Bible: Jesus, the discomforter
May 1 — Luke 17:1-10; May 8 — Luke 17:11-19
Jesus certainly makes us uncomfortable in this selection from Luke 17.
Verses 1-10 are a collection of Jesus’ sayings. First is a warning not to cause one of these “little ones” to stumble. “Little ones” undoubtedly refers not to children but to other disciples (compare Matthew 25, where Jesus’ followers are called “the least of these my brothers and sisters”).
“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!” says Jesus. The warning is not only to keep from sinning ourselves but also not to do anything that would cause a brother or sister in Christ to sin. We can’t feel superior to those who stumble if we have done anything that contributed to the stumbling.
Then come Jesus’ words on forgiveness. There is an expectation that church discipline will be practiced: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender.” But there is also an expectation that with the offender’s repentance will come forgiveness — even if the person sins against you seven times a day.
Really, Jesus, seven times a day? Surely they can control their behavior better than that! Jesus says, “You must forgive.”
Next is the overwhelming task in verses 5-6. The apostles just wanted an increase in their faith (and faithfulness; it’s the same word in Greek). But Jesus tells them that even a small amount of faith/faithfulness (the size of a mustard seed) is enough to make trees obey them!
Are faith and faithfulness really that powerful? Can a small mustard seed overcome a large mulberry tree? The apostles were surely uncomfortable with the prospect of that kind of power.
The parable in verses 7-10 continues to decrease our comfort level. We don’t like to be thought of as slaves or servants. Masters do not thank slaves or servants for simply doing what they are expected to do. We feel entitled to be thanked for everything we do. Sure, it is nice to be appreciated, but Jesus tells his disciples: Just do your job, whether you get thanked or not. That kind of humility can’t be comfortable!
The healing story in verses 11-19 shows the other side of thankfulness. While we should not expect others to thank us, we should give thanks to God for what God has done for us. Ten lepers are healed, but only the one who turns back to thank Jesus and praise God is commended for his faith. And that one is a foreigner, a Samaritan.
In Jesus’ time, Jews did not think very much of Samaritans. When the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom had been captured by the Assyrians centuries earlier, the Assyrians had deported them and mixed them with other captive populations. Likewise, captives from other nations had been brought into the area that had previously been occupied by the 10 northern tribes of Israel. So when some of these deportees eventually returned to the area called Samaria, there had been a lot of intermarriage with other groups, and some religious practices had changed. Jews wondered if Samaritans were really faithful, and Samaritans (like the woman at the well in John 4) were eager for debates about whose religious practices were superior.
Whom does Jesus, a Jew, praise for faith and faithfulness? The Samaritan who was healed of his skin disease! It was enough to discomfort any Jew who heard of this.
Why are we uncomfortable with these sayings and deeds of Jesus? Perhaps because they push us out of our complacency. We think we know what faith and faithfulness are about, but Jesus calls us to re-examine our old understandings.
When we start thinking we are better than the “stumbler,” we need to look at our own words and actions to see whether we were the cause of the stumbling.
When we catch ourselves wanting to put limits on repentance and forgiveness, we need to remember God’s limitless forgiveness.
When we imagine that faith is something tame or that we can manage just a little increase in faith, we need to open ourselves to the earth-shaking, tree-toppling power of faith that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
When we expect to be thanked for just doing our job, we need to remember that we are either slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:15-23). Complete independence is not one of the options, according to the Apostle Paul. We are not the autonomous, self-made individuals that Western modernity has taught us we are. We are servants of God who are to say, “Here I am; send me.”
When we observe amazing faith and faithfulness in unexpected people, we are called to give up our prejudices and praise God.
Such faith can make us well and save us.
Lois Y. Barrett is professor of theology and Anabaptist studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She lives in Wichita, Kan.
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