In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 17:5-10), it’s important to know that Jesus has just finished telling all his followers that they need to forgive one another no matter how often they feel mistreated (17:4).
His closest followers, the apostles, don’t think they’re ready for that yet. They tell Jesus, “If you want us to be that forgiving, we need more faith.”
Jesus replies, “You don’t need more faith. Even a plant has enough faith to work wonders. Just do your job. Keep forgiving one another; keep forgiving everybody. And don’t expect people to thank you for that: practicing forgiveness is part of your job description. You think I chose you so you could be masters of the universe. Instead I chose you to join me in reflecting the endless forgiveness of God. If you need recognition for that, you’re in the wrong line of work.”
That’s how I hear this story, anyway. When we read this lesson, we probably don’t like the wording of the last sentence: “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'” (17:10).
But it helps to remember that Jesus is saying this to people who were chosen to be the leaders of his movement, the apostles. They’re having a hard time absorbing the idea that being a leader in Jesus’ movement does not mean taking control of everybody else. They still expect Jesus, when he finally gets to Jerusalem, to take over the Temple, throw out the Romans, and set himself up as an exalted monarch.
They’re in for a rude awakening! Jesus doesn’t work that way. His life shows us that even God doesn’t work that way. The greatest power in the universe is not the power to control things—it’s the power to nudge everyone and everything toward reconciliation.
That, Jesus shows us, is God’s job description. It’s natural for us to feel deep gratitude when we experience God’s unconditional welcome. But if Jesus is right, that’s not something God demands of us. It’s as if God would answer, “Hey folks, that’s my job. You can thank me, if you want to, but when you start welcoming one another, that’s all the thanks I want.”
When we forgive one another, we begin to reflect the endless forgiveness, the unconditional welcome, of God. We discover that we were made for this, and when we know that, we don’t need anybody’s recognition.