"It is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or craft. Instant success is the order of the day; 'I want it now!' I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn't start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value." (May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude, W W Norton, 1973, 15.)

Gospel for the Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (6 October 2019)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
JMustard Seed

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions 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!

If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “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.”

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Luke 17:1-10 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

General

“Luke now continues his travel account with further sayings of Jesus, which are completely unrelated to the foregoing chapter or parable. Four sets of isolated sayings of Jesus now bring the second part of the travel account to a close: 17:1–3a, on scandals or stumbling blocks; 17:3b–4, on the duty of Christian forgiveness; 17:5–6, on the power of Christian faith; and 17:7–10, on the inadequacy of Christian service. The sayings are, moreover, unrelated to each other. The only link that they seem to have is a bearing on various aspects of discipleship” (Joseph A Fitzmyer S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 1136).

From Luke 9:51 to 21:38, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The sense of urgency mounts. There is no time to waste. Decisions must be made and they have life-changing consequences. Thus the series of sayings and teachings in this section of the Gospel tend to be fairly blunt: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (13:24) and “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11). Some of the sayings are even shocking: “leave the dead to bury the dead” (9:60) and “unless you hate your father and mother ....” (14:26).

All these sayings – the blunt and the shocking – carry a finality. There is no room for negotiation here. Yet, in the midst of these sayings, the parables of the good Samaritan (10:29-37) and the prodigal son (15:11-32) remind us of what is ultimately on offer. Those blunt and shocking sayings are like distasteful medicine that is actually for the good of our health. Nothing can be exchanged for the gift of God in Jesus Christ! This is why we exist.

One thread that runs through Luke is a certain care and concern for – we might even say, favouring of – the poor. These are the people who have been stripped down by life’s circumstances and society’s often harsh demands. The poor are much more ready for the Good News, it seems, than those who have reason to be confident that they have found their rightful place in the scheme of things, and they have reputations and possessions to confirm it. They are more likely to resist Jesus and argue against him or at least try to negotiate a better outcome than he seems to be offering them. Listen to the following: Jesus has been “anointed to bring good news to the poor” (4:18); “blessed are the poor” (6:20); in response to the query from the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus offers as “proof” that he is the Messiah that the poor have good news brought to them (7:22); he tells the Pharisee and his guests to invite the poor to their table (14:13); in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, it is the poor man Lazarus who enters the kingdom, seemingly because he is poor rather than because he his virtuous (16:19-31); the rich young man who is seeking eternal life is invited to “sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22); this advice to the rich young man is followed immediately by the warning: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:24-25).

Specific

occasions for stumbling: The Greek noun is skandalon and it literally means “stumbling block”, “offense” or “scandal”. Matthew has a similar expression – see 18:6-7 – and both Luke and Matthew draw on Mark – see 9:42. This indicates an issue that was significant in the early Church. The Gospels do not give details, but we are left with no doubt that this is a matter of the utmost seriousness: “The Lucan Jesus warns his disciples about the inevitability of scandal in Christian life. He is depicted as enough of a realist to know that human beings will at times affect one another in such a way that even some of his followers will sin by causing others to sin. His warning takes the form of a woe uttered against the person who might be the source of such disedification. The severity of the fate that Jesus envisages, weighted drowning in a sea, could not be more expressive; it needs no elaborate explanation. It is the basis of his final warning, ‘Be on your guard’, lest you become such a person” (Joseph A Fitzmyer SJ, op cit, 1137).

If there is repentance: Joseph Fitzmyer translates the Greek verb metanoeō as “if he reforms his conduct”. The essence of this word seems to be better captured by that expression than the well-worn word, “repentance”. The meaning warrants careful consideration because it signals a key theme in the synoptic Gospels. It occurs in Luke at least a dozen times, including the two references in our text above. It is first mentioned in 3:3 when John the Baptist proclaims to the crowds “a baptism of repentance (metanoias)”; John tells them they should “bear fruits worthy of repentance (metanoias)” (3:8); Jesus tells the people that he has “come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (metanoian)” (5:32); see further references in the teaching of Jesus: 10:13, 11:32, 13:3 & 5, 15:7 (twice) & 10 and 16:30. At the very end of the Gospel we hear the final words of Jesus to his disciples: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:45-47).

you must forgive: the Greek verb is aphiēmi. It may mean “let loose”, “permit” as well as “forgive”. Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “The second of these four sets of sayings concerns the duty of Christian forgiveness (17:3b–4). It envisages the case of a Christian disciple who has sinned in some way against a fellow-disciple. .... The sayings touch upon a good Lucan theme, forgiveness. Usually, the Lucan Jesus’ emphasis is on the forgiveness of human sins by God ..... but here it takes a new direction, the forgiveness of sins committed by one human being against another, by one Christian disciple against another. What should the latter’s attitude be toward it? Jesus sees the need to rebuke or admonish the offender—to tell him/her wherein the wrong lies. Then if the admonition or rebuke is accepted, forgiveness must follow. The goal of the rebuke is repentance, which is to be followed by forgiveness. One should recall the second petition of the Lucan “Our Father” (11:4a, b). The second saying of Jesus preserved here goes even further, instructing the disciples that forgiveness is to be accorded whenever repentance is manifested. ‘Seven times’ is used to denote totality (and is not to be taken literally, as ‘seven times in a day’ makes clear). The willingness to forgive must be boundless. The Lucan theme of repentance and conversion recurs here ....: (Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, op cit, 1139-1140).

faith: The Greek word is pistin and it occurs at least nine other times in Luke: Jesus notes the faith of those who brought him the paralytic (5:20); Jesus comments on the centurion’s faith (7:9); Jesus indicates that faith can “save” – see the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (7:50), the woman with a haemorrhage (8:48), the grateful leper (17:19) and the blind beggar (18:42); during the storm at sea Jesus had asked the disciples, “where is your faith?” (8:25); Jesus asks, in the light of the story of the unjust judge, whether the Son of Man, when he comes, will find faith on earth (18:8); Jesus reassures Simon Peter that he has prayed for him that his faith will not fail (22:32). In our text above, faith is seen as something that can grow. It is also seen as something that is gift rather than conquest. “In both these aspects, Luke’s concept of faith is similar to Paul’s, who writes of righteousness as being revealed ‘through faith for faith’ (Romans 1:17) and declares that we have been saved by grace through faith and that this is not of our own doing (Ephesians 2:8)” (R Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke – The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume Nine), Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 322).

Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “The request made of Jesus by the apostles for an increase of faith comes into the Lucan travel account abruptly. Little that precedes immediately prepares for its introduction; in fact, this is the first time that this aspect of Christian life appears in the instruction being given in this part of the Lucan Gospel. Jesus’ answer to the request does not really meet it. His words rather put the apostles immediately on the spot: The amount of faith is not important, but the kind of faith is, i.e. genuine faith. If it were no bigger than a grain of mustard, yet genuine, it would have wondrous power. Jesus’ words are couched in a mixed condition, which begins with a protasis expressing reality, but ends with an apodosis contrary to fact. It implies that the faith of the apostles is not even the size of a mustard seed” (Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, op cit, 1142).

slave: The master-slave relationship is a favourite analogy of Luke – see 12:35–40, 42–48; 13:25–27; 14:16–24; 16:1–13). “Though the parable is often treated as polemical, there is no reason not to see its function more positively as depicting total, selfless loyalty to an ineffably supreme God, a loyalty that Jesus promoted in all his ministry” (J Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34 (Vol. 35B), Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993, 841).

Reflection

St Paul writes to the community in Corinth: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthian 4:7). This expresses one of the most fundamental themes of the Bible, from beginning to end. In particular, God has taken the initiative and God has entered human history with the gift of freedom. This is gift, pure gift. This gift comes ultimately through Jesus – his life, death and resurrection. Jesus embodies God’s ultimate gift in the invitation: “Let me love you into freedom” The Christian response – the response that is enabled by our faith – is to live our lives in humble service of the wonderful intent expressed in that invitation. The day we begin to grasp – or, better, be grasped by – this simple yet life-transforming truth, we will also begin to see every person, event and thing through the eyes of God.

As if the apostles have an intuition that there is much more to Jesus than they have yet grasped, they ask: “Increase our faith!” They have heard Jesus commend those men for their faith who brought him the paralytic (5:20), and the centurion for his faith (7:9). They have even heard Jesus say that faith can “save”, as with the woman who anointed his feet (7:50) and the woman with a haemorrhage (8:48). And of course there is that memorable moment when, during the storm at sea, Jesus asks the disciples, “where is your faith?” (8:25).

Faith is first and foremost about a person, not propositions. The apostles’ request of Jesus is in effect saying: “Draw us closer to you! Help us to be of one mind and heart with you! Enable us to experience life as you do!” The faith that is in fact a belief system, a gathering of doctrinal statements, is a manifestation of this seminal experience of the person of Jesus or it is empty.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to our entering into this faith and our being grasped by this truth of God’s intent, is our assumption that we can – indeed must – earn God’s liberating love. This error is dealt with in a blunt, matter of fact way with an enigmatic little parable in today’s Gospel (Luke 17:7-10). The servant (slave, steward) does not merit any particular rewards just because he does his job! One commentator writes: “God owes us nothing for living good Christian lives. God’s favour and blessing are matters of grace – they cannot be earned. Therefore, when we assume that we can deal with God on the basis of what God owes us, we have made a basic mistake. We have rejected grace as the basis of our relationship to God and based that relationship on our own worth and merit. Grace, by definition, is a free gift” (R Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke – The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume Nine), Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 323-324).

What might it mean to be a humble servant of God’s intention to love me and everybody else into freedom?