Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 6, 2019
Luke 17:5-10 Commentary
You get the feeling that even the people who put together various Bible translations don’t know what in the world to make of—or therefore what in the world to do with—the first part of Luke 17. The NRSV chose as its sub-heading “Some Sayings of Jesus.” The NIV opted for something that looks like the beginning of a shopping list: “Sin, Faith, Duty” (you’re tempted to add “Eggs, Milk, Cheese . . .”)
As younger folks have been given to say in recent years when encountering any utterance they deem a bit off-beat, so we could say of Luke 17, “Well that was random.”
Indeed, not a few preachers might well be tempted to take the week off from the Gospel text and try something else from the Lectionary. (And lucky for you, the CEP website does provide sermon jump-start articles on all 4 texts each Sunday!)
But suppose you want to stick with this text. It actually will yield some fine insights.
True, what we seem to have here are some strung-together statements that at first blush seem to not flow well one into the other (and that are anyway rather difficult to figure out even in isolation from each other). The Lectionary probably has not helped matters by choosing to start at verse 5 but the words of the disciples (called “apostles” here, which is an odd anachronism in and of itself—see the “Textual Notes” part of this sermon commentary) appear to be some kind of response to the words of Jesus in verses 1-4 about forgiving those who offend us. When the disciples ask for more faith in verse 5, it seems to be in reaction to Jesus’ advice in verse 4 about a seven-fold forgiveness for a seven-time offender. Thus, it’s a little tough to hack off the first four verses of Luke 17 when preaching on this text. (I myself find that replies make more sense when seen in the context of that which is being replied TO! Many and mysterious are the ways of the Lectionary . . .)
But despite the oddities of this passage, what also strikes you when reading it is that Jesus seems to be unusually direct in these verses. Assuming that Jesus was not typically sarcastic or mean-spirited (I suppose we can assume that he was never guilty of sinful patterns of speech that belittle others), it may be that Jesus’ point in these words was that we may at times be guilty of making the Christian faith out to be harder—and maybe more noble—than necessary.
Let me explain. Jesus has just admitted in verses 1-4 that life is full of unsavory people who are intent on tripping us up spiritually. Maybe those who cause others to stumble would indeed be better off at the bottom of the sea, sunk to the depths mafia-style with a cinderblock for a necklace. But the fact is that most of the people who may deserve such a watery grave won’t get one and will keep on causing scandals and spiritual upset for others (take a look at the Lectionary Psalm reading for this same week when Psalm 37 counsels us to NOT be upset that the wicked prosper as often as not).
These folks are not going to go away and no church—no matter how pious, holy, spiritual, or wonderful—will ever be free of them, either. (Notice that in verse 3 Jesus admitted that the person who sins against you may well be another “disciple” or “brother” and not always some anonymous person from outside the community. Nine times out of ten, we know the names of the people who cause us the greatest hurts in life—most of the time they are also people who at one time or another we called our friends and who we may well call “friend” again in the future!).
The probability that we will be hurt by one another even in the community of faith is high and ongoing.
But the thing to do is to be honest about such hurts and to confront those who offend us. Nothing feels better than a good old fashioned confrontation. Especially when you are convinced that you are the wounded (and so innocent) party, it is something of a moral head-rush to upbraid the one who inflicted the hurt. There is no indignation as sweet as righteous indignation, after all!
But Jesus makes clear that it can never be for the sake of revenge that you do such confronting but with the hope of restoration such that the moment the offender repents, your next job is to get off your high horse of confrontation and forgive this person, letting the matter drop for good. What’s more, that posture of forgiveness needs to be true even for repeat offenders who do the same thing to you over and over and over. (And let’s be honest, the people whom we know and maybe even love who hurt us tend to inflict the same hurt repeatedly across the years. “Why is she ALWAYS like that?” we ask about a mother-in-law, a sister, a friend, a coworker. And the little adverb “always” is apt: those who criticize you for your weight, for your clothing, for the kind of car you drive, for your work habits, or for the overall cut of your jib rarely proffer such critiques just once!)
“Keep on forgiving, “Jesus said in verse 4. So in verse 5, where this lection technically begins, the disciples reply, “Fine, Lord. We can do that just as soon as you increase our faith.” We know, I think, where that request came from. There is more than a hint of an attitude of “Yeah right!” behind this. Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh. Easy for HIM to talk. As someone once said, God forgives wholesale but most of us muddle through on the retail level of forgiveness. God is a five-star general of forgiveness whereas the rest of us are mere lance corporals.
The disciples—to use another analogy—feel like a multi-millionaire just told them to go and take care of the endemic problem of hunger in certain African nations. In response the disciples say, “Sure, we will get right on that right after you grant us a couple million of your bucks, OK?” You’ve got all the goodies, they are saying to Jesus, so how about sharing some with us spiritually impoverished guys?
But Jesus doesn’t let it go at that. Instead he reaches for a bit of good old gospel hyperbole—what someone once called the language of sacred excess—and says, “Increase your faith?! Why? The smallest faith in the world can tell trees to walk. You’ve got more faith than that right now so don’t go telling me that you don’t have enough in your faith tank to forgive someone seven times in a row.”
In other words, what you need is not more faith but fewer excuses.
To hammer home Jesus’ actual point a bit more, Jesus then tells a story that as much as says, “Oh and by the way, WHEN you have forgiven someone seven times with the faith you already have, don’t come trotting back to me like some dancing dog and expect a pat on the head for being such a super disciple. You’ll be doing no more than what you’ve seen me do, and what I do is what I’ve seen my Father do. It’s the family way in the kingdom of God and when you act in accordance with who you are by grace, that’s wonderful but you’ll just have to pardon me if we don’t crank up the angel choir with the Hallelujah Chorus each time you forgive your mother-in-law for telling you for the umpteenth time that you may not be good enough for her daughter. This is just how it goes in life. Deal with it and let’s move on.”
This really is the nitty-gritty reality of life. Maybe the NIV was right to sub-title the section with something that resembles a shopping list. This is just how it goes on Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings. We have to deal with “Sin, Faith, Duty” even as we learn how to live as a Christian sister or brother to John, Phil, Judy, Sharon . . . “Sin, Faith, Duty” really is like a daily “To Do” list. We maybe don’t like it, but this is very often what the life of grace simply must look like.
Is there anything important about the fact that Luke puts in the anachronism of “apostles” in verse 5? It may be no more than a slip of the pen as Luke wrote this gospel long after “apostles” had become the common term for Jesus’ followers. But it may also have been intentionally put there as a way to signal to the reader that the tensions that surround forgiveness and the need to put up with one another’s failings again and again was indeed going to persist on and on even into the apostolic age of the church. Maybe they really had been known only as “disciples” on the day this conversation with Jesus took place. But the question at hand persisted even long after those same people became known as “apostles.” Those who have ears to hear . . .
In his novel The Blood of the Lamb, author Peter DeVries skewered his Calvinist upbringing in many ways. In one particular scene he shows a group of devout men talking with the pastor in a living room of someone’s house. The men seem to be having a grim contest to see who can outdo whom in belittling their own spiritual works. No matter what act of service got mentioned, it was immediately decried as no more than “a filthy rag” that could not but stink to highest heaven compared to the shining glories that God alone possesses. The narrator of the novel observes this scene and then wryly comments, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can imagine what we made of vice.”
Is Luke 17:10 in the Bible to foster an atmosphere of spiritual denigration and abasement? Is Jesus saying here that at the end of every day, the work of a Mother Teresa, of a parish nurse, of a missionary in China, of a Hospice volunteer really amounts to no more than a pile of dirty rags performed by worthless servants who can do no more than plod through the Christian life as a grim set of duties, receiving neither divine nor human approbation or praise?
No. The same Jesus who in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain made it clear that great blessing attends those who live in kingdom ways cannot be interpreted here as saying that this same kingdom-shaped lifestyle is of no account in God’s sight. Nor did Jesus die on the cross for people who, even after being washed by grace, are even still to be accounted as “worthless.” If we rarify or isolate this saying of Jesus and so use it as a blanket statement on how we view Christian living, we make a grave mistake borne of exegetical ignorance of what is really happening in Luke 17.
As noted above in this commentary, the upshot of Jesus’ words appear to be a response to comments from the disciples that indicate they perhaps thought that loving the unlovable and forgiving even repeat offenders constituted some lofty act of super-Christian living. Jesus tells them that this is not so: they already had all they needed to lead Godly lives that exuded grace and forgiveness. What’s more, exhibiting those traits needed to be considered routine, not so extraordinary as to warrant arresting spectacles of celebration and such.
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