If there’s no hell, what’s the point in being good? (a sermon on Luke 17:1-10)


Here we are on the most depressing Sunday of the year. It’s a long weekend, which is one reason why I anticipated a drop in attendance today. Any number of our flock have taken off for the weekend with their families and are probably sunning themselves on a beach at this very moment in some far-flung corner of our state!

The chief reason why I anticipated the low numbers today, of course, is because it’s Daylight Savings Sunday – that dreaded day when the clocks go forward and we all lose an hour’s sleep!

I wouldn’t dare suggest that this Daylight Savings caper was deliberately designed to decimate church attendance. Even so, if there has to be this dreaded adjustment of the clocks, why couldn’t it happen mid-week, or on a Friday night where it might have the blessed effect of seeing the night-clubs do an hour’s less trade? No … let the church-goers pay the price for our seasonal chronological shift!

And we have a Parish Council meeting today, which means that your only chance of catching up on that missed hour’s sleep is to doze off during the sermon, which is why I’ve instructed the Church Wardens to patrol the congregation today, each with a stick in hand, ready to prod or whack anybody that they see drifting off!

OK … I haven’t done that, but you might have thought that I’d chose today to preach on some bouncy and energetic text that might pump us up and make us glad that we made the effort to be here. No. I’ve decided to stick with the mood of the day and preach on Jesus’ least popular parable – the parable of the unworthy servants.

“Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 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.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

As I say, this must surely be the least popular of Jesus’ parables, and that’s not because it’s shocking or obscure or impossible to reconcile with the rest of Jesus’ teachings, but simply because it’s distasteful!

We feel comfortable enough with stories that begin “suppose one of you has one hundred sheep” but not with “suppose one of you has one hundred slaves”, and the thing just degenerates from there, such that by the end of the story it’s clear that we are the slaves and that the work we are engaged in is entirely thankless!

This may be the first sermon you’ve heard on this text, and I wouldn’t have chosen to speak on it myself today except that our other scheduled lectionary texts (such as the Lamentations of Jeremiah) seemed even more depressing! I can understand why preachers choose to skip this parable in Luke’s Gospel. What I find harder to understand is why Luke chose to include it in his Gospel in the first place, for this parable is one of the ‘cutting-room-floor texts’ of the New Testament.

I think all of us are familiar with the way they make movies and TV documentaries. The filmmaker shoots LOTS of footage but only uses a small percentage of it. In the days when filming was done on actual physical celluloid, the editing process would involve physically cutting out frames of the movie that weren’t needed. Those extraneous scenes that didn’t make the cut would end up on the cutting-room floor.

I’m not suggesting that the Gospels were put together in exactly the same way, and yet there was an editing process. As the authors of John’s Gospel tell us, if everything Jesus had said or done was included “I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

In other words, things were left out of the Gospel accounts, and if you compare our four Gospel accounts, side by side, you can see how some stories or teachings were considered so central that they were included by all the Gospel writers, whereas others made the final cut in some Gospel compilations but not in others.

And while it’s impossible to reconstruct the editorial process with any precision, you can see indications of how it worked within the Gospels themselves.  Some stories and teachings connect together seamlessly with the central narrative of Jesus story, whereas with some of the other stories, nobody was sure exactly where they fitted, and so most of those disconnected clips would end up on the cutting-room floor (so to speak).

But just as we’re used to seeing a polished movie production followed by a ‘Director’s Cut’ version that appears on DVD, where a lot of the cutting-room floor scenes find their way back into the movie, so with the director’s cut of the Gospels.  Of course, I don’t know if there was an early (shorter) version of Luke’s Gospel that was circulated, but the version we have seems to have a collection of disconnected teachings bundled together at the beginning of chapter 17!

The chapter begins abruptly with “Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.’” (Luke 17:1-3a)

This teaching bears no obvious relation to what immediately preceded it (namely, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) and it seems unrelated to what follows! If you think you’ve heard this teaching before, you’re right. It turns up in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels as well, and is elaborated upon in Matthew, where the ‘little ones’ (normally spiritually weak members of the community) are a recurring focus.

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world for the causes of sin. These stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to fall into sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:6-8)

Evidently this was a well-known teaching of Jesus, and protecting the weak was indeed one of Jesus’ central themes, and so we can understand why three out of four Gospel writers chose to include this, and it would appear that Matthew had the best idea of how this exhortation was connected to Jesus’ broader teaching.

Luke’s Gospel says no more about ‘little ones’ or millstones but rather continues with a second cutting-room floor teaching about forgiveness.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3b-4)

Again, this seems to have been a well-known teaching of Jesus. The best-known variation on this teaching is once again the one preserved by Matthew:

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!” (Matthew 18:21-22)

In Matthew’s Gospel this teaching is then followed by a parable about a forgiving king that reinforces same point. Luke’s clip is relatively short and to the point, but we can understand why the Gospel writer felt that this teaching simply had to be included in the final cut of his account of the life and teachings of Jesus. Even if Luke didn’t know the context in which Jesus gave this teaching, and even if he didn’t know the parable about the king, how could he not include something as central to the teachings of Jesus as this exhortation to forgive and to forgive again!

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” (Luke 17:5-6)

This is the third clip of the four. It seems to be unrelated to the previous two and to that which follows but, again, we can understand why Luke felt that he simply had to include this teaching in his Gospel.

All of us wish we had greater faith at times. In Mathews better-known variation on this teaching (Matthew 17:20), it’s a faith that moves mountains, rather than mulberry trees, and the teaching is given in the context of the failure of the disciples to be able to perform an exorcism. The disciples ask for more faith!

We all wish we had more faith, and so we again can understand why Luke felt that his account of the life and teaching of Jesus would not be complete without this snippet.

And then we come to clip number four – the parable of the unworthy servants.

“Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 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.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

No other Gospel writer bothered to record this, and I can appreciate why Matthew might have decided that he didn’t really have room for this one alongside the ‘parable of the talents’ (Matthew 25:14-30) where those servants that served their master well are rewarded lavishly.

As I say, there’s something deeply distasteful about this parable, and it’s not only because He who said “I no longer call you servants … I have called you friends” (John 15:15) is now calling us servants again, but it’s the fact that there are zero rewards envisaged for faithful servants. Indeed, it’s all stated quite explicitly, that we shouldn’t even expect a word of thanks, and that seems simply irreligious!

I appreciate that it’s not as explicit in the Christian Scriptures as it is in the Qur’an, which concludes ever chapter with vivid descriptions of the rewards of the faithful and the torments of the wicked, but the idea that evil will be punished and good rewarded is something that is at the heart of every religion, isn’t it?

In truth, if there’s one religious argument that I find I still get into, regularly, it is this one. When I say to people that I believe there are no limits to the love of God, and that I believe there is sufficient power in the cross of Christ for forgiveness to extend to everybody, the common response I get is ‘then what’s the point of being religious if it’s not to avoid punishment and reap a heavenly reward?’

My response to that question is generally that I’m not convinced that the reason we’re supposed to love God and others is because we’ll be punished if we don’t, and that seems to be consistent with the parable that doesn’t talk about rewards or punishments but invokes instead that uncomfortable little D-word – ‘duty’!

Duty, to say the very least, is not a popular concept in 21st century Australian culture. We tend to associate it with other dirty D-words such as discipline and determination and drudgery. Our culture values spontaneity and sensitivity leading to self-fulfilment, and we’d consider someone who said ‘I thought it was my duty to marry my girlfriend after I got her pregnant’ as rather quaint!

It was not always this way. If you’ll forgive my penchant for American Civil War history, it was Confederate General Robert E. Lee who said that duty was “the most sublime word in the English language”!

From the same period, I remember the diary entry of one of the officers who made the charge at Gettysburg. He recorded that when he surveyed the field that he was about to charge and realised that there was a good chance he would not survive, he found himself saying out loud “are you going to do your duty today, June Kimball?”

These were men who chose to do things that they did not feel like doing, and presumably not for the sake of any great reward or punishment that awaited them. They did what they did because they thought it was the right thing to do!

I’m going back more than one hundred and fifty years here, of course, and to a continent on the other side of the globe, but I suspect that the names of those Australians that are featured on the ‘honour boards’ at the back of our church building were likewise persons who, for the most part, did what they did, not because they felt like going to war but because they believed it was their duty.

Again, that was a generation and more ago, and times have changed, and yet I personally feel a real connection to these people, and perhaps especially today!

For here we are on Daylight Savings Sunday. We are short on sleep and we would probably rather be holidaying somewhere on the Gold Coast, but we are here! And I appreciate that being here in church today doesn’t require the same level of commitment as it does to make the charge at Gettysburg or to fight at Gallipoli, and yet these commitments are not entirely disconnected either, for in each case they reflect a willingness to be part of something that is bigger than us!

Some people believe that real love always feels good. Others of us believe that real love generally begins when you’re required to do things that you don’t feel like doing:

  • When you need to change your baby’s nappy even though you’d much prefer to pass the child to somebody else and have them do it.
  • When you stay home to look after your aging mother, even though this means not going out with your friends for the evening.
  • When you do put your life at risk, fighting for some cause on behalf of people who are never likely to thank you or even know what you did.

“We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10).

In the end, the servants obey the master, not because they are expecting to be rewarded or punished. They do what they are asked to do because they love the master and because they believe in the work that the master has them doing, and if you can’t understand that then you’ve probably never been in love!

As lovers we do crazy things, and we do them for no other reason than that we know it’s what our beloved wants us to do. Of course this isn’t to say that love isn’t rewarding, and my point as a whole is not that we don’t get rewarded (in one way or another) for doing the right thing (and indeed, I am sure that there is a special reward awaiting all good Christian souls who make it to church on time on Daylight Savings Sunday). Rather, my point is that being rewarded is not the point.

John Calvin says in his commentary on these verses “there is no man that would not willingly call God to account, hence the notion of merits has prevailed in every age.”

In truth, life is not about merits, it’s not about rewards, and it’s not about punishment. This is the rather irreligious and uncomfortable truth embedded in the parable – a parable that Luke, the Gospel writer, considered to be so significant that he felt that his presentation of the life and teachings of Jesus would not be complete without it!

For following Jesus is not about merits, it’s not about rewards, it’s not about punishment. It’s about duty, it’s about service, and, in the end, it’s all about love.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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