Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

140. Faith, Works - and Faith (Luke 17:1-19)

It is not easy to see just what connection there might be between this discourse of Jesus and the parables which immediately precede it. This section of Luke's gospel, which has hardly any perceptible links with Matthew and Mark, gives the impression of being an assemblage of disconnected paragraphs, but it might be a serious mistake to assume that this is the case.

Here the Lord begins with a warning against being personally a cause of stumbling in the life of any of his "little ones". This expression can hardly mean little children. It is used in the sense of new or young or immature disciples (cp. 1Jn. 2:12, 13; Jn. 13:33; Mt.l0:42; Zech.l3:7).

How could such offence come about? Most probably in one of two ways-through clumsiness in personal relations, or through unsympathetic ill-advised decision by the ecclesia. It is evident from this very serious admonition that the Lord deemed the preserving of fellowship to be of paramount importance.

The vivid hyperbole of the one who has caused his brother to stumble now having a great mule-driven millstone (and not just the hand-manipulated thing) tied to his neck and he then thrown by superhuman strength into the depths of the sea is a terrible warning of the extent of divine displeasure in such human crises.

But there is also the other side of the picture. The one to whom offence is given must beware of taking too seriously any slight, whether wilful or accidental. There is always the possibility of mistaken judgement at the receiving end also. The thin-skinned individual can be a serious liability in ecclesial fellowship, and by his very susceptibility he can compass his own spiritual downfall. How easily it can be forgotten that God knows and that therefore sooner or later all, even the most grievous misjudgement, is sure to be set right.

So, warns Jesus: "Take heed to yourselves" that there be not an unforgiving spirit.

Peter had asked: "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? till seven times?" (Mt.18 :21). The shattering answer given then was now reinforced with a further counsel of impossible idealism:

"If he repent, forgive him; and if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying I repent; thou shalt forgive him".

Such facile repentance would surely proclaim an arrant cynical insincerity. Nevertheless Jesus bids his disciple take a man at his word. There must be no harbouring of the least suspicion of duplicity. After all, is it really serious if one who has been undeservedly forgiven by Almighty God should himself forgive a man not deserving of it?

Faith and the Sycamine Tree

"Lord, increase our faith," begged the apostles of their Master one day. Faith regarding what? If there is connection with the context, they may have felt the need for help in keeping closer to his daunting idealism.

Another possible connection is with the day after the Transfiguration when Jesus had to reprove his disciples because of their little faith concerning their attempts to heal the epileptic boy whilst Jesus was absent from them (Mt.17 :19,20). The natural reaction to this reproof would be to ask, as soon as opportunity came their way: "Lord, will you teach us how to add to our little faith, so that we may be of greater usefulness in your service, and not let you down by failures such as that?" But Luke 17 and Matthew 17 appear to be remote from each other in point of time.

More likely, the parables of Luke 15 and especially 16—the Unjust Steward and the Rich Man in Hell—had at last told the Twelve that their Master was not aiming at a reform of the existing order, but at making a completely fresh start, a New Creation. And they, these twelve ordinary men, were to have such a formidable task committed to them. How could they hope to succeed against all the tradition and deep-rooted prejudices of people and rulers? What hope of progress against the vested interests of the men of the temple? No wonder faith faltered at the prospect. (The rare use of the word "apostles" would support this suggestion; v.5).

The Lord's response to their plea, in a short and a longer parable, was strictly relevant:

"If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say to this sycamine tree, Be (hot plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it would have obeyed you." This saying is marvellously like the answer Jesus had given them on the earlier occasion, just referred to: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say to this mountain (the Mount of Transfiguration), Remove hence to yonder place (Mount Zion); and it shall remove" (Mt.17:20), That saying reflected the Lord's exhilaration of spirit after the mountain experience of tin presence of Moses and Elijah and the Shekinah Glory of God. Since then the discouragements which had beset him imparted a more sombre tone to his prophecy.


The sycamore (AV) is a kind of maple. But the sycamine, which is what Jesus really referred to, is a species of fig tree. In the LXX version every reference to the sycamine is unmistakably too fig tree. The figure hardly needs to be expounded. One passage of Scripture after another points to the Jewish nation (e.g. Jer. 24; Mic.7:1; Hos.9:10 Joel 1:7; Hab.3 :17; Mt.21 :19; 24 :32; Lk.13 :6; Rev.6 :13).

Jesus, it would seem, foresaw that one of (lie greatest trials awaiting his apostles was that which he also found hardest to bear-the faithlessness and opposition of his own people. Their apostolic work of taking the gospel to all parts would certainly be mightily hindered by the opposition of Jewry. Nevertheless, he bade them believe that if in faith they committed to God the mission he was soon to commit to them, their great obstacle—the fig-tree nation—would be uprooted and planted in the sea (2 Chr.7 :20); that is, Israel would be cast adrift, to be no longer a hindrance to their great task.

Other similar scriptures seem to have a similar reference: "The wicked shall be cut off from the Land, and they that deal treacherously shall be rooted out of it" (Pr. 2 :22—the origin of the Lord's saying?). "Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up" (Mt.15 :13). And Jude was to describe Judaistic perverters of the gospel as "Trees without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots;" and, remarkably enough, his next figure of speech is: "raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame" (Jude 12,13).

Unprofitable Servant

By yet another parable Jesus bade his disciples recognize that, in their work for him, success depended not only on their faith but also on their faithfulness.

When an employee (or, more exactly, a stave) comes into the house at the end of a day's ploughing or shepherding, he has no right to expect that he may immediately rest and enjoy a meal. First, there is the master's meal to prepare and serve. Then, when that is concluded, the servant's turn comes next. And oil this he may expect to do as a matter of course, and without even a word of thanks.

In that epoch, so different from the twentieth century, this kind of thing happened every day. Although difficult to imagine now, the social system of that time took it for granted. Today it is important to seek out the meaning Jesus intended, and why he used such an idea to answer the disciples' request.

Once again, it is possible to observe a fairly clear one-one correspondence between the details and their meaning. The servant ploughing or tending sheep is a picture of the typical Jew devoted to the service of the Law of Moses. He serves God in the "field" of Jewry; the curse on the ground (Gen. 3 :17-19), which makes his labour necessary, suggests the curse of the Law: "by the Law is the knowledge of sin"(Rom.3:20).

When a man leaves the field to come into the house, he is like a disciple moving from the dispensation of works to that of grace. Then let him not assume that thenceforward he has no further responsibilities save to receive comfortably all the blessings that are poured upon him. As the servant is now called upon to gird himself with a towel and serve his master personally, providing whatever is his good pleasure (Gk: "serve continually," or "go on serving"), so also the new-found convert from Judaism has an obligation to take on himself the imitation of Christ. He now serves his Master in a more personal sense doing all things as unto the brd (who has himself been a suffering Servant)—and this with no sense of personal virtue or of pride in his own achievements, but purely as a commonplace expression of humble duty. Yet, paradoxically enough, it is through the dedication and diligence of the man in the parable that faith is increased.

Nor can there be expectation of thanks for anything which he achieves. Such service is the least he can do. Peter crystallizes out the same lesson using the very words of Lk. 17: "giving all diligence (like the servant in the parable), add to your faith ..." (2 Pet. 1 :5). And with the finest endeavours he is capable of, this servant knows himself to be at best an "unprofitable servant" (Ml. 25:30).

At last, when all duties are at an end, there is his own meal. The food is provided by his master, but the quality of the meal depends on the pains and skill with which he himself prepares it. It will be even so regarding the gift of eternal life and the rewards which the sharing of Christ's kingdom will bring (1 Cor. 3 :12-14; Lk. 12:37).

The lesson, then and now

The main principle behind this parable is a highly important one, and valid for every generation. No man in Christ must ever allow himself to think that the blessings open to him are to be earned through his own dedicated efforts. At best, when all is done, he is a very ordinary fellow, an "unprofitable servant'—'in thy sight shall no man living be justified" (Ps. 143 :2). No amount of good works can put God in his debt: "Who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?"(Rom. 11 :35). The true spirit of Christian service is expressed by Paul regarding his unique achievements as a minister of Christ: "Though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, I have a stewardship intrusted to me" (1 Cor.9 :16,17); that, is, I must keep at it just the same.

It is not difficult to see how a parable stressing this aspect of life in Christ is closely related to the preceding saying about the uprooting of the fig tree. Judaism was to be the great obstacle to the preaching of the gospel in the early days, and only the faith of the preacher and the providence of God would remove it. But why should there be such bitter Jewish opposition to a movement so basically Jewish, the Hope of Israel, in fact? Because Jewry was unwilling, and still is, to let go the idea of justification by works (Rom.9 :30-33; 10 :3). To ask a Jew to regard his faithful allegiance to the formalities of the Law of Moses as "unprofitable" was an almost outrageous proposition. And to this dpy many earnest Gentile disciples of Christ are too much in love with the same misguided concept.

The problem of the challenge of loyalties— Moses or Christ?— as it was to face the early church is mordantly illustrated in an acted parable which Luke inserts in his record at this point.

But, first, a geographical detail which is something of a puzzle: "And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.”

Probably Luke is indicating here another of the big circuits which Jesus made during the last few months of his ministry. It took him through Samaria and into Galilee once again, though not for long. He was now staying for no appreciable length of time in any place. And this northern sweep was "as he went to Jerusalem," because that was the ultimate goal of his pilgrimage.

Lepers, and a leper

As Jesus and his party were approaching a village, a group of ten lepers (a synagogue of misery) clamoured for his compassion. Social outcasts that they were, they kept at a good distance but raised a united shout which they repeated again and again: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." The fame of the powers of Jesus had reached even these pariahs. Now was their great opportunity.

The narrative reads as though Jesus, busy in discourse as he went, was not aware of their proximity until their shout reached his ears. His response was immediate: "Go and show yourselves unto the priests." It was an indirect promise of healing.

Without any hesitation they believed his word, and set off. Soon, as they were going they realised that what they had asked was already granted them—they were every one of them healed, their flesh as clean, firm and wholesome as a child's. With an excitement and gladness which may be readily imagined they quickened their pace to the local Jewish priest who would provide certification of healing.

All except one. When this one of them—a Samaritan!—knew himself to be healed he forthwith abandoned all idea of going to his Samaritan priest. Disobeying the instruction Jesus had already given him and instead giving priority to what he deemed a higher duty, he rushed back to Jesus. His loud shout of praise to God was heard from a distance:

"I cried to Thee, O Lord; and unto the Lord I made supplication . . . Hear, O lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou my helper. Thou hast turned for me my mourning (Lev. 13 :45) into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; to the intent that my glory may sing praise unto thee. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever" (Ps.30 :8-12, a psalm of David's leprosy; cp. Ps.38). This time, instead of standing afar off, the man came right up to Jesus, pouring out his ceaseless fervent thanksgiving, and prostrating himself at his feet.

"Were there not ten cleansed?" But where are the nine?" There was surely a touch of bitterness about his question: "Were there none found that returned to give glory to God (by thanking his Son) save this stranger?"

Then he spoke his thanks to the man at his feet: "Arise and go thy way: thy faith hath saved thee." Faith in Christ had cleansed the other nine, but now they were taken up with dutiful observance of the outward forms of the bw. This stranger, by rising to the higher level of continued personal dependence on Christ, was more than cleansed, he was saved.

Acted parable

And now the parable. Always, ten men have been a necessary pre-requisite for the formation of a synagogue. The prophet foretells a time when "ten men shall take hold of the skirt of Him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you, for we have heard (and now believe) that God is with you (Immanuel!)" (Zech. 8 :23). It is a prophecy of the long overdue acceptance of Christ by the nation which has always rejected him.

These ten lepers, then, prefigured a Jewish synagogue healed by Christ and then going off to pay full observance of the Law, to the neglect of the One who healed them. Out of them all, only one shows due loyalty to Christ—and he an outcast, from whom the others would now be extremely glad to hold themselves aloof.

This is what happened in the early church. Many Jewish Christian communities came into existence through the preaching of the gospel. Yet, although experiencing the healing Christ imparted, they mostly went back to the synagogue and the Law. The powerful "counter-reformation" mounted by Jewish vested interests overwhelmed them. The main purpose behind the writing of the Epistle to the Hebrews waste stem this drift back to the synagogue. By the time another generation had gone by, there were hardly any Christian Jews at all, and such as there were knew themselves to be out-Law-ed by the rest. Yet these were saved with an everlasting salvation.

The miracle has also its message for the believer of the present day. Cleansed of his leprosy, he must be warned against going to seek justification by his own works. The nine lepers actually obeyed Christ's command implicitly. Yet they pleased him less. What they lacked was the personal appreciation of the One who gave it. There was more self-interest in a prompt appearance before the priest. Then today let a man not neglect to show himself to Jesus his true high-priest. Euchariston, the Samaritan's giving of thanks (v.16), is one of the names adopted by the early church for the Breaking of Bread (Study 197). There, at the Breaking of Bread, let him pour out his thanks; there let him be reminded that it is his faith in Christ which saves him; and there let him accept the Lord's own assurance that he is saved.

Notes: Lk. l7:1-19

The apostles said. This rare use of the word (9:10; cf.v. 1) might well suggest a break in the narrative here. Where else besides Mt. 17:19; 18:1; Acts 1 :6 was there a general apostolic enquiry?
Doth he thank...?Gk. implies: No, of course not. But by contrast, v.8 implies an affirmative answer.
Samaria and Galilee. Mentioned in this order because of v.16-18?
Voices. The Gk. word is singular. As one man.

Have mercy on us. Even the Samaritan among them believed that salvation is of the Jews (Jn. 4 :22). It was a better importunity than even that by another healed leper (5:12). Yet it was this plea which in the parable father Abraham disregarded.
The nine. It is usually assumed that these were all Jews. See note on v. 18.
Found; cp. 2Chr. 29:29 mg.

This stranger. Gk: one of another race. So here Jesus is explicit that Samaritans had no right to claim descent from Abraham.
Hath made thee whole. Gk. implies a lasting salvation.

Previous Index Next