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Luke 17:1-10

Lesson Focus

It takes faith in a great big God to be able to offer forgiveness. It takes faith to remain humble so that we don’t come to believe that God owes us anything.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that we are to constantly forgive.

  2. Understand that forgiveness requires faith in God.

  3. Move toward humbleness because in offering constant forgiveness we only have done what we should have done, nothing extra.

Catching Up on the Story

Since last week the scene in Lukes gospel hasn’t changed. Jesus and his entourage, which includes his disciples, the Scribes and Pharisees, are still making their way toward Jerusalem. It is there that Jesus will be crucified and resurrected.

On the way, there has been lots of controversies. Jesus has been eating with tax collectors and sinners, as well as with the Pharisees. Jesus has been pretty relentless toward the Pharisees about their constant quest for honor and wealth.

The standard accepted cultural practices called for associating with people who could benefit you in society. So you invited the cool kids over for dinner, in hopes that they would reciprocate the invitation at some point. As you associated with more and more of the social elites, your status would grow.

But Luke is writing from an apocalyptic perspective; the old order, the way of reciprocity, honor, and shame, is giving way to the new order, the in-breaking kingdom of God brought to us through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and ascension.

Jesus is giving the Pharisees such a hard time, not because he is just mad at them, but to reveal to them the new order of things, the order was caring for the least of these is essential, the order where who you dine with is not all that important. Hospitality, generosity, self-sacrificial service is the way of this new order.

With all that in mind, Jesus has just finished telling a rather haunting story about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The fate that is awaiting the rich who do not extend generosity and hospitality toward the poor, the outcast, is unpleasant. Its the end that we have come to expect for the worst of society, the genuinely degenerate criminals.

At the end of the story, when the rich man wants to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about what awaits them, Father Abraham says that the Law and the Prophets should be enough if they were listening, for those scriptures truly define how God desires his children to live.

That story was aimed squarely at the Pharisees and religious teachers of the day.

The Text

Turning away from the Pharisees as an example, Jesus now addresses his disciples. Going back to at least chapter 12, Jesus as been warning his followers to not be like the Pharisees, so it is with that in mind that we should read the following section.

What follows seems a bit random, a collection of sayings and a story, but they are connected around issues of character, faith, forgiveness, and humility.

Be on Guard! – Luke 17:1-4

Jesus begins by saying, “Occasion for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard!”

Again, keeping in mind that Jesus has been warning his followers to not be like the Pharisees, it is apparent that Jesus believes that the Pharisees and their behaviors are a constant source of stumbling, sin, to some. Their constant seeking after honor and status, their chasing of wealth, and their disregard for “the little ones.” has made them a stumbling block.

While Jesus doesn’t tell us what the consequence would be for causing a little one to stumble, he does tell us that it would be better if you had a millstone hung around your neck while you go for a swim. This seems gangster/mob-ish to me, but this is what Jesus says. Millstones were large and, made of heavy stone. Your chances of surviving such an adventure wouldn’t be high.

Not only should the disciples be on guard against the mind-set of the Pharisees that works against justice and compassion, but they are to guard against any attitude that would put them at odds with the restoration of sinners to the community.

This is another attitude the Pharisees had, especially when they believe that sin manifested itself as physical or mental illness.

Instead, the disciples are to offer consistent and constant forgiveness. If a brother or sister in Christ sins, you are to rebuke them, that confronts them and guide them toward confession and repentance.

If the offending person repents, we are to forgive and restore them to a right relationship within the community. But Jesus takes it to another level, if the same person sins against you seven times in one day, we are to offer forgiveness constantly. Seven times, by the way, is a generic number for a lot. Jesus isn’t putting a cap on the number of times you should forgive in a day.

Jesus is saying that the way of the new order of things, the kingdom of God is one of extravagant forgiveness. It is forgiveness for you and me, and it is forgiveness that you and I hand out too.

Prosthetic Faith! – Luke 17:5-6

Now at this point, you might say, “Oh my! That’s hard! I have a ton of trouble forgiving for one offense!” And I would be right there with you and so would the disciples.

Their response to this warning to be on guard, to be so different than the culture as typified by the Pharisees, and to offer such tremendous and patient forgiveness, is one of a petition for more faith!

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The disciples believe that they do not have enough faith to carry out such a massive endeavor and so they ask Jesus to give them more faith.

The word the disciples use here is the same word from which we get the word prosthetic, as in prosthetic leg or arm. A prosthetic leg or arm is not a natural appendage. A prosthetic is a manufactured piece added to the body to replace the natural limb which was lost. The disciples are asking for a crutch.

Now, I think we often talk like this, we want more faith. There are whole traditions out there that tell people if they just had more faith, then they would be healed, or their marriage would get better, or whatever. Listening to Jesus here, I am not sure it works that way.

Jesus responds, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” What in the world is Jesus saying?

Jesus seems to be saying that if the disciples have faith, their faith is not put squarely in the right thing. Again, going back to the Pharisees, they had put their faith not in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, but in the Law alone and in their ability to keep the Law. In short, they had put their trust in their self-righteousness. It doesn’t matter how great your faith is, as long as it is placed in Jesus.

See, when your faith is in something or someone other than Jesus, and often it is ourselves, we tend to rely on that thing. For the Pharisees, they relied on Law too much and their self-righteousness at following the Law. And when we get that way, we tend to think that God owes us something for our obedience.

We are Worthless Slaves – Luke 17:7-10

This is what Jesus is driving at with the next story, which is told in the form of a question.

There is a man of modest means. He owns a field and has one slave who has duties in the field and in the house. The owner also works in the field. At the end of the day, both the master and the slave heads back to the house. Rhetorically, Jesus asks if the master will serve the servant first. He expects the answer to be no.

Of course not, the master will come in and tell his slave to made dinner, and once’s that is completed, then the slave can eat. Slaves do not get thanked for doing the job they are supposed to do.

So What…?

It is here that Jesus makes the connection to the Pharisees and his warning about their behavior to the disciples. Verse 10 is the key, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!'”

The Pharisees have supposed that through their rigid following of the Law, that God owes them something for their service. The reality is that they have only done what they ought to have done.

Jesus seems to be saying here that when you are self-righteous, you begin to believe that God owes you something, and in doing this, you will cause ‘little’ ones to stumble. But, if you remain humble, if you continuously understand your position relative to God as one of service, then you will do what you should do.

We do not engage in obedience to gain a reward. We orient our lives toward the kingdom of God because that is what Jesus calls us to do. We care for the poor, the lonely, the outcast, and the ill because it is who Jesus has called us to be.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Who are the main characters in the story? What are they doing?

  2. What doesn’t make sense to you in this story?

  3. Why do you think the disciples think they need more faith in response to Jesus’ words on forgiveness?

  4. Have any of you, because of your faith, had a tree uprooted and thrown into the sea? Certainly this is possible if Jesus says it is. Even if we do have faith in our great God, does it mean we will be able just do anything? What are the kinds of things that we can do with our small faith in a great God? [In light of the last few passages we’ve looked at, I think specific answers to this question might include changing how we view the wealth that we have and how we are to use it. Changing how we think about and act in regards to money can be very difficult. Some might say as difficult as uprooting a tree. But, if our faith is in the God who creates and sustains the universe, no matter how small our faith is, change is possible.}

  5. Tom Wright declares, “Finally, the shocking lesson that all we do, even the hard work we do for God, never for a moment puts God in our debt.” (Wright, 204). Have you ever felt like God owes you anything for the way you have faithfully lived your life?

  6. In Luke and Acts, leaders in the church are often described as “slaves of God” (Acts 4:29; 16:17), “ones who shepherd the flock” (Acts 20:28), and “those who perform a service” (Acts 1:17, 25; 6:4; 20:24; 21:19). All of these images for leaders in the early church are jobs that are lowly and do not bring honor or notice to the ones who have them. These are the jobs of slaves and servants who belong to a master. In light of these descriptions, how should be view ourselves when we find ourselves in positions of leadership within the church?

  7. How differently would we live if we lived as if God didn’t owe us anything? How differently would we live if we believed that other people don’t owe us anything?

Works Cited:

Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004).