Luke 17:1-10


Community – Maintaining Hope and Faith

Luke insisted on repeating Jesus’ calls to solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Yet he also realised that achieving a spontaneous and constant sense of that solidarity in isolation was difficult. Given the pervading influence of surrounding culture, disciples needed an alternative community to support them in their growth towards integrity and freedom. The challenge facing the Christian community was to find ways to nourish and safeguard the growth of each of its members in enlightenment and genuine compassion. In any community, individuals grow at their own pace, and at any stage of that growth they do not consistently live out the values they espouse.

Luke 17:1-10  -  Interacting in Community

1 Jesus said to his disciples,
"It is impossible that ensnarements to evil will not present themselves,
but grief awaits those from whom they come.
2 It is better to be thrown into the sea
with a millstone around the neck
than to ensnare into evil a single one of these little ones.

The little ones to whom Jesus was referring could well have meant those in the community of disciples who took seriously his call to “travel lightly”. Luke saw the comment as pertinent to the poor and socially disadvantaged members of the Christian community. They would have struggled to maintain hope in the truth of their own dignity in a secular world that did not care. Their struggle would have been compounded if they experienced lack of acceptance from anyone in the Christian community.

More probably, however, Jesus had in mind those of the community who had grown sufficiently free of the cultural pressures to be part of the “honour” network as to allow themselves to be “without honour”. They, particularly, were the vulnerable ones, their conversion always fragile. 

God’s freeing love, that enables disciples to escape from the corrupting power at work in the normal interactions of domination and subservience typical of most institutions, is encountered precisely in the alternative life-style of mutual service and love within the Christian community. To the extent that that life-style is endangered, the essential value of community is lost. 

Given that a radical counter-cultural stance is always difficult to maintain, the support of similar minded people is indispensable. Whenever someone in the community undermined precisely that choice for simplicity, the pressure put on others to likewise relax their standards was strong. The danger was real. The colourful language of Jesus served to emphasise this seriousness. That all, both as individuals and as community, put into practice the radical insight into their common dignity as sons and daughters of God was not negotiable.

3 Think hard about it.
If your brothers or sisters in community sin in some way,
rebuke them;
if they change their minds, then forgive them.
4 If they sin against you seven times a day,
and come back to you seven times,
and say 'I have changed my mind',
you must forgive them.

Jesus had recently spoken at length about God’s attitude to sinners. As disciples precisely of this God, they likewise were to forgive. When teaching the disciples to pray, Jesus had envisaged God’s forgiveness as a power that entered into the disciples, took hold of them and carried them outwards to others in forgiveness. Forgiveness was the source, and at the same time the outcome, of freedom. Jesus had spoken of God’s forgiveness as an expression of God’s joy.

Where conversion was fragile, the responsibility of the community became paramount. Where the conversion in question was the particularly difficult invitation to humble solidarity with all, it was indeed important for all to accept genuine responsibility for each other. Jesus insisted that all be on guard.

The offender in the context may well have been one who undermined another’s growth into the spirit of solidarity. In a properly functioning community, the one offended had the first responsibility to confront the offender, rather than to do nothing and allow resentment to simmer. (Jesus spoke in the singular: he was addressing the responsibility of the individual to individual, not of the community.) 

Once the offender was repentant, however, it was the duty of the one put under pressure to forgive. Fragility was no excuse to withhold forgiveness. Jesus insisted that there be no limit to reconciliation, provided repentance was present. A distinguishing feature of the Christian disciple, as child of the God whom Jesus had revealed, was more a spontaneous movement to forgiveness than to repentance.

It could also be, however, that the offended ones whom Jesus was referring to were the poor of the community. In that case they were the ones to offer forgiveness – an interesting inversion of the normal honour system! They were the ones with “power”.

5 The apostles said to the Lord,
"Lord, build up our faith for us".
6 The Lord answered, 'If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,
and then were to say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea',
it would obey you.

Jesus sounded somewhat dismissive of the disciples’ request. It is important always to see faith not in a generalised and sterile way but precisely as faith in the actual message of Jesus.  Perhaps to his mind, if the disciples struggled to appreciate the truth of the presence of God’s year of favour, the centrality of human dignity flowing from the truth of God’s favour to all, and the consequent response of universal solidarity, they had missed the basic point of his message about the Kingdom.

Luke’s account of the response of Jesus seems hopelessly complicated – a riotous mixture of images and associations. 

Jesus had already referred to mustard seeds and trees in one of his parables of the Kingdom (13.18-19). Perhaps the Kingdom context is important. In the parable the reference had been to the potential vitality of the Kingdom despite impossible odds. The same perspective may have been there with his present comment.

Did Jesus want to emphasise the tree’s being uprooted, or its being planted in the sea? The sea was a most unlikely place to plant any tree in the hope that it would grow or even survive. The Christian community had in fact been planted in an extremely hostile environment. Its survival and flourishing would purely be the result of the providence of God. Yet Luke’s community was in fact succeeding. Its continued growth would depend on the grace of God, and on that alone. All that was required of the community was to trust God (to have faith) and to live as Jesus had indicated. Discipleship makes sense only as an expression of unshakeable faith in the otherwise impossible. Oppressive empires, Roman or contemporary, or destructive systems of State or Church, would not withstand the power of God mediated through the genuine Christian community.

7 "Which of you with a slave ploughing or looking after sheep,
would say to him when he came in from the farm,
'Quickly, come along and sit down at the table'.
8 Would you not rather say,
'Prepare something for me to eat,
get dressed properly,
and wait on me while I eat and drink.  
You can get something to eat and drink for yourself afterwards'.
9 Do you say thanks to slaves for doing what they were told.
10 It is much the same with yourselves.  
When you have done all that you have been told,
say, 'We are slaves; we are owed nothing;
we have done what we had to do'."

The parable is not precisely about God but about the attitudes of disciples. The illustration would have been easily understood in the world of the Roman Empire with its reliance on slavery.

The story’s focus moved from the slave owner to the slave

Jesus’ point seemed to be that some things were so basic to the choice of discipleship that they left no room for self-congratulation:

  • the sense of solidarity with all, particularly the poor,
  • the spontaneous readiness to confront problems within relationships
  • the experienced freedom to forgive, and to forgive constantly,
  • the faith that God can do the otherwise impossible

They should be taken for granted. In God’s Kingdom, all are owed nothing (In the culture, the word means “without any leverage in the ‘honour bargaining’ of the culture”). All are slaves, precisely because in opting for discipleship they have chosen a whole other basis of relationship. That recognition is to be balanced, of course, by the certainty that God loves every person and has thus gifted all with dignity, precisely because God is good.

Faith in Today’s World

It is easy to domesticate the Gospel. A danger confronting disciples of the twenty-first century Western world is to generalise the message of Jesus. Instead of faith in the program, the vision and the methods of Jesus, faith can be too easily seen simply as acceptance of Jesus’ divinity and vague reference to his work of personal salvation. 

Instead of having faith that (through the active and informed cooperation of disciples)

    • God can make the Kingdom come, 
    • oppressive structures can be dismantled, 
    • the poor can be the recipients of good news,

many Christians forget about life in the actual world to dream instead about a future paradise.

If the community of Luke had difficulty in prioritising the significance of the poor, today’s world hardly even sees that there is a problem.

It is too easy to approach Luke’s Gospel simply as a comforting reassurance of a forgiving and generous God, rather than to see also that what Jesus said of himself has become the mission now of the disciple:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19]

Jesus lived a life of unswerving, relentless love for all, particularly for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. His uncompromising stance brought him into confrontation with the vested interests of those who benefited directly or indirectly from the oppression of the poor and the inequitable sharing of the goods of the world. It is impossible to live comfortably within the political, social and economic structures of today’s world with a consistent attitude of uncompromising love. The choice facing the Christian community is to compromise love or to work towards changing the world’s structures of national and international trade and political relationships.

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