“We are Beggars”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the middle of a bitterly cold February, a sixty-three year old man lay dying on his bed, suffering from various ailments. Not too long before, he had told his wife that he did not believe he would live to see Easter that year. His world seemed to be falling down around him; his church suffered from the strife that so often characterizes God’s people; civil unrest in his country threatened to break into open war. His life had been filled with both triumph and heartache, but he feared that everything for which he had worked so hard would be for nothing. He doubted whether anything he had done had been worthwhile.
After he died, one of his close friends found a piece of paper on his bedside table, and the last six words were these: “Wir sind Bettler, hoc est verum.” That is German and Latin for “We are beggars, this is true.” The man was Martin Luther, and his last written words summed up his judgment on himself and on all his works. “We are beggars, this is true.”
These words might sound strange to us who are trained in the North American schools of “enhancing self-esteem” and “you have to love yourself before others will love you.” We’re supposed to build ourselves up, pad our resumés, demonstrate our financial upside. Jesus’ words are stranger still. How hard to swallow and how bitter they are to us who have drunk deeply at the wells of human pride! “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? [He] does [not] thank the servant because he did what was commanded, [does he]? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:7-10, ESV). Perhaps that is your experience of the Christian life. Maybe you feel like all you do is work and work and work, and you don’t get one word of thanks. You serve the church, you serve your family, and no one ever pays attention. Of course, you know you’re supposed to be humble and not expect anything in return, but it would be nice to have someone appreciate what you do for once. Mothers, maybe your husband and kids don’t seem to appreciate how much you really do. Fathers, maybe your wife and kids seem to take and take, and never give. Members of the LWML, you spend yourselves tirelessly for the sake of service and mission. You identify with the servant in the story. You expect Jesus to say it will be all right in the end; that you will get in the end what you really deserve now. But he does not say that here. Here He says, in effect, your reward is simply to do what you’ve been commanded to do. Keep on serving and doing what you’re supposed to do and don’t expect a reward or a word of thanks; simply echo Martin Luther: we are beggars, this is true. What is the lot of the beggar? Is it not to get used to rejection? To never expect anything from anyone, because they are seemingly blind to your poverty?
However, both Jesus and Luther were speaking about more than the thanklessness of people. They spoke of our lives before God. Before God we are nothing but beggars and unworthy servants. If God never gave us anything, we would still be obligated to serve Him. He made us, and He can do what He wants with what He has made. If God is a tyrannical master, holding us captive to do His bidding, who are we to talk back to Him? St. Paul reminds us, as does the prophet Isaiah, that if God has made some vessels for noble use and some for less than noble purposes, we do not have the right to object. You do everything you have been commanded to do, and when you have done it all, say that you have only done your duty; you are an unworthy servant.
That should be our perspective. To say “I am an unworthy servant” is to recognize what God’s holiness is really about. God’s holiness is set in sharp relief against all unholiness. God’s holiness is hatred of sin, and, in fact, hatred of sinners. Because sinners can’t be saved unless they get killed. God is not about salvaging some hidden, higher “good part” of you; He is about killing anything you call “your self”-that is completely infected by sin-and bringing to life a new self: a self you would not claim as your own, if your flesh had its way. Unless you can follow Jesus and say that you are an unworthy servant, and say with Luther that you are a beggar, you cannot be saved. Unless you can believe and confess the troublesome truth that God’s judgment of you is accurate, that you must hate yourself and accept hell as your just reward, you will get exactly what you think you don’t deserve.
There’s that awful word: “unless.” It is closely related to that other hard word, “if.” If you have faith as big as a mustard seed, you could tell the mulberry tree to be transplanted into the sea. The mustard seed was considered to be the smallest seed at Jesus’ time, but what great results come from small things! Jesus tells His disciples that they have no idea what kind of gift faith is. They don’t know the half of it. “Increase our faith,” they say. But faith is not so much about quantity as it is about quality. You have faith, Jesus says, but you don’t yet realize how powerful is the One in whom your faith trusts. Throwing trees into the sea is nothing! Bringing sinners to repentance and forgiveness-now there’s something that’s actually miraculous!
Now faith is the unhesitating acceptance that what God says about us is true. If God says we deserve hell, we deserve hell. If God says we are hateful in His eyes, we are hateful in His eyes. In the Face of this God, we can do nothing but beg, nothing but claim unworthiness. Before the unavoidable judgment of a perfectly just judge, we have no valid arguments, no believable excuses. And it is exactly here that we cry out with the disciples: Lord, add to us faith! We believe, help Thou our unbelief! Holy Spirit, daily kill off those things we hold so dear: our supposed worthiness, our best and most pious attempts to gain God’s favor, our love of recognition and admiration, and our hope for some reward in the end.
To hold onto those things is to set ourselves against God. The master in the parable is God, but He is not our God, He is not God for us. The master of the parable is God against us in our sin, God destroying our pretensions. This God says, “Do what I tell you simply because I tell you.” The strange thing about this parable is not what is said about us-could we be anything other than sinners begging for mercy? What is strange is that the demanding God who is against us in our sin is for us in Christ. The irony in this parable is that God has already proved that He is not the severe master; He is not against us. Come to find out, the exacting master is really the gracious Father! And it is not a lowly servant who feeds us, it is the very Lord of the household! Jesus, who deserves to sit and dine and be served by us, gave up His place at the Father’s table, and took our form, the form of servants.
Beloved, unlike the master in the story, your Lord does invite you to sit in His place. In the exact words of this parable in Luke 17, Jesus says in Luke 12:37: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them” (ESV). Today, He washes your hands, stained with the blood of your life, where things go wrong no matter how hard you try. Today, He washes from your feet the coal-black dust of sin, which you have tracked into His house this morning. He invites you to come to Him for clothing-not the work-clothes of a slave, but the custom-fitted clothing of His righteousness, sewn by Christ with His own nail-pierced hands. No more will you take the slave’s stool, but in Christ the Father seats you in the place belonging to the Son. As children of the heavenly Father, He serves you in the eternal love of a Body broken for you and given under simple bread; He serves you with the sweet forgiveness of Blood shed for you and given under simple wine. See how He serves you! See how much He loves you! And faith is the unhesitating acceptance that what God says about you in Christ is true.
Though in the flesh you are unworthy before God, in the Lord your work is not for nothing! Mothers and fathers, you are needed and appreciated! People of God, and especially today LWML, your service to the church and to your community do not go unnoticed or unneeded! But they are not noticed and rewarded because you can, or need to, do those things to earn the places reserved for the children of God. If you had to do them to prove to God you loved Him, they would never be enough. But do not fear. Because of the work of His Son Jesus, God has freed you from the worries of recognition and advancement in the slave-economy of this world. God sees your good work, and with you He is well-pleased. That’s because He does not see your work as the begrudging fulfillment of the slave’s obligations, but as the joyous work of the Lord of the house, in whose place you have been granted to sit.
“We are beggars, this is true.” But our Lord has grace and love enough for every beggar, every servant who longs to be a child. His grace is sufficient and He gives it to every one who comes to His House this morning-beggars, servants, all. “Immeasurably rich in mercy is He who is the Savior of all sinners and whom the [New Testament] called ‘the Savior of his body,’ the Redeemer of His church. And inexhaustible are the riches of his means of grace, the Gospel in sermon and absolution, Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper-inexhaustible for all beggars” (Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way, II:177). Inexhaustible for you.
“Jesus, your blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed
With joy shall I lift up my head” (“Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness,” LSB 563, st. 1)
What wondrous love is this? Dear Lord, increase our faith!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/2/07