Proper 22, Year C, St. Bede’s Church, Manchester

“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!’” (Lk. 17:10).

Self-righteousness is rampant in the land. Security in one’s own convictions, and an equal and unassailable belief in the wickedness of one’s enemies, is widespread. We tend to congregate with the likeminded, siloed in by the same media and the same formative opinions. When we’re exposed to the other side, in social media or whatnot, fireworks ensue. You can see the evidence in the political landscape, where real hatred prevails. Whatever our group, we’re convinced of our own righteousness and the evil intentions of others.

Our Gospel today is a case in point. In this section of St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been engaged in a long-running dispute with the Pharisees. Last Sunday’s story of the poor man Lazarus was aimed at the Pharisees and implicitly accused them of being lovers of money, and of neglecting the poor. Likewise, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin the week before also criticized the Pharisees for neglecting those whom they considered sinners. They were unwilling, Jesus tells them, to go in search of those who were lost.

Hearing these words, and bearing these stories in mind, we can all congratulate ourselves for not being Pharisees, for not being like these other judgmental people. This, of course, is the wrong stance to take, and Jesus will not allow us to take it. Here, in a section that follows closely after the dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus turns his attention to his own disciples, mindful of the dangers of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. Maybe they’re thinking, “Thank God I’m not like these Pharisees; like those self-righteous people who are just in it for the money!” Jesus, of course, will not let them get away with this kind of spiritual naivety.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed” (Lk. 17:6): Jesus is now addressing his disciples and inviting them to look to themselves rather than harping on others. Do they really have faith? They may have asked for more faith, supposing that whatever additional faith they needed was only a small adjustment of their own essential perfection, but Jesus’ response puts the lie to this. If they had any faith at all things would be radically different. They have no ground for complacency, for self-satisfaction, for self-righteousness at all.

Likewise, the saying about the unworthy servants. They’ve been busy with plowing the ground and tending the sheep (the sort of pastoral work that disciples do, after all): do they really think that congratulations are in order? Is an honored place at dinner really their own by right? They’ve really only done what was commanded and expected. “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!’” (Lk. 17:10).

Both these sayings are prefaced by a general command from Jesus to his disciples, “Be on your guard” (Lk. 17:3). That’s what he tells them just a few verses before our reading today. This is consistent with what Jesus tells the disciples, over and over again, about the necessity of turning their attention to themselves and to how they live (Lk. 8:18; Lk. 12:1). That’s the stance we need to take. Congratulations are not in order; self-satisfaction is not warranted. What’s called for is continued discipleship, further humility and soul-searching. Self-righteousness is undercut by our Gospel today; hatred of the other that rests on our own righteousness. We cannot be confident in ourselves, in our own worthiness or our own righteousness, but we can be confident in God.

This morning we celebrate baptism and confirmation at St. Bede’s Church, so Jesus’ message is on point today. God has brought each of our baptismal candidates and our confirmands to this point of confidence in God and his grace. It’s a great day for them, for St. Bede’s, and for the Diocese of Tennessee.

Each of us, however, gathered here today, is also implicated in what God is doing in baptism and confirmation. We recall our own situation and our need for grace. We are humble in the face of God’s righteousness, knowing that we have no righteousness of our own. “Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy,” we pray in our Collect today. We’re in need of this mercy, all of us, in the face of God’s unqualified holiness, and our own need for grace. God grant us true knowledge of ourselves, charity toward those who are also in need, and the grace we require for our life in Christ.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee