Sayings Requiring Careful Listening

Luke 17: 1-10

Then he said to his disciples:
“It is just not possible for scandals to be by-passed. But [indeed] woe unto the person through whom they are sprung.
“It would be a gain for that person for a millstone to be hung around his neck and then [having it and him following it] thrown into the sea, than he should spring such a scandal upon one of the most minor [standing].
“Keep watch over yourselves.
“If your brother sins [against you], take him to task, and if he repents, [you are to] forgive him. And even were he to sin against you seven times in the same day and turns to you seven times to say [once more] “I repent” you are to forgive him.
And those [singled out as] the Lord’s apostles said [at this time]: “Add to our faith!”
And to this the Lord said: “If you had faith as [large as] a grain of mustard [with all of its potential] you would have said to this sycamore tree: be uprooted and planted in the sea for it to obey you.”
“But which of you, having a servant plowing and looking after the herd, will say to him, upon his return from the field, “Come now, sit down be refreshed and eat”? Will you not rather say, “I am now ready to eat so prepare my dinner by first getting yourself properly dressed to serve me so that I may eat and drink and after that you may eat and drink as well”? Does he [the Master you are thinking of] thank the servant because he does the work he is employed to carry out?
“So then, you also, having done all that you are required to do, should say [to yourselves], “We are useless slaves. We have only done what has had to be done.”

Luke here documents some sayings of Jesus which, we suppose, he is placing here because they induce us to think carefully about Jesus’ teaching and the efforts of his disciples to listen to what he had to say. At the very least, we might suggest that at least some of our difficulties in understanding his teaching so many hundreds of years later on, were shared by the disciples.

These sayings are difficult. The initial one about scandals certainly seems to confirm our “continuity” hypothesis. Luke has just referred to Jesus’ parable – which also was difficult to interpret – and we might say that he has done so to convey to Theophilus (and us) something of the difficulty Jesus had in communicating his message and his mission to his closest disciples. The parables told for the crowds – “What is the Kingdom of God like?” – were straight forward enough but some of Jesus teaching of his disciples, and as Luke her points out those destined to be Jesus’ specially commissioned Apostles, seem to have been ard to swallow and still are. Yes, there is continuity in Luke’s narrative, maintained by the repeated references to how Jesus (even after his ascension) continues the work that John began. And it is still in the process of it being brought to fulfillment.

And that also means that the narrative can “hang together” by references Luke makes to Herod. King Herod, another of the dysfunctional Hasmonean family, was John’s erratic, psychotic, adulterous murderer. Theophilus may already know this King was implicated in the injustice meted out to Jesus in his scandalous and rigged trial. But Luke is telling him that Herod’s scandalous involvement in opposition to Jesus was not some accidental “one off” accident that occurred during a Jerusalem holiday when his political adversary, Pontius Pilate, painted into his own sticky corner by the baying herd of Jerusalem’s religious elite, thought he might be able to get himself off the hook by interrupting Herod’s breakfast with a request he consider the case of the Galilean Rabbi that was troubling him.

But now, Luke is also telling Theophilus and us, that from Jesus’ teaching we can see that he was prophetically aware of what lay ahead for himself and for his disciples. Because he could expect to be ambushed by the thugs opposing him, his disciples should not expect any lesser treatment.

And that helps us to account for the comment about scandals. Jesus says in effect:

If I am to weather treachery and scandalous hijacking, you my disciples cannot expect anything less.

But then he adds a rider:

But just because you live in expectation of scandals breaking out against, is no reason to try and pre-empt these evils deeds by perpetrating scandals of your own. The impact of scandalous conduct – Herod’s execution of John – goes on far beyond your own generation. And scandals make it difficult for people to walk uprightly and those responsible for nurturing crippled discipleship among the “little people”, the “insignificant ones” are on notice. It’s never a pretty picture when you start thinking about God’s just anger in these terms.

And then we read:

Keep watch over yourselves!

Jesus then continues to those who, having been taught to pray, plead for mercy in the following terms.

Forgive us our sins because we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.

Had they remembered how to pray? Forgiveness is a part of a process that also involves “taking him to task”. And then the remarkable follow-up statement. Jesus ascribes spiritual strength to those with the ability to heed his word and extend forgiveness to the repeat offender. This person, in all his or her weakness – even, I guess, when such a sinner is no longer sure whether the words of remorse are genuine – are to be treated with kindness and forbearance.

You are to forgive such a person.

And then we here how the group of disciples, later to be handpicked as Apostles, were then really keen to have their faith increased. How are we to interpret what Jesus had to say by way of reply? I suspect we have to look closely as the “grain of mustard seed”. Is Jesus saying:

Look you fellows, if you only knew what it takes to do great things for God!

Of course, Jesus may well say that to any of us, but I am not at all convinced that that is what he is saying here. Yes, a grain of mustard has enormous God given potential within its small precinct. But who earth needs a sycamore to be replanted in the sea? I’m happy to corrected on this, but it sounds to me like Jesus is saying that though you cannot have faith without knowing about it, he is re-directing his (future) Apostles to consider their own question. Just what are they wanting “added”? Following that line of reflection, it seems feasible (although I admit somewhat surprising) to hear Jesus telling his “core group” of disciples that the way they refer to their faith in God is far too similar to magical properties. If they only had that much faith i.e. faith as tiny as a mustard seed then their misunderstanding of what is needed for a sycamore tree would get the better of them and they’d start doing some very inappropriate things.

And then immediately, Luke gives us this account of how his “core group” of disciples would at that time understand their responsibilities in terms of being Masters of a servant.

OK then, Jesus says, after all that I have been teaching you about what servanthood means in my kingdom, let’s do a thought experiment. How will you treat the servant of yours – remember you are the household’s master, the one who owns the land and employs the servant – the servant who has spent his times out in the field, dawn to dusk tending the herd. And here he is, the sun is setting and he is back in the house. Are you going to say to him, “Sit down! Sit down! You’ve worked so hard all day and now it’s my turn to serve you. Here’s you meal. Bon appétit!”

We can only imagine what the erstwhile Apostles thought at this point.

“No” says Jesus, “you won’t be doing that will you? Rather you will say to him, “Oh there you are at last, well I am ready to eat now so please get yourself dressed for table service, serve me, and then after that you can have your eat and drink as well!”

There certainly seems to be subtlety in play in Jesus’ teaching here. We might even go so far as to say that he seems to be suggesting to his Apostles that the historical preconditions are just not disposed to support a mode of household servanthood that would see Masters at table serving the household servants.

Though the term here is slave [δουλος] rather than deacon [διακονος], I am reminded of what happened among the followers Jesus after Pentecost with the appointments of the seven to “serve at tables”. Stephen became a martyr for the faith and his Gentile understanding of God’s covenant being fulfilled in Jesus Christ did much to fuel the anger of the militant Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, student of Gamaliel.

Luke seems to suggest that the Apostles were brought to some kind of agreement that Jesus was right. That was how they typically understood the role of Master of the House. So then Luke tells us how Jesus concludes this discussion by instructing his Apostles about the way they should see themselves.

So then, you also, having done all that you are required to do, should say [to yourselves], “We are useless slaves. We have only done what has had to be done.”

It is a teaching about not getting above one’s station in life, but more to the point it seems that Luke is telling us how Jesus’ knew that his disciples, and the ones he would specially rely upon to be his Apostles, could trap themselves by the way in which they thought about their social responsibilities. Luke is saying that this is teaching provided by Jesus that enables the one following it to avoid the “love of money” pit into which the Pharisees had fallen (16:14). Luke is convinced that viewing our life as God’s gift to us, the opportunity to live as servants in the Kingdom of Heaven, is the great emancipation.

10th January 2017


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