Long before the current very-popular “Downton Abbey” movie, and long before the “Downton Abbey” TV show, PBS showed a different TV series with some things in common with “Downton”; it was called “Upstairs Downstairs.” The title refers to the two groups of people who live in an early 20th-century British household – the gentlemen and ladies who own the house and are part of England’s upper class are the “Upstairs” folks, and their servants are the “Downstairs” folks, because that’s where their living quarters are. The series covered many years in England’s history, and included such major events as the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, and the 1929 Stock Market crash, but the episodes which were the most interesting were not the ones about those historic events, but those which had to do with certain characters who occasionally appeared in the household. Every once in a while, someone would arrive who couldn’t be easily categorized as either an “upstairs” person or a “downstairs” person, and didn’t really fit in with either group – for example, a so-called “commoner” dating one of the upstairs people, or a businessperson making a good living, but without the “proper” background to admit them to the “upstairs” category.
These individuals seemed to be most upsetting to the head butler, the top “downstairs” person, a Mr. Hudson – or, as the other servants called him, “Mistah Udsen.” Mistah Udsen was comfortable with the two categories “upstairs” and “downstairs”; he felt that people should know their place and accept it, and not “put on airs,” as he said, to pretend they belonged with the upstairs folk. He was an older member of the traditional servant class, who accepted the world as divided into classes, and he would even quote Scripture in support of that structure, being a dedicated religious man, as well as a patriot.
As the TV series progressed, however – it covered thirty years of history – Mistah Udsen saw his carefully-defined system of upstairs and downstairs people coming to an end. More and more people no longer fit into the categories; more and more servants were not content staying as servants, and wondered why they should continue to take orders from someone else just because they had been born into a different situation. England’s rigid class structure, at least in that form, was coming to an end.
Classifications like “upstairs” and “downstairs” people have not come to an end everywhere, however, and as we listen to two of Jesus’ parables today, I’d like us to try to imagine ourselves as one of the “downstairs” people – not downstairs people like Mistah Udsen, who are comfortable with the system, but downstairs people who are wondering why they should be at someone’s beck and call just because of the circumstances of our birth. Imagine living in a country with an oppressive government, for example, or being a poor farmer in Central America, working someone else’s land. If that’s too far away, imagine being stuck in a job with a tyrant boss, with no other options, or being at the mercy of an illness which severely limits your opportunities, and seems very unfair – there are all sorts of “downstairs” situations. Try to hear this as a “downstairs” person. The gospel according to Luke, chapter 17, verses 5 through 10:
“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. Suppose one of you has a servant plowing 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.’”
The first parable, the mustard seed, is very well-known, Not only is it found in three of the gospels, but another, similar parable about a mustard seed is also found in three gospels, the one which says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which grows into a great tree. Matthew’s version of this second parable states very directly why it’s the mustard seed which is used for the illustration: “It is the smallest of all seeds.”
The mustard seed is a familiar image to Christians. I even found a box of them in the office of the first church I served, and I suspect they may have shown up in a children’s sermon once upon a time. The tiny mustard seed becomes a great tree – this is a parable about the power of faith, about possibilities: even the tiniest bit of faith has the power to do big things, to uproot mulberry trees, to hurl them across the land.
The second parable, about being servants, is not well-known. It is found in none of the other gospels; it does not have another parable like it; it does not use an image which you can buy in a box and hold up during a children’s sermon. Listen to its ending again: Jesus says to them, “So with you – when you have done all you have been told to do, say ‘We are useless servants; we have done no more than our duty.’” This one seems to be not about great possibilities and uprooting things, but about staying in one’s place, being reconciled to one’s position as a downstairs person, about accepting things as they are.
What do we do with the two of these parables, side by side, especially as we put ourselves in the position of downstairs people? Do we listen only to the first one, and think of the great things we can do with only a little bit of faith, about the possibilities that are promised? Or do we listen only to the second one, in which we bow our heads and say “We are only useless servants, needing to do our duty”? How do we respond to the two parables when we’re downstairs people, in a situation of a totalitarian government’s oppression, of economic injustice like Central America’s, at the mercy of a tyrant boss or an unfair illness? What do we do when we find ourselves facing people like those described by Amos today, who “turn justice into wormwood and throw uprightness to the ground,” who “hate the one who teaches justice and detest anyone who declares the truth,” who “trample on the poor”? How do we respond in light of what seems to be a mixed message here – first, “you can do great things,” and second, “you should say that you are a useless servant, just doing your duty”?
One suggestion has been that we can respond by praying for a better future, but should continue acting in the same old way, as “useless servants”; have faith, but keep being submissive. This type of advice is heard especially in those situations that would require tremendous social upheaval, like overthrowing a government: pray that God will bring about change, but don’t do anything to upset things. Such a suggestion could be defended by citing Paul as an example: Paul is one of those who was afflicted by an illness which impeded his work, which cut into his possibilities; he referred to it as his “thorn in the flesh” in II Corinthians 12 and described his reaction: “I was given a thorn in the flesh, to batter me and prevent me from getting above myself. About this I have three times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me, but God has answered me ‘My grace is enough for you’ . . . that is why I am glad of weaknesses.” Paul seems to have gone the route of acceptance, at least in this case, rather than possibilities. Could prayer – and prayer alone – be Jesus’ intent?
It’s unlikely, given Jesus’ own pattern of behavior. Not only did Jesus indirectly call into question the social practices and standards of his time, in his teaching and parables, but he also directly challenged the religious and political authorities. Jesus both taught of a kingdom without upstairs and downstairs people, and personally confronted the authorities, to the point where they finally executed him. Even this particular example about faith speaks not of quiet prayer, but of uprooting, commanding, taking action.
Could the two parables, then, be about being sneaky? Notice that the servants parable says: “Here is what to say: we are useless servants.” Could it be that Jesus is suggesting that downstairs people should put on an act, saying to the master “I will quietly do my duty,” while secretly plotting to do great things?
Let me use an example from Laurie’s and my preparing-for-the-ministry days: The last step a candidate for ministry takes, before becoming a minister, is to go before Presbytery, to read his or her statement of faith before the pastors and elders, and then answer any questions they might want to ask. If ministers or elders hear something they disagree with, or something that sounds like it has not been thought out, they are likely to ask more and more questions; some examinations back in contentious Pittsburgh Presbytery, where we were both examined, went on longer than two hours.
One minister who was examined for this long before finally being passed told me she heard this reaction repeatedly after the ordeal: “Well, it’s her own fault she had to stay up there so long – she knew what they wanted to hear; why didn’t she just say it?” In other words, she should have forgotten about her own beliefs, her true opinions, her creative images, and just said whatever people wanted to hear. That way she’d get accepted, get ordained, start her job, and then she could go back to saying what she really believed. Could this be Jesus’ point? – believe you can do great things, but be “clever” about it; keep a low profile; say what they want to hear.
Again it’s unlikely, by Jesus’ own example. Jesus was not a low-profile kind of person, a say-what-they-want-to-hear kind of person. He was very direct; even while he was on trial for his life, he did not say what they wanted to hear, what would get him off the hook. Unless we think that Jesus is telling us to act differently from himself, it’s unlikely he’s advising us to be sneaky.
Then maybe, it has been written, it’s just an accident that these two parables are next to each other. Maybe they aren’t supposed to be considered together in the same sermon; maybe we’re not supposed to notice the seeming contradiction of both aspiring to great things and accepting being a useless servant.
Two problems with this: One, there are very few examples where the gospel writers did not have some reason for putting one story or one teaching next to another, at the point in the story where they did. Furthermore, if they do contradict each other, the problem isn’t removed even if we do separate them into different lessons; the fact would remain that we have two teachings, both by Jesus, that perplex us.
Which leaves me with this: Perhaps we can draw a conclusion about faith and patience from the two parables. Rather than thinking that the point is “have faith but don’t do anything” or “do things but don’t say anything,” we can find out about doing things and saying things and making plans; and also how to deal with the wait for the plans to take effect, for the results. Perhaps the two stories together are an acknowledgement of the fact that things don’t happen instantaneously – there are very few instances where we can order the mulberry tree to go, and the next second watch it sail out into the sea. More often, there’s a delay, or a process, or a long struggle; we can embrace the possibilities right away, and decide to do something and begin the work, but still have a long period before we see the results. Jesus knew this. He knew the kingdom of God was not going to be completely fulfilled in a couple days, that not everyone would turn to God and set the world right by a week from Thursday. Maybe Jesus was talking about what we do in the meanwhile – while we’re still dealing with being downstairs people, while we struggle with oppression or illness, while we’re at the risk of being overcome by discouragement as our servant status continues and we have to keep putting off our own dinner, and keep putting up with those who hate justice and throw uprightness to the ground.
Our tendency is to get impatient, to get discouraged, to lose hope. The reminder is: have faith. If you have faith like a mustard seed, you can uproot this mulberry tree and plant it in the sea – it might not happen today, or tomorrow, or a week from Thursday, but for as long as it takes – or at least as long as you can – have faith.
Martin Luther King and Gandhi and other leaders in the struggle for civil rights had to respond to impatience on the part of some of their followers. They’d had enough – they wanted to smash or hit back, to meet power with power. The essence of King and Gandhi’s nonviolence was that they would not become like their oppressors; they would not resort to those unjust means even if they looked like a shortcut. Instead, they urged their followers to be as patient as long as they could, to have faith in the future and in their beliefs rather than be corrupted.
If we must be servants for now, we will be ethical ones; if we must deal with “thorns” now, we will be patient. We know that God doesn’t want class structures or illness, but that things don’t always happen overnight. Being forced into the servant role, the downstairs role, is not a pleasant situation to be in – what we have from Jesus may not be so much a commandment as a reassurance. Have faith. It’s unfortunate but true that justice doesn’t happen in a moment. In the meanwhile, have faith.
I once read a story about a drug counselor. It sounds like a rough occupation. He said most of his patients relapse at least once – “a dubious reward for months of patience and caring, of being manipulated and lied to, of keeping lost spirits afloat.” He spoke of reading in the newspaper of a former patient, shot to death in a drug buy. “That was a rough one,” he said. “You sit down. You rehash over and over again whether there was something you could have done to prevent that from happening. You never stop second-guessing.” Sometimes it seems that the world is a bottomless pit of drugs; you get rid of one, and someone invents another. “The turnover rate is high for therapists.”
What keeps this man going? Perhaps it’s a kind of faith – the tiniest bit of faith in the future, that he’s doing the right thing, that there will be some successes. One day he was standing in a lobby. A young woman whom he recognized as a former patient who had been admitted for cocaine dependency approached him. He had been one of the people who got her into treatment. He had talked to her family and let them know everything that was happening in her life. Hopes for her recovery had not been promising, but now she looked very good. “She was also very happy” (he said). “She said she still had some things to work on but felt better than she had ever been.” His voice cracked as he recalled the chance meeting. “She had been sober for 17 months. That’s what keeps a therapist going.”
Let’s pray: God, thank you for the reminder that with even a little faith, we can accomplish great things, including things in the service of others. At the times we are not seeing results, in the meanwhiles, please give us patience, and the strength to persevere. Amen.