples to trust that they have enough faith already, enough to live out the challenging commands that they have been given.

So, the disciples might be feeling pretty good about this - a little faith goes a long way and they have at least a tiny bit. But just when the disciples might be tempted to think of faith as a possession we could quantify, Jesus shifts the term from noun to verb.

Jesus asks the disciples which of them would reward a servant for working out in the field by giving them a place at the table for dinner. His question would have seemed absurd to the disciples, who all lived in a culture of clearly defined functions for servant and master. Of course, a servant deserves no extra credit or displays of gratitude for doing exactly what he was required to do. The answer to Jesus' question would have been almost laughably obvious to the disciples. Invite servants to dinner just for doing their jobs? No way. But this is a parable. And so, we can expect a twist. This time it comes at the very end. After telling the story in such a way that the disciples assume they are the masters, Jesus turns the table on them with these words, "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.'" Just like that, the followers of Jesus are recast in the role of servants, due no credit or gratitude for fulfilling the tasks assigned to them.

We have done what we ought to have done. It's a message about doing your duty, fulfilling your obligation, knowing your role.

Words like "duty" and "obligation" have acquired a mostly negative connotation in our culture of rights and choices. Outside of some rather small and loyal communities, it is assumed that duty is dull, a denial of our freedom to co-create the world as we would have it. If someone does something because they are obligated or required to do it, we see that as a lesser motivation. When we do good, we prefer to think of ourselves as free moral agents acting on our own selfless initiative, rather than as servants who are responding to the commands of a master or lord. We want some credit for our acts of kindness and charity; if not a banquet held in our honor at least a place at the head table.

But the one who offers this instruction is Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served and who expects the same of those who follow him. In the church, as followers and disciples of Jesus, we are bound to fulfill our obligation. Our duty is to follow Christ's way in the world. We do not get to make up our own set of instructions and chart our own course. We are called, commanded, and compelled in very concrete ways. We don't have the luxury of hating those who hate us. We don't get to sit in the judgment seat and pronounce verdicts on those whose actions exasperate us. We are not permitted to grasp selfishly on to what we have and withhold from those in need. We are not even allowed to let anxious worry overcome us. We must do our duty. Not because we are wonderfully magnanimous people (though we may well be) but because we are servants, students, disciples, followers - called to do our part as residents of God's realm. And I would suggest that there is both freedom and joy in living this way.

When I was in high school, our family's church (where my father was pastor) was considering beginning a new Wednesday evening program to provide members with another opportunity during the week to be together and newcomers the chance to meet and connect with the congregation. We would enjoy dinner together followed by a program for adults and children as well as our weekly choir practice. The church had not offered Wednesday evening programs before, so in good Presbyterian fashion, a task force was formed to discuss the possibility. I was asked to be the youth representative on the Wednesday Evening Program Task Force, which consisted of members from various groups within the church. The meetings were filled with energy about the possibility represented by this new weekly program. We were all excited about what it might mean for our community, and we even came up with a catchy title for the event. Are you ready? Here it is: Wonderful Wednesdays! Did you catch the alliteration there? At our final meeting, the most senior member of our group, a matriarch and head of the church kitchen committee (an unofficial but fierce group), spoke up for the first time. She explained that she was not in favor of having a Wednesday evening program and listed some of the reasons why she felt that way. She expressed concern about creating another congregation within the congregation, about the amount of work involved for the already-overextended pastor, and about the wear and tear on the church facility, especially her beloved church kitchen. I was practicing my best eye-rolling techniques, but then she closed her brief remarks with words that I had not expected, "Now that you've heard me, I want to say this. I can hear you - the excitement that you all feel for this program. I have been a member of this church a long time and have always tried to be supportive of its ministries. So, if the church wants to have this program, I'll help." Two weeks later, Wonderful Wednesdays began. And, in the three years before I left for college, I don't think Ms. Lena missed a program, often arriving early to help with dinner preparation. Other weeks she would stop by and pick up some of the "old ladies" (now, Ms. Lena was in her mid-80's) who could not drive at night. Now, did Ms. Lena do this out of a sense of obligation or duty? I believe so. And I think she was glad she did.

A joyful obligation. I think this teaching of Jesus displays the depth of his understanding of human nature. Though we love to think of ourselves as completely uninhibited by obligation, the truth is that we all dutifully follow some script. That script may be a grand philosophy of life or a simple creed like "my mother always said...." That script is reinforced by the power of our habits, the culture that surrounds us, and the voices that occupy our minds.[i]

The dominant script in our culture cleverly claims that we can be free of influence, self-made people, creating our own future and recreating the world. All the while, this script carefully manages every part of our lives. I am always intrigued when someone criticizes Christian faith as a means by which people are controlled by external forces - when parents who manage their child's every academic and athletic choice claim they want to keep options open when it comes to choosing a faith perspective. I want to ask, "which narrative or script controls your life?" Perhaps it is the myth of human progress, or obsession with acquisition, or the power of positive thinking, or the belief that all of society's problems will one day be solved by the right scientific theory, technological advance, political ideology, or economic model. All of these scripts are as closely followed as the one we Christians model in liturgy and practice. So, the choice is not to follow a script or to make it up as we go. The choice is which script we will follow, whose commands we will follow, which duties we will assume, the source of authority in our lives.

Trust in God and faith in Jesus Christ is a counter-narrative to the dominant script that surrounds us, a script that tells us that this life is all about us and getting what we want. In the church, we tell a different story. We try to cultivate a different set of values and curate a different definition of community. And, when we understand ourselves as servants of a servant Lord, our duty becomes our joy. The script we follow brings abundant life and a sense of purpose.

I remember talking with some members of the church who serve as teachers for our youngest children's Sunday school classes. The teachers I was taking with do not have young children anymore, all their children are grown. And yet, when their turn comes in the rotation, they read the scripture, they pray, and prepare a lesson for our preschoolers. They show up early to prepare the room and welcome the children. At 9:30 on a Sunday morning, these middle-aged adults are crouched down joyfully greeting three and four-year-olds with the love of God and often a tasty snack. They gracefully monitor behavior and creatively teach the Bible story. Out of curiosity, I asked them why they volunteered to teach children decades younger than their own. Their answer made me wonder if they had read this scripture: "It's something we can do at this stage of life to give back to the church. We talked it over and decided that we owe it to this community which gave us so much help in raising our children."

We owe it to this community. It sounds an awful lot like duty and obligation to me. And yet, as they said it, their eyes were bright and smiles swept across their faces - no sense of being forced against their will. It was a joyful duty, a passionate obligation. A call to serve. A mustard seed of faith planted. We have done only what we ought to have done. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.