In our last essay we studied Luke 16:14-31, which contains several warnings to the Pharisees about wealth and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this essay we study 17:1-10 in which Jesus turns from the Pharisees back to his disciples and gives them a series of miscellaneous teachings. In verses 1-2 we see that the “occasions for stumbling” Jesus refers to are the many opportunities and temptations to sin that face us all. They are inevitable, because Satan always is active. But Jesus is concerned here with those people who lead others into sin or apostasy and thus become agents of Satan in the world. Jesus says that the judgment that awaits such people is so great that it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their necks and be thrown into the sea.
As you know a millstone is a large, round stone with a hole in the middle that was rotated on another large stone to grind grain. The image of a millstone around the neck of someone to weigh that person down for drowning is rather vivid.
Now there is debate about the meaning of “these little ones” in verse two. In Matthew’s parallel, they clearly are believers in Jesus, but here in Luke’s context, they could refer to the disciples, or to the poor as represented by Lazarus. The most likely meaning is the disciples, who represent all believers, because of the next verse and Matthew’s parallel.
Verse three requires us to rebuke a brother or sister who sins against us. But if that person expresses repentance, we must forgive him or her. Then in verse four Jesus underlines the teaching. Even if the person sins against us seven times a day, we must keep forgiving, if there is repentance.
Luke’s account becomes a bit disjointed with verses 5-6. It may be that Luke was unaware of what prompted the disciples to ask Jesus for added faith, and thus he provides no context for it. At any rate, the disciples ask for additional faith, which suggests that they had some. Jesus does not deny that they had some faith, but his reply indicates that it was very little. He says that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, at the time the smallest known seed, they could order a mulberry tree to “be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey them.
Both Mark and Matthew have parallels (Mk. 11:23; Mt. 21:21 and Mt. 17:20), but they are in different contexts, and it is a mountain that Jesus says the disciples could move rather than a tree. Jesus did not intend any of these expressions to be taken literally. He was teaching the disciples that much could be accomplished with a small amount of faith.
Verses 7-10 contain what I call this the Parable of the Slave, because Jesus uses the reality of slavery to make a point about discipleship. The situation set forth in the parable is that of a small farmer who has one slave. This slave, like all slaves, is completely at the disposal of his master. He has no rights; and he must be available to the master 24 hours a day. So after working in the fields all day, the slave is not immediately rewarded with a warm meal and rest. Rather he is expected to meet the master’s needs first. He not only has field duties, he has household duties. He must prepare the master’s meal and wait for the master to finish eating and drinking before he can prepare his own meal.
Furthermore, the master does not thank the slave for doing his duty as a slave. Slaves who do their duty are not entitled to any reward. In other words, the master is under no obligation to the slave, because the slave does what he is commanded to do.
Notice that Jesus drew a direct analogy from the slave’s situation to discipleship. When we do what God commands us to do, we place God under no obligation. We are slaves of Christ, and it is our duty to do what God commands us to do without reward. Now other Scriptures teach us that God does reward believers. Indeed we saw that back in Luke 12:35-38, where Jesus taught that slaves who stay alert and expectant while awaiting the bridegroom will be rewarded and blessed. Jesus’ point here is that God is under no obligation to do so.
Now then, we must remember that the Pharisees still are on the scene. And the Pharisees held that performance of good works did constitute a claim on God for due reward. But Jesus shoots that theory down. Slaves of God ought to expect nothing from God. Instead of expecting thanks, we should be thankful, as Jesus teaches us in the next segment.
Luke reminds us in verse 11 that Jesus still is on his way to Jerusalem. Then he tells us that ten lepers approached Jesus in a certain village. They kept their distance, because the law required them to do so (Lev. 13:45-46). In our culture the word “leprosy” is associated with Hanson’s disease, the horrible flesh killing disease. But in that ancient Jewish culture, the word “leper” was a much broader term. It was used to describe any skin disease, some of which were, and some of which were not, serious.
So we don’t know what kind of skin disease these lepers had. But whatever it was, they had, according to the law, been banished from everyday society until clean. The lepers saw Jesus and called out to him, “Master, have mercy on us!” Instead of healing them then and there, Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests. Showing oneself to the priests when clean again was a requirement of the law. The complicated process is laid out in Lev. 14:1-32.
The way Jesus handled the situation was very interesting. Ordinarily a leper would not have thought about going to the priests until cured. Thus Jesus’ command to go to the priests before they were cured required faith and obedience. But all ten did it, and before they arrived at the appointed place, they were healed.
In verses 15-19 we see that one of the lepers, when he perceived he was healed, turned back praising God. He prostrated himself before Jesus and thanked him. Then came the surprise for the Jews in the audience, especially the Pharisees. The thankful leper was a Samaritan. By implication, the nine ungrateful lepers were Jews. The “foreigner,” as Jesus called him, had the good sense to praise God and thank Jesus for his healing; but the Jewish lepers, who believed themselves superior in their religion, did not.
There is one more significant thing to see. It is in verse 19, “Both the NRSV ands the NIV translate the second part of Jesus’ statement to the grateful, Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.” But the literal translation is, “Your faith has saved you.” I believe that is very significant. By coming back to Jesus in gratitude, the Samaritan received something that the nine ungrateful lepers did not. They received physical healing, because they exercised faith, and that is a wonderful thing. But the Samaritan who came back not only received physical healing, he also received salvation. Not only was his body healed, but also his soul.