Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
1. "Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the
righteous live by their faith." Habakkuk 2:4 is a central verse
Reformation's theme of Justification by Faith. But recent Pauline
scholars are critical of Reformation readings of Paul, including
places where Paul quotes Hab. 2:4, namely, Rom. 1:17 and Gal.
Chief among the current scholars is Douglas Campbell in his book The
God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in
Paul (see my review on the Amazon page), where he
recommends that Protestants give up Justification by Faith as the
of the Gospel. Justification has devolved into the kind of
gospel that Paul is arguing against in Romans and Galatians.
argues that the true heart of Paul's unconditional gospel is a
of God's deliverance of
creation from the powers of sin and death, such as we find in
How do these newer readings of Paul impact the translation and
interpretation of Hab. 2:4 and Paul's use of them? The NRSV
above uses third person plural, "their faith," thus presuming that
righteous" is also plural. On pages 614ff., Campbell puts forward
he calls a messianic reading of all these verses in question: "the
Righteous One, by his fidelity, will live." The crucial element
that the Greek of the LXX and NT are all in third person singular. Also, Campbell
read pistis more in the
of "fidelity" or "faithfulness" rather than simply "faith." What
Habakkuk and Paul have in mind, according to Campbell, is not any
righteous person but rather a specific one, the Messiah -- Jesus
Messiah in Paul's case. Whether that's the best understanding of
Habukkuk may be debatable. But the evidence is compelling that
way Paul understood and
Paul, in Campbell's reading of him, puts the full focus of
on Jesus the Messiah. We are rescued from the powers of sin and
by the Messiah's faithfulness to God's mission of deliverance,
the humilating death on the cross. Because of this, he will live.
will be raised from death and thus vindicated in his mission. "The
Righteous One, by his faithfulness,
will live." The Reformation reading of these verses puts the focus
our faith in Jesus, tending to make it
gospel conditioned on our
faith, instead of a gospel of uncondional deliverance based on the
faithfulness of the Messiah.
Reflections and Questions
1. The most educated guess, since Habakkuk gives very few clues
the text, is that he is a contemporary of Jeremiah. It makes sense
the opening verses (1:1-4) during the corrupt reign of King
B.C.E.). Meanwhile, Nebuchadnezzar was gaining power in Babylon.
thus records God's first response to Habakkuk, predicting the
(another name used for the Babylonians) first invasion of Judah in
B.C.E. Hab. Scholars then conjecture that 1:12-2:1 carries
complaint, in the period after 597, that the punishment is too
for the crime. Treatment under the hands of the invaders is a
than the reign of Jehoiakim. God's response is conveyed in 2:2-4,
the line that St. Paul quotes in Rom. 1:17 which became a motto
Reformation: "the righteous shall live by faith" (see the
2. The back and forth between Habakkuk and God is not a typical form for prophetic texts. More typical would simply be God's pronouncements of judgment. Another prophet who engaged God in such argumentation was Habakkuk's contemporary Jeremiah. The form used is more typical of lament psalms or the book of Job. This difference in form makes a difference in the theology of divine justice: rather than presuming God's righteousness it poses it as a question or problem. To which comes God's bottom-line response of: the just live by faith.
3. Habakkuk's basic plea is put in the very general terms of "violence" (Heb. hamas), "strife," and "contention." These are good words that resonate with the most general Girardian assessments of the human condition. They describe the usual descension into cycles of sacrificial crisis in which the cultural containment fields of righteous violence used to maintain order are breaking down. The growing mimetic rivalry and accompanying resentment result in increasing strife and contention and finally violence. King Jehoiakim's reign seemed to be a time of deepening sacrificial crisis in Judah. But will the imposition of Babylonian righteous violence be acceptable to Jews? Probably not. An outsider's righteous violence looks no better, probably even worse, than their own profane violence, or Jehoiakim's corrupted versions of righteous violence. Any way you look at it, it's all violence -- which is what Habakkuk seems to be complaining about. This is what tends to happen at times of sacrificial crisis: even the attempts at righteous violence appear to be unrighteous. It all looks like plain old violence.
God's answer to Habakkuk is to have faith in divine
what will that be? How will God's righteousness finally manifest
In the New Testament, God's way of righteousness is presented in
as a way of forgiveness. With the newer Pauline scholarship, the
emphasis in reading these texts is on God's faithfulness in
Deliverer, the Messiah. Forgiveness brings deliverance, release
our debts, release from our enslavement to the powers of sin and
Romans 1:17, immediately before quoting Hab. 2:4, proclaims it as a matter "through faithfulness for faithfulness." Through the faithfulness of the Messiah we are able to be faithful to God's way of forgiveness. We are able to forgive our debtors even as we have been forgiven. See more on this below with the Gospel Lesson.
4. Our cries these days in the face of the terrorist attacks is one of "Violence!" How can a just God allow such violence? And the usual human response will be some sort of righteous violence against the terrorists, with our sacred rule of Law behind it.
The question will be: how long will our righteous violence look righteous to us, before it just looks like simply more unwanted violence? We are certainly going through a lengthy time of pumping up the patriotic fervor -- the kind of fervor designed to keep us seeing our righteous violence as righteous?
2 Timothy 1:1-14
1. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, p. 205.
1. What are the parallels to Luke 17:6?
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."Here are the similar sayings in the New Testament:
Matthew 17:20: He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."Luke is the only one to have this general saying about faith paired with a mulberry tree. The other four instances, including the most direct parallel in Matthew 17:20, pair faith with mountains. Luke does not include the parallel with Mark's Cursing of the Fig Tree passage in Mark 11:12-14; 11:20-26, which is paralleled in Matthew 21:18-22 (without sandwiching it around the "Cleansing of the Temple" as Mark does). Luke 17:6 appears to be a Q saying since its closest parallel in Matthew 17:20 -- except for the difference between "mulberry tree" and "mountain," respectively. Perhaps Luke's is more original and Matthew changed it to mountain because of the other similar sayings about faith and mountains. We cannot say with certainty.
Matthew 21:21: Jesus answered them, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done."
Mark 11:22-23: Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you."
1 Corinthians 13:2: And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
But there is an important issue with these parallels in the light of mimetic theory. Mark 11:22-23 is the most original of the synoptic instances of this saying as a saying from Jesus. And he places it in a very important context, namely, Jesus' opposition to the Temple in Mark 11-13. Mark uses the demonstrative pronoun, "this mountain," in a context that Jesus was likely pointing to a particular mountain, Mt. Zion, the temple mount. Faith has to do, in other words, with being rid of the Temple as the source for forgiveness. From the viewpoint of mimetic theory, Jesus is saying that faith has to do with a belief in God that isn't structured around the kind of sacred violence centered in temples of sacrifice.
Matthew repeats the demonstrative pronoun "this mountain" in both his instances of the saying. Is the same opposition to the Temple in the background for Jesus' original saying, even if Matthew doesn't himself understand it as such? Does it make any sense to hear a glimmer of what might be its original context behind Luke's version? Luke has seemingly preserved the link to forgiveness in Luke 17:1-4, but the pointing to the Temple mountain is gone with the change to a mulberry tree. It makes perfect sense to me to be speaking about forgiveness as something that no longer requires faith in temple sacrifices. Has something been 'lost in translation' through Luke's editing of the original saying from Jesus -- if there was an original saying from Jesus?
2. Luke 17:7-10 is effectively saying, 'You do not serve your master, helping to usher in God's Kingdom, with the expectation of being thanked.' Working for the kingdom of God should provide its own thanks. It is itself a life lived in thankfulness. This interpretation is underscored by what comes next: the story of the one out of ten lepers who returns to give thanks.
1. For Girardians, this lection skips the most interesting verses: vs. 1-4, especially Jesus' warning against making the little ones to stumble. Skandalizo is the primary term for Girardian psychology in the NT, with dozens of references. René Girard begins his recent book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, with a chapter named for the opening words of this passage (and its parallel in Matthew 18:7), "Scandal Must Come" (excerpt). For a full explication of this crucial Girardian insight, link to a page on "René Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon."
2. James Alison, Raising Abel. He makes a reference to Luke 17:10 as the last word in his section on reputation and shame: "Heavenly reputation, glory, is given to one who doesn't really understand why she is receiving it, one who considers herself an unprofitable servant (Lk 17:10)." [p. 185]
And the passage in Luke 17, which the lectionary skips over, but for which Gil Bailie focuses all his comments about Luke 16-19, is featured in a couple places in Alison's Raising Abel: p. 126 and pp. 150-151. The latter reference comes in the context of taking a more wholistic look at Luke's eschatology [pp. 149-152]. These are worth looking up as a compliment to what Gil has to say on Luke 17:20-37.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly,
from October 7, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
4. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "Ordinary Slaves."
5. This passage, for me, is a good example of why Gil Bailie, in his "Gospel of Luke" audio-taped lectures, chose to "sidestep" Luke 16-19 in his audio-tape lecture series on Luke. The only passages that Bailie comments on in these chapters are Luke 17:20-37 & 18:31-34. The first one is skipped over in the lectionary, beginning and ending with important verses -- as comes out in Bailie's treatment below. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by "The Poetry of Truth," Part 111, Part 112, Part 113, Part 114.
Here is my transcription of Bailie's lecture on Luke 17:20-37 & 18:31-34.
***** Notes/transcription from Gil Bailie's audio series on Luke, tape #9 *****
The plan for the day: take an opportunity to share some things that don't seem to have anything to do with the gospel (but they do!). An introduction to the theme:
1. The gospel tells us that we will come to know the truth, and the truth will set us free. Our freedom is connected to the truth. It's the only way we will have true freedom. Truth in Greek is aleitheia, which means to stop forgetting. That's why Christian conversion always involves a retrospective glance at one's sinfulness. We stop forgetting.
2. In chapter 11, we heard Jesus say, "this generation..." And we argued at the time that "this generation" doesn't refer to the people living at the time of Jesus, but rather as a reference to those who participate in this kind of cultural generative activity. ("Generative" being a morpheme of "generation" and the verb "to generate.") To that extent, it's anyone of us in history who benefits from the whole sacrificial apparatus which the Cross exposes and deconstructs. "...this generation," Jesus says in chapter 11 of Luke (11:50-51), "will be accountable for the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation." So Jesus here sees prophets in a much wider context than we usually think because he names Abel as one of the prophet. Abel was not a Jew, and he certainly wasn't a prophet, except for the fact that he was killed. He was a victim. Victims become prophets in retrospect, because when we really see them -- when we see Abel the way the Bible sees Abel -- then we're beginning to catch a glimpse of the truth. If we see Abel the way the Roman myth sees Remus -- you see, Romulus kills Remus, and we hardly hear anymore about Remus. The Roman myth doesn't tell us that Remus was innocent and that Romulus was a murderer. But the Bible tells us that Abel was innocent and that Cain was a murderer. So the Bible sees Abel in new light. It doesn't believe the justifying myth. And therefore Abel is a prophet; that is to say, a revealer of the truth, because we see the victim. So Jesus understands prophet in a much larger way than the way we usually think of.
3. And when Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, his companions are looking on this magnificent city. They're rural people for the most part. A great Temple. They're pretty awed by it. And Jesus says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" (13:34) He sees the city in a different way. He recognizes the source of its sacrality, and that's why he's going there. Can I say that of the historical Jesus? I have no idea. But in the gospel, that's why Jesus is going there -- precisely that's why it's the central location for him. Not just because the Temple is there; the Temple is simply the architectural manifestation of the sacrality. Underneath all that is precisely this: the victim.
4. There's another version in chapter 17 of this kind of x-ray vision for Jesus (17:20-37). His contemporaries are asking him about when the Kingdom is going to come ... where it's going to come. He realizes that they can't possibly understand that. He says to the, 'It's happening all ready, and you can't see it.' And they say to him, "Where will it happen?" In other words, "The world's a big place. Where is the Kingdom going to break in? Just give us a clue." This is like some detective story. And Jesus says to them, "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather." (17:37) What are we to make of that? A lot has been made of it, but it's a pretty amazing clue, wouldn't you say? He is seeing culture. When we say "Where in the world?" "world" almost always means the cosmos, the ordered world, the cultural world, the human world. Where in the world will the Kingdom break in? "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather." It's totally enigmatic at one level. And on another level, it's filled with interesting innuendo. The corpse. We should be looking around for that. And the vultures. In order to find the corpse, look for the vultures. They'll be gathered around.
5. In Matthew's gospel at the crucifixion, some very important things happen: "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." (Matt 27:51-52) Suddenly, at the crucifixion, what we've learned is that these tombs can no longer keep the dead in them. Which is an incredibly apt metaphor for the truth of the victim breaking out of the myth. These saints are precisely the martyrs, the prophets. Clearly, there's a connection between this notion of prophets that we mentioned a moment ago and this reference to saints. Their tombs are open, and they're coming out. This is the beginning of the breaking in of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not about dead bodies, corpses, and violence. The Kingdom is about the opposite of that. The Kingdom is about the God of infinite love and mercy. But the Kingdom breaks in on a sinful world at the place of the sin. That's why the Cross is what it is. If we want to look for where the Kingdom is breaking into the world, we look for where the vultures are surrounding the corpse. That's not because we have a lurid interest in these kind of things, but because the Good News always looks like bad news at first. You see? The Good News always breaks in destroying the myth which was designed to keep us from the bad news. So when the myth breaks open, the bad news which the myth was designed to ward off is right there. But on the other side of that is the Good News of our liberation. We're no longer enslaved by that whole process of fleeing from the truth. So the Kingdom breaks in -- and in many ways this is part of the burden of the chapters we're skirting today -- in many ways we recognize the breaking-in of the Kingdom by going to that local which Jesus pointed out, the corpse where the vultures are gathered, and watch what happens. And looking at the tombs of the Holy Ones, which here simply means those who victims of righteous violence ("prophets"), and we suddenly see the tombs are shattered and the truth is coming out. That's a measure of the breaking-in of the Kingdom. So if people today say that the world is in a hell of a fix and that there's very little sign of the Kingdom breaking-in, if we would have eyes to see, we would see that the Kingdom is breaking in. We simply are fleeing from it. The truth of it is breaking in on us and precipitating a tremendous crisis, which we are not meeting. As a result there is a tremendous chaos and bloodshed in our world. To summarize: The Kingdom or Reign of God breaks in when the bodies of the victims can no longer be hidden by the myths, shrines, and sacrificial apparatus of the sacred system. The tombs are open.
6. Today we are going to talk about these chapters in Luke in an important sense. In Luke 17 they ask Jesus when the Kingdom is coming. Jesus answers, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among [or "in"] you." This is a phrase that biblical scholars have been mulling over for a long, long time. Does it mean 'in you' in some spiritualistic sense? Or does it mean 'among you' in some sense of ecclesiology, some sense of community? The question here is when is the Kingdom coming. Some exegetes would also put it this way: if it's responsive to when, then the Greek phrase means that it is already underway. It's already taking place. And Jesus is talking about his own mission: 'The Kingdom has already begun, and now it's going to unfold.' The main image of that unfolding is St. John's image of the Paraclete.
7. (Luke 17:22) "Then he said to the disciples, 'The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.'" He's predicting here an eclipse, a long term waiting. Does that mean it's not going to be working? Because he just said that it's working now. No, it's going to be working. It's just that we/they won't be able to see it working. It's going to work, whether we see it working or not.
8. (Luke 17:23-25) "'They will say to you, 'Look there!' or 'Look here!' Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.'" This is the suffering they could not see. Check out Luke 18:31-34: "Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, 'See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.' But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said." This is another example of that "epistemological block" (which was discussed in previous lectures of this series). The inability to see that suffering, to see the victim undergoing the victimization, is exactly the same thing as not being able to see the Kingdom breaking in. The ability to recognize the victim is a measure of the degree to which the Kingdom is breaking in on the world. And we're experiencing the truth; we're ceasing to forget. There's a sense in which the victim is the Rorschach test, which will determine how alert and awake we are.
9. So the plan is to read some newspaper articles and to tell us about a recent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute, and to think about it in terms of the Kingdom breaking in. The gospel is pretty astounding. It's not idealistic at all, not romanticized. When it talks about the Kingdom coming in, there are very strong ominous notes sounding. The breaking in of the Kingdom can be a very serious, grave thing. And it can be accompanied by a lot of chaos and violence, because the breaking in of the Kingdom involves the destruction of the old sacred system, the purpose of which was to avoid all that violence. And the Gospel's way of avoiding all that violence is to undergo a conversion and to change the way in which our lives of desire are experienced. So that if the Gospel comes in and destroys the old sacred system for preventing the violence, and if we haven't undergone a sufficient conversion (so that we can avoid violence in a Christian way), then the world gets very bloody.
Reflections and Questions
1. I am persuaded by the many scholars who see 17:1-4 as
linked with 17:5-10. The disciples ask for an increase of faith in
because of what Jesus says about forgiveness in 17:3-4. In 2010, I
least extended the reading to begin at verse 3, including the
forgiveness material. (The scandal material in verses 1-2 are too
difficult unless one is going to address them in preaching.) I
focusing on the translation of the Greek pistis as "faithfulness" instead of
"faith," thus shifting the focus to relationships rather than
belief. Then, the matter of forgiveness fits even better. The
sermon is titled "Grace for Our Journey: The
of Forgiveness." (We had an Autumn theme in 2010 of "Grace
From the viewpoint of mimetic theory, the significance of "scandal" talk from Jesus makes also makes verses 1-4 crucial. When a passage begins with the inevitability of scandal, what needs to follow? Precisely talk of forgiveness and faith -- especially if faith stems from a forgiveness with its source in Jesus, the Lamb of God, rather than in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. Scandal requires a release valve, which has always meant a sacrificial outlet -- until, that is, faith in Christ as the end of sacrifice.
2. Luke pairs forgiveness and repentance more than any other NT writer (see Luke 3:3, 17:3-4, 24:47; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 8:22, 26:17-20). In 17:3-4 Jesus is saying that if someone repents you must forgive them. What about the other way around? If there is no repentance, does that mean forgiveness will not be forthcoming? No forgiveness unless repentance would contradict what has become a very important theme of the Gospel that I first encountered clearly through Raymund Schwager's Jesus in the Drama of Salvation -- namely, that a unique feature of Jesus' preaching was that he reversed the usual order of repentance and forgiveness. Instead of requiring repentance before forgiveness, Jesus seemed to forgive first as an act of pure grace that could then spark true repentance. (See the section in Schwager's book entitled "God's Turning toward His Enemies," especially page 38 where he says, "In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places.")
Examples would seem to abound in Luke. Luke's gospel is associated with that most radical of words from the cross in which Jesus asks forgiveness for those who are executing him. The synoptic story where we first see Jesus extend forgiveness without repentance is with the story of the paralytic (Luke 5:17-26; par. Mark 2:1-12). This is also a story where we first see forgiveness paired with faith in Luke. After the friends lower him through the roof, Luke tells us, "When he saw their faith, he said, 'Friend, your sins are forgiven you.'"
Luke adds his own story in 7:36-50, of Jesus dining at Simon the Pharisee's house when he is accosted by the woman who is a known "sinner." Unless washing Jesus feet with her tears and hair counts as repentance, Jesus simply forgives her, once again offending the Pharisees, and says to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
In this passage, 17:1-10, we encounter the triad of repentance, forgiveness, and faith. How do they relate? I would submit that it is similar to what we have already put forth. Jesus does not change his tune about forgiving without repentance. Here, he says something challenging and offensive about forgiving no matter how many times someone repents. The fact that someone repents more than once for the same act even indicates that it isn't yet true repentance, i.e., the person hasn't yet changed his or her behavior. That's precisely why what Jesus is saying is once again offensive, this time to the disciples, not just to the Pharisees. The disciples ask for an increase in faith to be able to handle such scandalous teaching about forgiveness when there isn't true repentance.
3. I also fall into the camp of those commentators, then, who see Jesus' response in 17:6 to be about the nature of faith rather than the quantity of faith. The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. They think his challenging words on forgiveness demand a greater quantity of faith. Jesus' answer pokes fun at their request: "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you." In The New Interpreters' Bible, Alan Culpepper says,
The reader may expect that Jesus would warmly receive the disciples' request for more faith. Instead, his sharp answer implies that they have not really understood the nature of genuine faith.... The point is not that they need more faith; rather, they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person's life in ways that defy ordinary human experience. (p. 322)4. What is it about faith that 'defies ordinary human experience'? A Girardian might answer that it turns around the ordinary human experience about what orders human life. It undermines all notions of righteous violence based on holy vengeance, sometimes called "justice," and replaces it with forgiveness. Moreover, rather than focusing on murdering or expelling the victims, true faith focuses on the rehabilitation of those same victims, those 'little ones' who must not be scandalized. So it's not about the disciples having more faith. It's about understanding what faith is in the first place. Faith involves a compassion for the little ones that scandalizes our usual grasping after power. Faith is about a forgiveness to enable repentance that scandalizes our usual lust for holy vengeance.
Girardians have made efforts to name the seeing of faith in its perspective from the viewpoint of the victims of righteous violence. James Alison calls it the "intelligence of the victim" (see an explanation of "The Intelligence of the Victim"). Andrew McKenna, in Violence and Difference, calls this the "epistemological privilege of the victim," a nomenclature that Gil Bailie makes ample use of in his lecture series on "The Gospel of Luke."
5. Then how does one find such faith? By first being forgiven of being on the side of the perpetrators of righteous violence. Peter and Paul exemplify this forgiveness. Peter joins the side of Jesus' persecutors by denying him three times, yet is given the keys to the kingdom. What are the keys to the kingdom? The responsibility to forgive and retain sins. Can one whose own sins have been so graciously forgiven ever really retain sins? Paul is confronted on the way to Damascus not with unbelief -- which is the modern notion about what unfaith means -- but with persecution by righteous violence -- "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" The realization of sin as making victims and Jesus' gracious forgiveness of it are the beginning of faith. Faith is like the humbling experience of finding out just how infinitely we are indebted to our Lord at the same moment that we find out that we're forgiven it all. It should then almost come natural to live that way of forgiveness with others, to live as a humble servant doing one's duty. I think that's what 17:7-10 are about.
6. I might suggest that Luke 17 is parallel with Matthew 18. There are the recognized parallels: Luke 17:1-2 is parallel with Matt. 18:6-7; and Luke 17:3-4 is parallel with Matt. 18:15, 21-22. I wonder if Luke 17:7-10, and perhaps 17:11-19, is parallel with Matt. 18:23-35, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, at least in the sense that it plays a similar role for Luke. Luke 17:1-4 is parallel with Matt. 18:6-7, 15, 21-22. Could what follows these parallels in the two gospels also be trying to reach similar results, i.e., to show how forgiveness should follow out of a faith experience? Matthew uses a negative illustration about how a slave who was forgiven much has failed to live in that world of forgiveness with others. Luke's passage about slaves doing their usual labor is more difficult to understand, but what if we looked at it in light of Matt. 18:23-35? The master in Matthew's parable of the unforgiving servant would not thank his servant for forgiving the debt of another fellow slave. After he has been forgiven much, he should naturally and gratefully forgive others. But when the slave fails to do something that should be his duty, he is called in and punished by the master. Luke's illustration uses more common slave tasks, but is he trying to make a similar point? As forgiven servants of the master, we should naturally go about our business of living in our Lord's world of grace, sharing that grace with others without expecting thanks. In fact, we should be doing the thanking, which is what Luke's next story is about, the Samaritan leper who does return to give thanks for being made whole.
7. Another angle on Luke's version of the slave illustration is the fact that Jesus eventually does precisely what his question seems to be ruling out. In 17:7 Jesus asks, "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'?" The implication is that masters never serve their slaves. But on the night in which he was handed over, he serves his disciples a last supper. In Luke's Gospel, the synoptic story of the disciples arguing about who's the greatest is moved to immediately following this meal. (In Mark and Matthew it happens on the way to Jerusalem.) To which Jesus responds:
"The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:25-27)Phillipians 2 recites the creedal hymn of the early Christian faith that proclaims Christ as the master who serves:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)It is in taking the form of the lowliest, one of these little ones, that Jesus reveals to us our sin of making victims through our righteous violence. He allows himself to be the Lamb of God who sacrifices himself to our sacrificial machinery so that he might take away the sin of the world. For the one whom we crucified is also the one whom God raised to be our Lord. He is the Risen Lord who forgives the debt of our sin, the Lord whom we now serve with thanksgiving.
Link to a sermon entitled "The Master Who Serves," which uses the connection to Luke 22:25-27 as its jumping off point, though it also moves on to strike the theme of forgiveness in the face of righteous violence.
8. In some ways, then, Luke 17:7-10 might seem the opposite of Luke 22:25-27. The former seems to counsel the service of slaves to their masters, while the latter turns that around with a master who serves. Yet one might also contrast them in this way: if the disciples serve a master who serves, then it makes the unqualified acceptance of their way of service even more important. Here's what I mean. Scandal is so inevitable among us (Luke 17:1) that we can fall into rivalry even in our serving. How often in our congregations does that happen? We work to gain status by outserving one another. We expect to be thanked and applauded. In Luke 17:7-10 Jesus is telling us that this must not happen. We don't serve in order to someday reach the status of master. Following in the way of the master who humbly serves is the way out of the scandal of rivalry. Sure enough, even after Jesus institutes the Holy Supper around his loving service, the disciples still fall into rivalry and need to be reminded again about whom they follow, the master who serves.
9. How scandalized might Americans be in 2001 (and in 2004 as terrorism remains central to the elections) to the thought of forgiving those who carried out the terrible acts of terror on Sept. 11? Yet, if as many Americans are followers of Christ as say they are followers of Christ, how can we who have been forgiven so much fail our duty to forgive others?
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