Upstairs Downstairs - Luke 17:1-11

This is a sermon by Viv Whitton from the evening service on 15th August 2010.

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The key to our passage this evening is a four letter word which may well make some of you feel uncomfortable, indeed the story Jesus told in this passage does not fit well at all with the culture of 21st century Britain, neither at first reading does it seem to connect well with the preceding verses. However it isn't included in the scripture by accident and, with a little digging I hope all will become clear!

So what is this offending word? It's at the very end of the reading in v 11 which is on page 1051

The word is D-U-T-Y duty, a concept Jesus explains in another of His servant stories – this time by bringing out the mutual expectations of master and servant.

The problem is that most of us these days have little understanding of the master / servant mindset, so let me take you back a hundred years or so to below stairs in the Bellamy household just before the master and mistress were off to the theatre:

Video Clip Upstairs Downstairs Episode 1 part 4

For the uninitiated the clip is from the TV series Upstairs Downstairs which was immensely popular as it chronicled the big events of the Edwardian era and the first world war from the perspective of the servants quarters below stairs in a London town house – a group who, under the eagle eye of the butler Hudson, were kept firmly in their place. That was the way things were and no one in Edwardian England would have batted an eyelid at the strict regime within the Bellamy household one simply accepted one's place in society, social mobility was rare .

The story Jesus told from v7 would in the same way have immediately made sense to Jesus' listeners, the context was familiar to all living in the farming community of Israel  2000 years ago: It's the end of a busy day, a servant comes home after labouring in the fields. Jesus asks a rhetorical question which may even have raised a laugh amongst the disciples 'Does the landowner immediately offer him food and rest?' Of course not - he naturally expects the servant to prepare and serve food for him before letting him go off to get his own meal.

Well that's how things were then.  But today of course it simply couldn't happen that way: The European Working Time directive limits hours of work, Health and Safety legislation kicks in, the servant would be called an Agricultural technician and probably wouldn't have the food hygiene certificate necessary for preparation of meals, then if the landowner demanded this sort of commitment no doubt the worker would invoke the local grievance procedure for workplace bullying and the landowner would find himself in front of an employment tribunal.

But in Jesus' day the expectation was clear – it was simply the duty of a servant to fulfil his masters requirements whether it seems fair to us or not.

The inference is obvious, the disciples were the servant and God the master, but remember that this does not give us the whole picture of relationship between the believer and his Saviour – Jesus is just using a story to make a point and indeed a very important point.

So let us look at the duties which Jesus expects the disciples (and us) to fulfil. They centre around the importance of recognising sin and the way to deal with it – key issues for living the Christian life.

1.      Firstly we find in v 1-2 a duty to care for weaker Christians by helping them avoid the damaging effects of sin  – especially to those who are young in the faith. He warns us that temptation is inevitable – we live in a fallen world where much that is doubtful seems so attractive. A wise pastor noted that temptation usually boils down to one of three issues – money, sex or power, and lives can so easily be derailed when we allow any of the basic Christian principles to be compromised, that is avoiding materialism, fidelity in marriage and humility – so often we equate sin with criminal activity and become insensitive to the ungodly attitudes or behaviour in our own lives which set a bad example to others who may be far less capable of coping and in due course may  stumble and fall. This could be from our business life, or the way we deal with relational issues, or perhaps in our dealings with the other sex. Maybe you can flirt and get away with it whilst the one who follows the same approach will flirt and fall.  There is no compromise from Jesus – these things are wrong and He warns with a most graphic illustration that 'It would be better in the final judgement to have endured a most horrible death than to cause someone else to stumble' Our example to others is that important. Christianity is not a religion of rules and regulations – indeed we have tremendous freedom - but with that freedom comes the responsibility to use it correctly,   as  Paul wrote to the Galatians (5:13)  ….you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

2.      We have a duty of care (v3) for each other by being prepared to confront sinful behaviour.

It often takes courage to challenge, it also takes humility to do it well. The object must always be the restoration of the offending party not any desire for vindication on our part. Jesus gives superb guidance on how to go about this in Matthew 18. When there's a problem don't go straight to the vicar, first you approach the other party on a 1 2 1 basis, if they respond so much the better; if not, take a friend along and try again, if that also fails, then and only then, involve the church leadership.

And do you know this is a principle that works! Not just in church but in the wide world as well. I once had a member of staff who had an issue with another colleague. They complained to me, so that meant invoking official procedures and involving the personnel department.  I was a bit uncomfortable about this so told them to go away and follow this pattern, first approach the other party on a 121 basis, then take a colleague, then and only then if there was no resolution come back to management. The personnel officer commended me for ' a wonderful approach' in dealing with a difficult issue – much as I appreciated the brownie points, I had to confess that it was not my wisdom but just basic bible teaching! And we didn't hear any more about the problem.

3.      This all may seem other person centred, surely we have a duty of care for ourselves too? Well yes we do but Jesus picks up not on work /life balance or physical fitness - important as those things seem to be in today's world, instead He picks up on one of the consequences of sinful behaviour – the hurt and bad feeling it causes. The issue is forgiveness, the key to restoration and healing of strained relationships. How? By intentionally forgiving others, by accepting true repentance at face value even when the offence is repeated. - which is of course extremely difficult when you're the wounded party. That doesn't mean that you should go on meekly being a doormat – abusive husbands for example are often full of remorse but short on  repentance. True repentance  means a willingness to take the steps needed for lasting change, to put things right and keep them that way. Remorse is grief about the mess you've caused.  There has to be an underlying change of heart.  Having said that if we harbour unforgiveness it damages us, it undermines our faith and changes our character for the worse. There are no two ways about it – basically unforgiveness is sin, it causes problems in the workplace, it divides families and it divides fellowships. Especially in larger churches like this one we can function if necessary without getting involved with certain individuals who may have upset us in the past, so allowing that damaging hurt to fester. Friends Jesus knows what it is like to be wounded by those to whom He had done no harm – if you are harbouring any resentment and unforgiveness it needs dealing with - will you please bring it back to the Lord? If you need to work through this Louis Smedes has written a very useful  book (*) on forgiveness subtitled 'Dealing with the hurts we don't deserve' that I found very helpful – if you would like a copy do have a word with me.

The disciples however were dismayed – you can almost feel their discomfort in v4 as Jesus spoke – nowadays they might say Lord – get real!, we just can't do it. Forgiving the same person over and over again – no can do – it's simply too hard. Recognising His authority they ask for a supernatural injection of faith to be able to do it. How often do we make the same mistake, we find an issue in our Christian life difficult to cope with and ask God for the quick fix, a sort of spiritual drink of 'Red Bull' – now as then Jesus doesn't sympathise, He doesn't agree with the disciples, He doesn't compromise by saying something like 'Yes chaps I understand – just do your best anyway'. He simply reminds them in the most graphic way that they already have all the resource they need. Contrasting a tiny seed with a huge tree in v5 He reminds them that with God a little faith will move seemingly impossible obstacles. Their job is to do what is expected and let God do the rest. To underscore this He tells them this story of the landowner and the hard working servant simply doing his duty.

And that is precisely what He calls us to today. What the story leaves out however is that in real life the bigger picture is that the landowner did go and serve the servant because our Lord Jesus, mighty God, came to this world and identified Himself totally with His people – as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

He calls us to follow Him

*Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve

Lewis Smedes (Author)

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