Luke 17:1-10

What we are about to read is a collection of pieces of the Lord’s teaching that in three of the four instances are found in the other Gospels, though in different settings. The last piece, the parable of the “unworthy servant,” is unique to Luke. One commentator describes this section as “assorted sayings.” [Caird, 193] Another speaks of a set of “unconnected proverbs” that amounts to a discussion of “various aspects related to discipleship.”  [Bock, ii, 1380-1381] It is not obvious that the four pieces are connected to one another in any particular way, or that they contribute to a single theme. It is quite likely that the Lord gave this teaching on a number of occasions and in slightly different forms. Why Luke put these four short saying here no one can say for sure.

Text Comment

v.2       “Temptations to sin” is the Greek skandalon, our word “scandal.” In the Bible a scandal is an enticement to sin, something that makes a person stumble in the moral sense. The world is already full of such things; we don’t need people adding more!

“Little ones” may refer to new believers, infants in the spiritual life, or it may refer to Christians in general, vulnerable as we all are without God’s help. In Luke 10:21 the Lord refers to all his disciples, even the most advanced, as “little children.”

v.3       3a: The warning tone of “watch yourselves” fits better with vv. 1 and 2 rather than with vv. 3 and 4. So begin the new saying with “If your brother sins…”

v.4       The number seven is not a limit, as if the eighth time a Christian need not forgive the sin. In fact, in Matthew’s version of this saying, the number is not seven but seventy-seven. As often in the Bible, the number seven is a symbol of completeness or totality. The Christian must always forgive the sins of the penitent. The Christian is to exemplify “tireless goodwill.” [Caird, 194]

v.5       The more the Lord taught his disciples of the life he was summoning them to live, the more they realized how much faith this life would require. Naturally, they asked for more.

v.6       The mustard seed was proverbial for its small size and this particular tree — it could be either of two different species — was famous for its deep roots. [Str.-B, ii, 234]

The Lord’s penchant for hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, is on display here. In that way of expressing himself he was a typical Jew. Hebrew raises hyperbole to an art form! The point is clear and very emphatically made: “faith in God is a power that takes impossibilities in its stride.” [Caird, 194]

v.8       As Kenneth Bailey, a NT scholar who spent his life in the Middle East as a missionary-teacher, observes, it is even more difficult for us in the modern west to grasp the nettle of this parable. “In a technological age with the forty-hour week, powerful labor unions, and time and a half for overtime, the world of this parable seems not only distant but unfair. After a long, hard day in the field, such a servant surely has earned the right to a little appreciation, some comforts, and a few rewards. But Jesus is building on well-known and widely accepted patterns of behavior in the Middle East.” [Through Peasant Eyes, 119]

            It is important, Bailey goes on to say, to read the parable in its historical context. In its best expressions, such a relationship of servant and master bestowed upon the servant a sense of self-worth as well as employment security, features often tragically missing from the modern working environment.

            One further detail. The meal in view in v. 8 is not our evening meal at night, but a mid-day meal at perhaps 3 p.m. The work day has been relatively short. This is not some cruel master who is excessive in his demands. The Lord is assuming that everyone understands this to be the normal state of affairs.

v.10     An “unworthy servant” is not a useless servant; the point is that even the best service is only that service God is entitled to expect from his servants. No matter what we do for the Lord, no matter how well we do it, we cannot put him in our debt. He may treat us far better than mere servants, indeed as his own children, but that is not because we have earned such treatment or ever could.

            It is, by the way, important not to miss the obvious here. We are servants of a master. True enough, our Master became our servant to rescue us from death, but he remains our master all the same. His love for us does not place us on his level!

It is always a good exercise, a way of clearing away a dulling familiarity with the words of the Gospel, to pause and imagine the Lord Jesus standing amidst a crowd and uttering the words we find in these ten verses of Luke chapter 17. In your imagination, hear him if you can say what he said about those who cause his little ones to sin, about forgiving brothers the same sin seven times over, about uprooting trees and casting them into the sea, and about how we are, at our best, unprofitable servants.

Take these sayings this morning as a whole, and not simply as four specimens of the Lord’s teaching about the Christian life, the life of his disciples. As verse 1 reminds us, this is teaching for us; addressed to us, to those who presume to be the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Take them as a whole and I think you will agree with me that they have something in common. Each of them holds us to a standard far beyond what men and women naturally think may be fairly expected of them. We Christians do not, in fact, say to the world that we can show you how to live the life all of us agree is good and right. We sometimes speak as if that were our message, but it is not. We say, to the contrary, that the life to which we Christians have been called is a life quite different from and higher than what you unbelievers think is a good and honorable and righteous life. There may be some overlap, of course — believers and unbelievers alike believe that it is wrong to burgle our neighbor’s home or to lie on the witness stand — but our vision of what constitutes the truly good life is really quite different from theirs.

Here we are told, in the first place, that Christians are responsible for the life and welfare of others. “Woe to those who cause others to stumble! Pay attention to yourselves.” The world is full of wrong and selfish interests and hearts bent toward every kind of evil, and souls that are curved in on themselves, so these offenses against the best interests of others must come, but it is a terrible thing to be the one through whom they come.

The Lord is speaking here of a parent who by his words or his deeds, or by his indifference to what is good and pure in the training of his children, as much as delivers his children over to a life of sin. He is speaking of a college professor who undermines his students’ faith in God and commitment to God’s law. He is speaking of anyone and everyone who in any way encourages others to sin or makes it, by his example or his teaching or his indifference, easier for them to sin against God. The world has no time for that sort of far-reaching responsibility for others. People do not accept that they are their brothers’ or their neighbors’ keepers, that we are in this high and demanding sense responsible for the lives of others, responsible and directly accountable before God. It is a failure of Democrats, who often shift their personal responsibility for others to the government, and it is a failure of Republicans whose rhetoric of personal responsibility very often likewise masks an indifference to actual people and their actual circumstances.

Proof of how common it is for people to shift their responsibility is found in the difficulty that even Christians, even earnest Christians have in accepting it. I have encountered any number of parents through the years who are quite unprepared to accept that they are in some significant way accountable for the mess their children have made of their lives.

But the Lord spoke clearly to his disciples. Don’t you be the cause of someone else’s sin or you will answer to me! Surely the Lord’s disciples should have no difficulty understanding this demand. The Lord devoted his entire life to the welfare of others. He never saw his own life and behavior in some sort of splendid isolation. He measured his life precisely by its influence and its impact on others. Never did any man live less for himself and more for others than did Jesus of Nazareth. And his was the true, the authentic life, the life every human being was made to live and would have lived, had it not been for the entrance of sin. Christians should understand this without difficulty: ours is a life for others and we are responsible for others.

And, then, in the second place, we have a specific responsibility for others after they sin. We cannot be indifferent to the wrong that others do. He is talking here, of course, about Christian brothers and sisters in particular but the principle can be extended to all human beings. We are not to be meddlesome; still less are we to foster a judgmental, censorious spirit. But if a brother sins, we are to rebuke him, correct him, and then, upon his repentance, we are to forgive him and then to do the same again and again and again and we are to expect that others will do the same for us and welcome that attention when we receive it. We are, in other words, to share a commitment to pursue righteous living, godliness, and obedience to God’s commandments. We are to help one another; when one is down the other is responsible to lift him up. Following Jesus is not a private affair but something to be done together.

Once again, this is not the unbeliever’s understanding of his responsibility. No doubt he would say that he too thinks we should be merciful, but tireless goodwill, initiative in helping others surmount their sins is not part of his creed or his ethics. But taking responsibility for others when they sin is precisely what the Lord has done for us, and we Christians see it clearly as our duty to one another. He is here too asking us to do for one another what he has done for us and what Christian can possibly resent that request?

And, on he goes to the third thing. We are to be accountable, responsible for even the most difficult things, the things that strike most human beings as simply beyond their power to achieve. The principle of ordinary unbelieving human life is that no one can be held responsible for what he is incapable of doing. Nothing can fairly be expected of him that is too difficult for him to do. This is the principle by which promiscuity is justified in the modern Western world. We don’t think it possible for young people to be chaste and so we don’t think it right to hold them to such a standard. We don’t think it possible for a man and a woman to remain committed to one another if difficulties surface in their marriage and so we don’t require that fidelity of them any longer.

The Christian cannot think that way. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us and here the Lord reminds us of that with his dramatic figure of speech, imagining us uprooting huge trees and throwing them into the ocean. No one is ever found in the Bible picking up trees and tossing them about. Samson, I suppose, comes closest, but even he never did that. The Lord is not interested in forest management by miracle! But he is very clearly teaching us here that we are obliged to do any number of things that we could never do in our own strength and by our own resources. The world looks at the biblical definition of a godly life — a life of self-denial, of death to self, of love for God and for others, of purity of heart and life — and thinks it impossible. The world thinks we must be hypocrites for even talking about such a life because it assumes we’re not living it and couldn’t even if we wanted to. The Christian, however, is obliged to face squarely the demands of that life, never to minimize them, and then to meet them all in the power that Christ supplies. Christianity holds before us an ethic that takes the humanly impossible in stride and demands it from us as ordinary behavior. Once again, Christ is asking of us only that we, in our own more limited way, do what he did; that we accomplish fabulously difficult things by relying on the power of God promised to those who trust in him.

And then in the fourth place the Christian life absolutely requires a deeply rooted humility, that people know their place especially in reference to the living God.

The world has no sympathy for, indeed it cannot even understand, what the Lord means in v. 10. No labor union executive has ever had Luke 17:10 in cross-stitch or needle-point framed and hung on his office wall! But this notion that we can make no claim upon the high God, that we can never put his Eternal Majesty in our debt, that we, being his creatures, will never be in a position to make demands of our Creator, and that we can never do anything for him that remotely repays him for the sacrifice he made to save us from our sins, I say all of that is anathema to the unbelieving mind. These thoughts do not occur to non-Christians. But that recognition — the forsaking of all merit and desert — is fundamental to Christian discipleship. The world does not think of itself as an unworthy servant, but that is a way a Christian thinks and loves to think. Having a lower and truer view of oneself, for a Christian, is a small price to pay for seeing and knowing such impossibly grand things as the glory and the grace of Almighty God! Besides, that view of ourselves happens to be true and there is some satisfaction in that as well.

As C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity (111):

“In God you come up against something that is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that — and therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison — you do not know God at all. [This is what is so destructive about the modern Western so-called spirituality; the idea that one can find God within oneself. So long as your God is within yourself, you will always be on God’s level or above it, never below.] As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

There they are: four aspects of view of the life and the calling of a human being that profoundly distinguish the Christian concept of the good life from that of the unbelieving world. It is because the Christian life is not simply a bit better than an unbelieving life, a cut above what the world is satisfied with, but is, in fact, a dramatically different understanding of what men and women ought to be and do that the Lord Jesus can describe the life of his disciples — as he does in his Sermon on the Mount — as the light of the world — a beacon pointing to something higher, purer than the world knows — the salt of the earth — something that provides the world with the taste of something far better — and a city set on a hill — dominating the landscape and drawing the world’s attention upward.

We American’s are familiar with that language of a city on a hill. Our country, its republican government and its religious and economic liberty, have often been described as a city on a hill, as the hope of the world, however hollow those words may ring today. The connection between the Lord’s remark about his disciples and our country, if you remember, originated in a remark of John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders of Massachusetts, in a letter to his daughters.

“Consider that we shall be as a city on a hill,” he wrote.

But what is significant about Winthrop’s remark is that he went on to say words that are never quoted or remembered,

“the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword through the world.”

That is, a country like the United States of America could only be conceived of a city on a hill to the extent that it fulfilled its calling to be a land founded on the practice of God’s law, which, of course, is what many of the founders had hoped it would be. There is today, of course, a great deal about our country that we do not want anyone to admire, still less to imitate. Well, in a much more important way, and in the way the Lord originally actually intended with such descriptions of his people as “the light of the world” or as “a city set on a hill,” the Lord was laying his disciples, not some nation, under the solemn obligation to live up to their  calling. Far, far too often the life witness of the Christian church has been the furthest thing from the light of the world or a city on a hill.

But it is surely not difficult to see how a life lived in this way, according to these four pieces of the Lord’s instruction, would in fact be the light of the world, and people who lived that way would in fact be a city set upon a hill, showing the world what human life is indeed intended to be. People humble before God but wonderfully confident that they could do all things by his power, living their lives for the sake of others, caring for them, protecting them, forgiving them and never tiring of doing so. That would be a city set on a hill!

So what are you and I to do with the Lord’s teaching as Luke has reported it here?

Well, in the first place, we should relish this calling, embrace it, and find the thrill in it. We are to read these ten verses and, far from allowing our shoulders to sag under the weight of this responsibility, we are to square them, stand up straight, take a deep breath, and find something thrilling, inspiring in the fact that we have been given a great calling, a consequential life to live, and a great opportunity to demonstrate our Savior’s glory to the world. This is teaching not to hear with a sigh but to embrace with a shout!

Something can be a great challenge and the challenge in it be overwhelming, daunting, discouraging. But the challenge could also be what makes the calling, the assignment more worthy of our best effort. Something can be terribly difficult but the difficulty not be discouraging but nerving; not wearying but vitalizing. So here! Teaching like this is meant to make us lick our chops, roll up our sleeves, and renew our commitment to living a radically Christian life. We have one short life in which to do so; let’s not waste it, brothers and sisters. Let’s do something important, beautiful, however difficult for our Savior’s sake. Everyone of you sitting there knows exactly what sorts of things that might entail in your case. Now get up, get off your duff and do them!

I know you know very well that the life our Savior has here described is the truly good life, the life we ought to live, the life it is our privilege to live by the grace of God. You read these short paragraphs and hear the bell like tone of truth in them. You and I have failed, often miserably, to live this way, but we know that for what it is: our inexcusable failure! In every case we know we should have, could have done better than we did, so much better. We know very well that we can’t be faithful followers of Jesus of Nazareth and leave others to their own devices or look down on them for being sinners like ourselves. No, we have only one life to live, so let’s live it!

Let’s teach our children to live a life that requires more faith than they now have, much more, so that they will always aspire to a more Christlike life. They will content themselves with little if they see us doing so. I can guarantee you that! The Lord has set before them as he has set before us a life that is high above the ground. We cannot, we will not live a life that does not display and commend the grace, mercy, love, humility, and perseverance that Jesus displayed in living for us as he did.

In the second place, reading these ten verses will prove of no consequence unless we renew our determination to live in active dependence upon the help of the Lord. The reason why few actually live the life the Lord Jesus here describes is because it is so hard to do, impossible really for sinners like us. Impossible, that is, if we attempt it without help.

The Lord will give his help in many ways, directly by the Spirit to our hearts, through other believers, through his Word, in answer to our prayers, in the providences of our lives; but that help we must have, you and I, or we will — as we often have — think these things impossible and simply give up. Dr. Schaeffer used to say that every Christian ought always to be consciously attempting something that he or she knows to be beyond his or her means. That is we are to live presuming on the veracity of God, as Calvin once put it. He made the promise that we can do such things with his power obtained by our faith in him — such things as are the spiritual equivalent of hurling large trees into the sea: forgive from the heart, actually care, really care, for the welfare of another and working for that welfare, live a life of genuine humility before God and man —  so let him prove it to us, which he will if we seek more faith and put that faith in his power to work. Teaching like this is intended to force us to live our lives looking up, hour by hour depending upon the Lord for the help we must have to do what he has commanded us to do.

This life that Jesus describes here is absolutely possible. It has been lived by vast multitudes through the ages; not perfectly, but really, demonstrably, inspiringly. That is one reason, brothers and sisters, why I use so much of Christian biography and church history in my sermons. I want you always to remember that real people, ordinary people, people like you and me, men and women of like passions and frailties have lived by faith and done just what the Lord says here we all are to do.

I am just about finished with the final volume of the late William Manchester’s celebrated biography of Winston Churchill. More than a thousand large pages of text, but a gripping story that carries the reader along. There are things to admire in Churchill’s life, to be sure, and there are some things that we need to appreciate were traits, characteristics of his life because of the miserable upbringing provided him by his parents, but Churchhill’s life wasn’t this life, the life that Jesus lays out for his disciples in these ten verses. Nothing like it in fact. He was a miserable father, nothing outstanding as a husband, was very often, in fact ordinarily, unkind to and thoughtless of others who worked for him. He also had a towering ego. Humility is not a word that comes to mind when thinking of Winston Churchill. Nor did he have any faith in God or any desire for more of it.

I have read the life stories of so many men and women less famous but so much better people, whose lives are so much more inspiring to those who truly want to be good and to do good and who see in Jesus Christ the standard of true goodness. These men and women are a city set on a hill in a way Churchill could never be. And it is our happy calling to be like them.

Living in a day of Christianity’s decline in our country and culture, it is essential that every Christian, that you and I in particular, recognize the radical nature of our calling and embrace it for what it is. As Joseph Ratzinger put it, shortly before becoming Benedict XVI: “the only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments: namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” [Cited in Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, 292]

Well, the culture isn’t going to take Christianity seriously in our day as the result of the kitsch that now passes for Christian architecture, music, and visual art; it offers nothing to the world, that it doesn’t already have and is no recommendation of the Mighty God, the beauty of his holiness, or our historic faith. So until our arts have been reborn, the saints themselves must be the argument. But they will be so only to the extent that they actually live saintly lives, lives different from the lives of unbelievers around them, markedly, dramatically different, in just the ways the Lord described here in Luke 17. Think of your life in these terms; seek more faith; aspire to nothing less than this profound humility and this other-centered and merciful living for others. Then let the world try to explain that!

Be what thou seemest; live thy creed.
Hold up to earth the torch divine:
Be what thou prayest to be made;
Let the great master’s steps be thine.