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Luke 17.5-10
Proper 22 - Year C

Other texts:


The pericope in the Lutheran Book of Worship was 17:1-10. I will address this longer section.

This lection consists of a number of independent sayings that Luke has put together. The sayings (and parallels):

Each of these sayings could form independent sermon themes. Looking for the reasons and situations that would have inspired Luke to put together these sayings could form other themes.

The first four verses are addressed to "disciples." At v. 5, the "apostles" make a statement to which Jesus responds.

This section assumes a community where the possibility exists of sinning against one another or causing another believer to sin. The term mikron ("little ones" v. 2) probably refers to new converts or perhaps those weak in their faith to use a Pauline phrase. The term adelphos ("brother" v. 3) refers to "another disciple" as the NRSV translates it.

"SCANDALIZING" SAYINGS (vv. 1-2)

These two sayings are connected by the words skandala (v. 1) and skandalizo (v. 2). These sayings are found in the opposite order in Matthew, and only the second is found in Mark.

The original meaning of this word group skandal- was "trap" -- or more specifically a trap's tripping mechanism. skandalethron was the stick on which the bait was placed, that when touched, tripped the trap. Metaphorically, this was applied to words which could "trap" one's adversaries. This word group is not frequent in Luke: 3 times in Luke, but 8 in Mark and 16 in Matt.

There are three definitions of the verb in the NT

(1) to cause someone to experience anger and/or shock because of what has been said or done -- to offend
(2) to cause someone to sin
(3) to cause someone to no longer believe

The noun refers to that thing or person who causes the above results.

Which of these meanings is intended in these verses?

Looking at definition (1): Causing someone to be angry or offended -- such things are bound to happen to us and we are bound to do things that will anger and offend other members of the church.

Causing offense is not necessarily bad. Paul says that "Christ crucified is an offense to the Jews (1C 1:23) and describes the cross as an offense (Ga 5:11). Mark & Matt indicate that Jesus can be the cause of offense (Mk 9:42; Mt 13:57; 15:12). These positive views of offense seem to be directed at those outside the community when they are confronted with the radical new way of thinking presented by the ordinary human Son of God who dies on the cross. However, I also think that there are times within the community that the proper proclamation of the gospel will offend and anger some people whose faith is not resting on the grace of God.

An issue that I have faced is whether or not to have a beard. It offends some people -- even people in congregations with numerous large pictures of a bearded Jesus hanging in the building! Should the beard be removed so as not to offend some people? Should the beard stay because I like beards and I dislike shaving and because it has no bearing whatsoever on the proclamation of the gospel or my salvation?

Given this meaning of the word, we may need to discern a difference between "little ones" and "big ones" -- or the weak and strong in faith -- or immature and mature believers. Paul makes this distinction in his arguments about dietary practices in 1C 8. Perhaps it is like Jesus' words to his disciples: "I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" (John 16:12). What is offensive and unbearable to one may promote growth and maturity in faith to another.

Looking at definition (2): Causing others to sin is a definition that fits well with the second group of sayings (vv. 3-4). With this understanding, what is/are the cause(s) to sin that will confront us? How do we cause others in the community to sin? I'll say more when we look at the next section.

Looking at definition (3): Causing others to no longer believe seems not to fit this section well. I can't image any Christian doing something that would cause another not to believe; although I had a member in my first church state: "You shouldn't cause me to doubt." The proclamation of the gospel (that can offend) should create a movement "from faith to faith." One's growth in faith can require giving up some idolatrous parts of the immature faith in order to move to a more mature understanding of God's grace for all people.

What might be some of the "occasions for stumbling" as NRSV puts v. 1? One approach is to refer to the previous story in Luke. Not helping the poor right outside our doors is a stumbling. Not sharing of one's abundant wealth is a stumbling. Not listening to "Moses and the prophets" is a stumbling. Seeing poor, helpless Lazarus is at Abraham's side, without any mention that he had faith in Jesus or that he had been baptized or that he had attended church, is a stumbling. Not believing in the resurrection is a stumbling. These "stumbling blocks" can both offend us and be a cause of sin if we don't respond in a godly, graceful way.

SINNING, REBUKING, REPENTING & FORGIVING (vv. 3-4)

This section has an interesting introductory warning: "Be on your guard" or "Pay attention to your own selves". We might expect that after what has gone before, the warning would be against causing others to sin or sinning against others; but the warning is about dealing with someone who has sinned against us. It is a warning to be a forgiving community.

The verb hamartano (= to sin) occurs in only two stories in Luke: twice here and twice in the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:18, 21). All 11 times the noun hamartia (= sin) occurs in Luke, it is always connected with forgiveness. Just pointing out sin is not the whole story in Luke's gospel. There needs to be forgiveness.

The term epitimao literally means: "to place a value on". Placing a positive value on someone or something came to mean "commanding" or "ordering" that it be done. Placing a negative value on a someone or something came to mean "finding fault with" or "rebuking". In our context, the word refers to telling a fellow believer that s/he has done something wrong. Note that in the v. 4, the sin is against "you" (singular). Perhaps we not only need to preach against sins against God, but also sins against one another in the community. Christianity is not a private faith. It is lived in community. We can and will sin against one another. We need to point out and forgive such sins.

The origin of the root hamart- meant "to miss the mark" then "to fail". It seems to me that often the sins against one another in the Christian community are not "great sins" like stealing, murder, or adultery, but simply the failure of one party to carry through with his/her responsibilities, such as, the assigned usher or reader or Sunday school teacher who fails to show up or to call a replacement, or someone who fails to meet their financial pledge.

The word epitimao has an interesting pattern in Luke. Prior to this text, it is always Jesus who rebukes: demons or evil spirits (4:35, 41; 9:42); a fever (4:39); the wind and waters (8:24); and his disciples (9:21, 55). After this text, it is always people rebuking others -- and usually being wrong about it.

I think that this may be a warning that we need to be very careful in our rebuking of others -- we could be wrong; but our text may also be a warning that we need to "place a negative value" on other members' failings -- especially as they affect the whole community. We shouldn't just let them slide -- as I usually do.

Pointing out one's failings is meant to lead to metanoeo -- perhaps most literally in this context to "re-think" the actions. metanoeo besides meaning "to repent" or "to change one's mind," which are part of the meaning here; but it also carries the sense "to perceive afterwards" or "to perceive too late" or "to have second thoughts." Sometimes the words or actions we thought were OK at the time, with hindsight were seen to have "missed the mark". Such insight is meant to lead to repentance and forgiveness.

The parallel passage in Matthew does not have the "rebuking" or "repenting" before forgiving. This raises a pertinent question: Does repentance need to precede forgiveness? I find that this is extremely important with abuse victims/survivors. Some cannot find it in their hearts to forgive the abuser. My response in such cases has been to state that we do not have to forgive the unrepentant. Until abusers (or any sinner) has "re-thought" their actions and come to recognize them as sins against God and against others and repent of those sins, I'm not sure that the sinned-against person needs to be forgiving.

On the other hand, I've read articles that state the opposite -- that as Christians we need to be forgiving towards all who have sinned against us whether or not they are repentant or even if they will accept or know of our forgiveness. Our attitude of forgiveness is not so much for the other person's sake, but for our own well-being. Forgiveness does not require two people; it is the actions of one towards another. Reconciliation, though, does require both parties to be involved.

What does it mean "to forgive"? Literally, aphiemi means "to send away" or "to make apart". A graphic image I've used is if sin is "missing the mark" -- not hitting the perfect bulls-eye, forgiveness is "removing" or "taking away" all the errant arrows that have missed. Nothing imperfect remains. They have been "sent away".

Who benefits most from forgiving? I think that it is the forgiver who benefits most. Holding grudges, living with resentments, can eat away at one's life. The desire to get even can consume all of one's energy. Forgiveness means "letting go" of all of that from one's life. Forgiving others doesn't undo the damage they might have done. Forgiving others doesn't proclaim that what they did was all right. Sin is wrong. Forgiving it doesn't turn it into a right. Forgiving others means that one will no longer let the past damage continue to control one's own life in the present. It means giving up all hope of trying to change the past. It means living a new life in the present.

The "sinner" may not ask for forgiveness. The "sinner" may not repent or admit his/her wrongs. The "sinner" may not accept the forgiveness. But, often for one's own mental and spiritual health, forgiving the "sinner" is necessary. As Jesus was dying on the cross, he forgave those who were killing him. Did they ask for it? Did they repent of their wrongs? Did they accept it? We don't know. We know that Jesus forgave them. Forgiving isn't always easy. There are people we may not want to forgive. So we pray, "Give us more faith," so that we might be more forgiving.

As I noted above, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is, I believe, necessary for reconciliation to happen. Reconciliation can happen between the two church members when whatever kept them apart has been "sent away;" when it no longer controls one's attitude and actions. The Christian community's health and wholeness is restored. In fact, this whole section (or a sermon) could center on the theme, "Being the Community of Christ" or "Belonging to a Church." How should our membership in a congregation be different from membership in a lodge or clubs?

STAGES OF FAITH? (v. 5)

Why do the apostles make the request: "Increase our faith?" Does their request indicate that one can have more or less faith? What was the clue that they had an inadequate faith? Earlier Jesus (9:1-6) had sent them out with power over demons and diseases. They preached and healed. They went about without any supplies of their own. They had the faith to trust God for their necessities. They had the faith to heal the sick and cast out demons. They had the faith to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God. Why do they now ask for more faith? Did they need more faith to stand up to temptations to sin? To cease from causing others to sin? To rebuke those who had sinned against them? To forgive one another? Perhaps moving mulberry trees (or mountains as in the parallels) into the sea is an easier act of faith than moving us to "rebuke" and "forgive" people who have sinned against us.

Culpepper (Luke, NIB) writes on this verse:

The disciples' plea in this context conveys the recognition that on the one hand faith is a dynamic process and one can grow in faith. On the other hand, the disciples ask that the Lord add to or strengthen their faith, thereby recognizing that faith is not just a matter of their own strength. In both of these aspects, Luke's concept of faith is similar to Paul's who writes of righteousness as being revealed "through faith for faith" (Rom 1:17) and declares that we have been saved by grace through faith and that this it not of our own doing (Eph 2:8). [p. 322]

I think that our growth in faith is nearly always a movement from faith to faith (rather than from unbelief to faith). While the faith I have today is similar to the faith given at baptism, it is also different. Similarly, who I am today is both the same and different than who I was as an infant. My essence -- my DNA is exactly the same, but my knowledge, physical size, abilities, etc. have changed considerably since birth.

FAITH OF A MUSTARD SEED (v. 6)

In Greek there is a "future conditional clause": "If you were to have the faith of a mustard seed ..." -- implying that you don't have that faith now (Matt 17:20). There is also an "according to present reality conditional clause": "If you have the faith of a mustard seed (and you do) ..." (Luke 17:6). Luke is affirming that they have the faith to do what is expected of them (the theme of vv. 7-10). If they would believe and act on the faith that they already have, then they can rebuke and repent and forgive within the community, it will happen. In essence, he seems to imply that they don't need more faith, but to make use of the faith that they already have.

Perhaps this is similar to the person who states: "I can't do it," and a parent/mentor type insists: "Yes, you can." They try and discover that they can do it. How many of us have said, "I can't do door to door evangelism." "I can't talk to him/her about the hurt they have caused me." "I can't forgive him/her." It would seem to me that the issue in such statements is not that of "can't do," but one of fear -- which is the opposite of faith.

It is more fitting with the Matthew and Mark parallels, but I have suggested that if people are unable to move mountains or trees into the sea, then their faith must not be as large as a mustard seed. I know that I haven't been able to conjure up such miracles with my faith. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we can't trust even our faith. It isn't even as big as a mustard seed. Salvation comes from trusting God to give us what we can't do ourselves -- including faith.

A brief prayer I read years and years ago is related to this text. It goes something like: "O God, I don't pray for enough faith to move mountains. I can get enough dynamite and bulldozers to do that. What I need and ask for is enough faith to move me."

A SLAVE'S JOB (vv. 7-10)

This saying could be related to the previous one by the concept of "obey" (v. 6). As the tree obeys the request of the faithful, so a slave follows the orders of the master.

Also, even with increased faith, the disciples are still disciples -- a slave is still a slave.

Culpepper expresses the meaning of this parable very succinctly: "...that regardless of how much we do, we cannot do more than is expected of us." [p. 323]

This parable presents an opposite picture of the master and slaves given in Luke 12:37. There the master has been out traveling and when he returns home, he has the slaves sit down to eat and he serves them.

I want to highlight the word translated "thank" in v. 9. The word is charis, which, at least in Paul, is usually translated "grace". In the NRSV, this word is never translated "grace" in Luke (although there is a "gracious" in 4:22)! It is "favor" in 1:30; 2:40; and 2:52; and "credit" in 6:32, 33, 34. Do we expect to earn credits with God or God's favor by doing what God has asked us to do? Not any more than slaves would earn from obeying their masters' orders.

Green (The Gospel of Luke) writes about this word:

In this script, "thanks" would not refer to a verbal expression of gratitude or social politeness, but to placing the master in debt to the slave. In the master-slave relationship, does the master come to owe the slave special privileges because the slave fulfills his daily duties? Does the slave, through fulfilling his ordinary duties to the master, become his master's patron? Of course not! Similarly, "worthless slaves" (v. 10) refers to slaves to whom no favor is due (and not to uselessness). [p. 614]

Although the word for "worthless" can mean "useless".

If the apostles have the increased faith so that they can do what is expected of them: stand up to temptations, not causing temptations, rebuking and forgiving those who have sinned against them, repenting of their own misdeeds (or uprooting and moving trees) -- they have only done what's expected of them. They shouldn't expect any special favors from God for being such a good Christian. Perhaps Luke included this parable to undermine any superiority complexes that might exist within the community between the "little ones" and the "big ones".

I have heard people say, usually in an unpleasant tone: "A thank you would be nice." Do we do what we do in order to get a "thank you" from God? Does that attitude make us worthless or useless servants?

If we impose some of Paul's (and Luther's) ideas of "grace" to this passage, we can say that grace is not necessary for those who do what's expected (those who "hit the mark"). Grace is necessary only for those who have "missed the mark" -- who have failed to do all that God expects of us. Grace is not something we can earn from God. It is a gift freely given to those who don't deserve it.

Culpepper offers this important reflection:

Nevertheless, God owes us nothing for living good, Christian, lives. God's favor and blessing are matters of grace -- they cannot be earned. Therefore, when we assume that we can deal with God on the basis of what God owes us, we have made a basic mistake. We have rejected grace as the basis of our relationship to God and based that relationship on our own worth and merit. Grace, by definition, is a free gift. [pp. 323-324]

The phrase "worthless slaves" (v. 10) is also used in Matt 25:30 (in the singular) about the slave who protected his master's money by burying it where it didn't even earn any interest. This worthless slave is thrown into the outer darkness.

What is it that we ought to do for our Master? Besides the topics I've mentioned earlier that were gleaned from the earlier verses of this text, we might look at what follows. Jesus commands the ten healed lepers to "go and show yourself to the priests". I think that God does command us to perform our religious duties. We might also consider the actions of the one who (disobeyed Jesus and) returned and thanked Jesus for his healing as another "ought to do" for our master.

Jesus' final speech in this gospel suggests some other duties we have as servants of the Lord. Jesus says: "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (24:46-48). When we are doing that in our local congregations and throughout the world, then we have reached the point where we can boast, "We are worthless slaves who are doing only what we are obligated to have done" (17:10). Anything less than that and we haven't even reached to level of "worthless slaves" or having a faith as large as a mustard seed.

WHAT IF GOD ANSWERED?

What might happen to us if and when God honors our request for more faith? I'm not positive that we really want more faith. More faith could lead us to stop doing some sinful things that we really like to do. More faith could lead us to be more forgiving towards those who have sinned against us and we really don't want to forgive some of those mean, rotten people. In some cases, we would like to see them dead.

More faith could lead us to be more like the slave in the story at the end of our text. That is, we become more dutiful slaves of God. Doing our duties willingly: Being more dutiful in attending worship services every week. Being more dutiful in contributing generously of time and money to the church and to the needy. Being more dutiful in participating in Sunday school and committees and other church activities. Being more dutiful and doing such duties willingly, without grumbling or complaining. Could more faith mean sacrificing one's own pleasures for the sake of the needy? Could more faith mean following more closely the footsteps of Jesus which led him to the ridicule and suffering and death on the cross?

I'm not sure that a lot of people really want more faith. They may want more of the faith that will help them out a faith that might heal themselves or a loved one, a faith that will help them pass a test, a faith that gives them assurance of eternal life; but do they really want a faith that will make them more Christ-like in sacrificial giving, in sacrificial loving, in sacrificial forgiving? I'm not sure if people want that.

It has been suggested that many people want only an inoculation of Christianity just enough of it to protect them from catching the real thing. There is a danger in asking God to give you more faith. You might get it then what?

There was once some parents whose daughter informed them that she was joining a Christian commune who was devoted to helping the poor. The parents exclaimed: "We raised our daughter to be a Christian, not a fanatic."

God's answer to the prayer, "Give us more faith," might make you a fanatic a fanatic against sinning, a fanatic about forgiving, a fanatic about living your life as a dutiful, obedient slave of God. If you pray, "Give me more faith," watch out, you might get it.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Avenue, Yuma, AZ 85364
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com