Text Study for Luke 17:1-10 (Part One)

17 Pentecost C; October 2, 2022

Some critical editions of the text label this section simply as “Some Sayings of Jesus.” The thought is that the Lukan author stitched some independent stories together in this section. Similar texts are separated in the Matthean account. Luke 17:1-3 resemble Matthew 18:6-7. The note on forgiving another disciple seven times a day resembles Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:22. The image of something big happening because of faith resembles Jesus’ words in Mark 11:23. The small parable in Luke 17:7-10 is exclusive to the Lukan account.

I rehearse this not because I’m interested in form criticism or tradition history. Instead, I just want to remind myself that the Lukan author makes choices about what to include in the account and where to put those texts. The section heading, “Some Sayings of Jesus,” could be heard as a description of a purported randomness or catch-all nature of this section. I don’t think that’s ever the case in the Lukan account. We may struggle to discern how the Lukan author is connecting all this material to the larger context. But just because we struggle doesn’t mean the Lukan author struggled in the same way.

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Unless there is some clear reason to do otherwise, we should assume that a Lukan text is tightly connected to its immediate context. The audience addressed in the second half of Luke 16 is the scoffing Pharisees. We see this in Luke 16:15. In Luke 17:1, we get a clear shift in the addressed audience. We have an adversative de. Jesus speaks to his disciples. They overheard the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Now Jesus unpacks (or complexifies) that parable as it applies to their life together.

I don’t see how it is responsible to read Luke 17:5-10 without reading Luke 17:1-4. I understand that this multiplies the problems in an already issue-laden text. But the urgent plea from the disciples, “Increase our faith!” doesn’t come in a rhetorical vacuum. Jesus calls the disciples to take care of the “little ones” in the community. This includes both accountability and reconciliation – even if the same process needs to happen seven times a day.

In light of verses one through four, I would be asking for additional resources as well. I need to remember that these “disciple” texts in the Lukan account are especially addressed to the Lukan audience. They are even more especially addressed to the leaders of the Lukan faith communities. Therefore, it is no accident that we switch from “disciples” to “apostles” in Luke 17:5. Perhaps the leaders in those communities were being too hard on members who didn’t have the luxury to participate as faithfully and as fully as those leaders would have liked.

It’s important to note that the Lukan author identifies Jesus as “the Lord” in verses four and five. That reinforces the notion that this exchange is really happening in the Lukan community more than it is between Jesus and his disciples on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. It should be clear by this time in the Lukan account that the leaders of the Lukan communities were having some trouble figuring out the nature and scope of their own accountability as leaders.

“It is impossible for stumbling blocks not to come along,” Jesus tells his disciples (Luke 17:1a, my translation). As a parish pastor, I should have read that reminder every day of my ministry. Far too many times I treated everyday human failings as personal bothers and insults. Why couldn’t these people do better so that I could focus on the real stuff of ministry? I learned through hard and halting lessons that normal human failings are the real stuff of ministry. And I learned through those hard and halting lessons that my responses to those normal human failings could have a profound impact on the life and faith of my members.

I think with chagrin about a brief conversation in my first parish. A faithful member asked a question in good faith at a congregational meeting. My response was too snarky by half. On reflection I realized that the question had tapped my insecurities as a leader, and I punished the poor fellow in return. He was publicly embarrassed by my response, but I ignored that outcome.

It was only when he was absent from worship that I realized something was wrong. I asked forgiveness and offered a public apology for my behavior. I created a stumbling block for his participation in the community of faith through my poor leadership and personal limitations. I was the one who sinned and needed forgiveness. I’m grateful that my parishioner was able to offer that undeserved gift and to return to worship and service. But it was a close scrape for me as a leader.

I wonder if one of these little ones mentioned in Luke 17:2 includes a reference to Lazarus in the previous parable. I am sure that my bad behavior led to some dark thoughts on the part of my parishioner, thoughts that did not enhance his life and faith. I can imagine that as Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate day after day, some of his thoughts and imaginings shaded into darkness.

I would have been hard pressed not to wish ill for the rich man if I were in Lazarus’ place. Knowing myself and my reactions, I can imagine that I would have been filled with resentment. I would have externalized my pain with wishes that similar harm might come to the rich man. I would have coveted – not merely desired but coveted – the food on the rich man’s table. I would have cursed even the dogs, who were, after all, just doing what dogs do.

“Pay attention to yourselves!” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 17:3 (my translation). This is one of the primary emotional tasks of leaders – to be attentive to ourselves. As leaders in any community, we need to monitor our own responses and reactions. We need to make sure that we are aware of what motivates and moves us in response to stimuli that come at us from our community.

In this regard, it’s always worth remembering the great Viktor Frankl quote from Man’s Search for Meaning. “Between stimulus and response there is a space.” Frankl writes, “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It’s important to remember that Frankl wrote this as he described his experiences in the Nazi death camps. For Frankl, this kind of self-awareness was part of his path to survival.

I find it interesting that Jesus moves from the second person plural (“yourselves”) to the second person singular (“your”) in verse three. The rebuke, repentance, and reconciliation envisioned in this passage is clearly at a personal level, between two members of the Lukan faith community. “If your sibling sins, you must rebuke that one,” Jesus says, “and if that one repents, you must forgive” (Luke 173b, my translation). That move to the second person singular continues into verse 4.

The most immediate context for the request for increased faith, therefore, is the command to forgive a repentant sibling seven times a day. Of course, that number isn’t an upper limit. It’s a symbol of ongoing and complete forgiveness. The command is to forgive the repentant one as many times as it takes to maintain the relationship.

This will drive some people justifiably crazy. It seems like a sure formula, for example, for perpetuating an abusive relationship. I don’t think for a moment that this is what Jesus intends. We tend to have an over-developed sense of what it means to forgive.

And we have an under-developed of what it means to repent. Repentance is far more than expressing sorrow for a previous action. It is a change of mind that demonstrates evidence that the offender is now a different sort of person. The standard is very high for disciples who have been wronged. The standard is at least as high for the disciple who seeks forgiveness. Repentance is no small or momentary thing.

The connective between verses four and five is a “kai.” It’s an “and.” Rhetorically, the request from the apostles continues the conversation happening in verses one through four. The disciples are portrayed as seeing a continuity between Jesus’ command to forgive and their desire for increased faith. If we’re commanded to engage in that sort of behavior in the faith community, the disciples seem to say, we’re going to need more resources to get the job done.

That’s a response that makes sense to us as readers. But it’s not what Jesus intends. Verse six has a “de,” a “but.” The conversation was headed in one direction, and Jesus needs it to go another direction. The apostles seem to have gotten the wrong end of stick on this one. Jesus needs to reorient the conversation. He does that with some outlandish imagery and a disgusting little parable (disgusting, I hope, from our twenty-first century vantage point).

It’s that rhetorical whipsaw between verses five and six that makes the reading of verses one through four so important for our interpretation. The disciples are headed off in the wrong direction and need a course correction in their thinking. We probably need that course correction as well. We’ll look more closely at how Jesus responds in our next post.

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