Lessons for disciples

This coming Sunday is the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Lectionary Cycle C. Throughout the previous chapter (Luke 16), Jesus has addressed the Pharisees and scribes (scholars of the law) with beginning and ending parables: the dishonest steward and the rich man and Lazarus – each begins with a statement, “There was a rich man.” The clear target were the lovers of money, i.e., those whose love of riches prevented them from truly being lovers of God. Although the parable is aimed at the Pharisees the lesson continues a theme of 12:1 “Beware of the leaven–that is, the hypocrisy–of the Pharisees.”  The disciples are reminded of the characteristics of true discipleship and the pitfalls along the way.

In addition, looking ahead to Luke 17:11: “As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem…” it is clear that Luke will return to a travel motif to tell the narrative. It is as though v.11 marks a new subsection within the longer travel narrative (9:51-19:48).  Many hold that 17:1-10 marks the end of a lengthy question that began in 13:10, namely, “who will participate in the kingdom of God?” If this is true, then clearly the two characteristics emphasized are faith and service.

Note that the gospel reading seems to begin as though the disciples have just been told something that they think is very hard to do, outside their experience, and they conclude with “And the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” (v.5)  If true then what was the “hard thing?”

1 He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.”

And then the Sunday gospel begins:

5 And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” 6 The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to (this) mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? 8 Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? 9 Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”

In both cases the audience for the lesson is the disciples in which Luke draws together four sayings:

  • a warning against causing others to stumble (vv.1-2l; with parallels in Mt 18:6-7 and Mark 9:42),
  • a challenge to be forgiving (vv.4-5; parallel in Mt 18:15),
  • a call to the exercise of faith (vv.5-10; parallel in Mt 17:20), and
  • a reminder of the duties of discipleship (vv.11-19; next Sunday’s gospel and unique to Luke)

They seem to be disparate sayings, almost as thought thrown together, lacking a thematic coherence.  But in the broader question of “who will participate in the kingdom of God?” the coherence may be as simple as “don’t be like the Pharisees” especially in their lack of regard of the “little ones” (v.2).

Image credit: G Corrigan, CC-BY-NC 2.0

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