Text Study for Luke 17:11-19 (Part One)

18 Pentecost C

I would extend the reading through verse twenty-one. Some editions of the text lump Luke 17:19-20 into the following section and title it something like “The Coming of the Kingdom” or “Signs of the End.” However, there is a clear rhetorical break between verses twenty-one and twenty-two. In the story of the cleansing of the lepers, no audience is specified. However, the audience in verses twenty and twenty-one is the Pharisees. Beginning in verse twenty-two, the audience is once again the disciples.

This is a familiar tactic on the part of the Lukan author. The author presents an anecdote or parable. Then the author gives two levels of commentary. One level is for the “outsiders,” often represented by the Pharisees and the scribes. A second and deeper level is represented by the disciples. That second level contains the more nuanced instruction and calls to faithful following.

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Since the punch line of our text has to do with “this foreigner,” aka the Samaritan leper, it seems to me that verses twenty and twenty-one are a clear commentary on the preceding text. They serve as a bridge to the extended discussion that follows, but these verses are not directly part of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse to the disciples in Luke 17. So, let’s look at these two verses before we dive into the “official” text for the day.

“But having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, [Jesus] replied to them and said, ‘Neither is the kingdom of God coming with observing, nor shall they say, “Look here!” or “There!” For, behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst’” (Luke 17:20-21, my translation).

This small text deserves some close reading to aid our interpretation of the previous verses. We get an adversative “but” to begin the passage. We’re taking a detour or turn from the previous verses. The Pharisees are inquiring of Jesus in an ongoing way, not a one-off sort of way. And this inquiry is in the form of an investigation. There’s nothing overtly hostile in the inquiry. The Lukan author tends to say clearly when the Pharisees are seeking to entrap Jesus.

Inquiring minds want to know. When is the Kingdom of God coming?

The Lukan author has a real love for puns and double entendre. This marks the Lukan author as an accomplished Greek stylist. Greek writers delighted in the twists and turns of words and phrases. Here we find the word paratehrehsis. I transliterate it without a definition because it can mean two things. On the one hand, the word can mean “observations.” It can refer to things which can be seen. On the other hand, the word can mean “observances,” that is, the keeping of rules and laws. Some of that ambiguity is preserved in the English terms as well.

So, Lukan author, which is it? Is it observations or observances? I think the Lukan author would answer “Yes” (my kind of teacher!). Neither will the kingdom of God come in ways that can be publicly observed, nor will it come by means of particular observances of the rules. In both ways, Jesus tells the Pharisaic investigators, you are looking in the wrong place. The idea of “seeing” is an important part of the previous passage – our text. That’s one reason why I think these verses matter to our interpretation.

The final phrase of verse twenty-one has a similar ambiguity. The Lukan author uses the word “entos” to describe the location of the kingdom of God. This can mean “inside” someone or something. It can also mean “among” members of a group. The “your” in the sentence is plural, not singular. The kingdom of God is in the midst of “you all,” not in the midst of “you singular.”

That might settle the matter, but I’m not sure. The NRSV translates it as “among you.” This rendering tends to opt for the presence of the kingdom in the midst of the community. The NRSV has a footnote that reminds us it could also be “within you.” The KJV translates it as “within you” and tends to opt for a more “personal” presence of the kingdom, perhaps in the hearts of the believers. The NIV has “in your midst” and footnotes it “or is within you.” The CEV has “already among you.”

I opt for “in your midst” in order to preserve the ambiguity of the word. Once again, I think the Lukan author wants to keep that double meaning And I think the Lukan author wants to keep that double meaning because both are true. The kingdom of God is both within and among us when we come face to face with Jesus. But it will not be in the places (or people) available to casual observation. Nor will it be in the places or people connected to established channels of observance.

This helps me to think more clearly about those troubling words in Luke 17:7-10 as well. The work of the disciples is not to be found in extraordinary events or unusual social arrangements. We’re not going to see any mulberry trees going for a swim as a result of our own faith. Nor do disciples wait for existing social arrangements to be turned upside down before living lives of obedient service. Instead, the kingdom comes in the midst of the mundane. It’s not what we see that matters. Instead, it is how we do the seeing that matters.

Marcel Proust has been misquoted many times in this regard. I’ve done that myself, especially in presentations on Appreciative Inquiry. I think it would be better to attribute the quote to Pico Iyer, the source of the most often used paraphrase. With that disclaimer, here is the quote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” I think this quote captures some of the flavor of what Jesus seeks to convey to the Pharisees (and to the disciples in the earlier verses). Again, the whole idea of “seeing” is central to our text.

In addition, the Lukan author once again uses comedy to help make the point. Just imagine a bunch of eager seekers and searchers. As they look for the kingdom, they cry out to one another in enthusiasm. “Look, here!” And “No, there!” Imagine the group sprinting from one place to another as members point to various and sundry locations for the kingdom. It is sheer burlesque that works best when we see it rather than just say it.

I’m thinking of a game my spouse has played repeatedly with some of our grandchildren. We have a little wooden treasure chest. She hides it, sometimes with real coins inside and sometimes with play money inside. The contents of the chest don’t really matter that much to the kids. What really matters is the game. As they search, she calls out “warmer!” when they get close and “colder!” when they move away. The real fun is when she describes with great energy that they are “boiling hot” or “freezing cold.” That’s the kind of fun I think Jesus is having (or the Lukan author is having, or whatever) in this description.

If that fun is part of Luke 17:20-21, then I want to bring that back into the preceding verses. “Were none to be found having returned to give glory to God except for this ‘foreigner’?” (Luke 17:18, my translation). We can’t read Jesus’ tone from this or any other text. Sometimes the Lukan author gives us information that can help to determine that tone, but not always. We could read this question with Jesus being irritated. Jesus could roll his eyes in astonishment or disappointment. Jesus could be genuinely surprised or nonplussed by this turn of events. All those performances of the line are possible.

What if, however, we were to perform this line with a bemused smile? Could it be that Jesus finds this turn of events funny more than he finds it frustrating or disappointing? Here we are again, perhaps Jesus muses. At least the people who don’t really get it aren’t preparing to throw me over a cliff the way the home folks in Nazareth did! And isn’t it surprising who is equipped with the eyes to see, the heart to be changed, and the desire to fall at Jesus’ feet, glorifying God!

Today, I’m imagining people running to and fro, pointing here and there, and completely missing the presence of the kingdom of God both within themselves and among them. Yet, there it is, “hidden in plain sight.” The kingdom is present in and to “this foreigner.” What a remarkable surprise! I guess the joke is on us, the people who thought we knew where the kingdom is “supposed to” show up. As Jesus reflects on this in the Lukan account, I can imagine a chuckle that starts low and slow and then bursts out in full guffaw.

This conversation is going to take an even more ironic turn in the verses that follow. People pointing here and there at the kingdom will get it wrong, and the disciples should not pay attention to them. I think we should keep a wry comedic eye on the “Lot’s wife” and “left behind” verses that follow. Don’t pay attention to where the fools are pointing, Jesus says. “Where the body is,” Jesus notes in Luke 17:37 (my translation), “there also the vultures will gather.”

Soon, his body will hang on a cross. The vultures, both human and avian, gather and circle. That’s the last place people will look for the kingdom. And that’s where disciples will find it.

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