Lectionary Commentaries for October 2, 2016
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Luke 17:5-10
Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Richard W. Nysse
The heading for the book of Habakkuk reads: “The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.”
The heading is distinct but not without parallels elsewhere. Other prophetic books are labeled as oracles (Nahum and Malachi) or lack any mention of date (for example Obadiah, Joel, and Jonah). The jarringly distinctive feature of Habakkuk is that it starts with words addressed to God.
The “oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw” is not first a message from God that Habakkuk delivers to a human audience. Beyond that, the content of Habakkuk’s address to God is deeply disruptive. While objections are expressed in prophetic call narratives (for example Jeremiah’s assertion that he is too young [Habakkuk 1:6]), Habakkuk’s words are the bold speech of lament psalms. They challenge God’s conduct toward the community, not merely God’s decision to call an individual.
The classic expression “How long?” is coupled with accusations charging God with a failure to listen and save. The prophetic voice (the “I” in the text) has cried for help and specifically cried to God, the addressee (the “you” in the text). This is more than a generalized groan in the midst of pain and suffering; it is directed groaning. There is an addressee, namely God. Compare Psalm 88:13 and Lamentations 3:8 to capture the intensity. Compare the promise of Isaiah 58:9 to grasp the seriousness of the charge of not listening and not saving. This lament (or any biblical lament for that matter) should not be reduced to a permission to doubt or a warrant for therapeutic venting.
Wrong-doing, trouble, destruction, violence, strife, and contention — that is a long list of societal ruptures that persisted in the prophet’s world. They persist in our world as well and we can (and must) give specific names to the victims. Naming individuals and communities precludes spiritualizing the text into a hyperbolic abstraction. When God does not listen and does not save, there is room for societal evils to exist unhindered. The prophet pushes the language into boldly stated petitioning and accusing. Embedded in the “how long?” is both prophet’s charge that God does not listen and does not save and the assertion that God causes the prophet to see and look at the evil.
Consider the quotation often attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The prophet Habakkuk flips the quotation. His lament holds God responsible. God’s silence and inaction is intolerable in a covenant relationship. If God is not engaged, the world implodes. For Habakkuk the implosion is occurring. Six words, starting with “wrong-doing,” describe the implosion (Habakkuk 1:3). Verse 4 drives home the message: Justice never goes forth (New Revised Standard Version: prevails); justice goes forth twisted/crooked/bent out of shape (NRSV: perverted). The law is malleable (NRSV: slack); the wicked surround the righteous, eager to devour (see also Psalm 22:11-13). The defenses against evil are coopted and shaped to the advantage of the wicked; the language of justice becomes double-speak and the righteous are left at the mercy of the wicked.
The verses selected in the lectionary significantly distort the impact of the opening lament. Both the divine response (Habakkuk 1:5-11) and the renewed lament (1:12-17) are deleted. Chapter 2 opens with the prophet pledging to keep watch to see what God will say in response to his complaint. But this is not, however, the complaint in 1:2-4 as the lectionary selection now implies; it is the second complaint in 1:12-17. The second complaint responds to God’s response to the first complaint. Habakkuk 1:5-11 announces, contrary to Habakkuk’s assertion that God is indifferent to the societal collapse he is experiencing, that God is instead rousing the Chaldeans to bust the stranglehold the wicked have on the righteous. “A work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told” (1:5) — but, of course, now Habakkuk is being told. A different sort of disbelief will emerge, namely, that a righteous God could use violence to the magnitude exercised by the Chaldeans to redress the violence occurring in his own community. The Chaldeans are even less restrained in their violence than the wicked in Habakkuk’s community. No law restrains them; no kings or rulers inhibit their spreading, violent conquests. They answer only to themselves for their might has become their god.
Habakkuk objects to this form of breaking God’s silence and inaction. He states clearly what he confesses God to be in God’s essence (“from of old”): God marks the violent for judgment and for punishment (Habakkuk 1:12). God is a God of justice and therefore it is out of character to endorse imperial tyranny and exploitation. Surely, Habakkuk complains/laments, God ought not look with indifference on this uncontrolled violence. In these circumstances, people become like fish that have no ruler (1:14) and, worse, are defenseless against the ravenous nets of tyrants whose appetites are never satisfied and who know no mercy. The Chaldean “cure” is comparable to death itself (2:5). Habakkuk cries out against the response to his first lament: God, how can you abide (and summon) such treachery? The concluding question implies that it is unthinkable that God would standby while the Chaldeans continue to destroy nations without mercy.
As chapter two opens, Habakkuk awaits God’s response as a guard posted to alert a threaten community. The image is not one of docile submission. God answers Habakkuk’s second lament, but the content of the response is elusive. He is to record a vision for an “appointed time” which speaks of an “end.” Both Habakkuk and the reader are instructed to “wait” when the events of the vision seem to take an eternity to come about and, at the same time, are assured that the events will not delay — they will come. What is one to do as one waits for what will not delay?
The condition is resonant with the already-not yet of the New Testament: Christ has come and death has been defeated and yet life continues to be deathly and violence terrorizes community after community. We have been granted a vision that does not lie but has yet to be brought to completion. The righteous do live by faith because the vision is still in large measure a promise yet to be fulfilled. The wicked, on the other hand, remain restless; there is a premonition that their dominance has a term-limit. Wickedness never has enough; its voracious destructiveness is a sign that it has not secured its future (as Habakkuk 2:5 underscores). It knows nothing of trust. Its greatness and exceptionalness cannot mask the lack of a right spirit. The “alas” statements and the mocking of idol making in the remainder of chapter two underscore the instability of the wicked.
Habakkuk 3 ends with a similar double focus. Many allusions in the poem slip from our exegetical grasp, but it clearly recollects moments of deliverance that the prophet desires to have done again in his own time (3:2). He pleads for mercy within the wrath that will come with judging deliverance (“In wrath remember mercy” [3:2]). Hearing the ancient hymn commemorating past deliverance — and by implication promising a new deliverance — leaves the prophet trembling, with lips quivering. There is not a triumphant cry of vindication; rather there is quiet waiting (3:16). This waiting includes rejoicing and exultation (3:18). Quiet waiting knows the injunction to keep silence (2:20) and it also rejoices. There is nothing Pollyanna or naïve about this rejoicing for it also knows that the days of fig trees that do not blossom and flocks with folds are not at an end. The righteous live by a faith that does not refrain from bold lament as exultantly rejoices.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6
We live in a world that is uncomfortable with feelings of deep sorrow, regardless of the loss.1
In moments of our deepest pain when we most need consolation, people are likely to tell us to just get on with it. Perhaps you’ve heard some of these meaningless phases or even said them to someone yourself. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Get over it!” “Don’t feel that way!” Though intended to comfort and encourage, words such as these add to rather than diminish the pain.
Biblical writers understood the power of fully expressing our feelings before God. Psalms, Job, and Lamentations are examples of the healing power of honesty with God, and by implication, with oneself. The writers of the Psalms regularly utilize songs and prayers of lament to work though whatever is troubling them. In the book of Job, his ability to lament, misunderstood as it is by his friends, is essential to his heart rendering journey as he deals with the reversals in his life. In Lamentations, a community laments a time of tremendous national loss.
The book of Lamentations opens with the cry of the city Zion, personified in 1:2, as a weeping widow with no one to comfort her. She longs for the din of the festivals. Deserted and betrayed by friends and lovers, she weeps alone. Roads and gateways mourn the absence of Zion’s festival attendants. There is no rest for the weary city. The woman’s wailing is a deep anguished cry that will not be silenced. Her pain is simply too great to be ignored. Like a child whose incessant questioning finally solicits a response, the woman and the nation together refuse to silence their pain.
Though in other books biblical writers convey in detail the severity of the transgressions that precipitated the nation’s loss to Babylon, in Lamentations the wails of the distraught city are focused on the nation’s suffering, not on its transgressions. The silence of God and the failure to name particular transgressions makes room for Israel to fully vent the bitterness of her losses.
The losses were great, indeed. Young women and men were in exile. There was no king, no nation, no temple. The pain could not have been greater nor the circumstances more desperate. It was impossible to deny or disregard the community’s agony. Its agony was boundless, extending all the way to Babylon. Babylon was the victor, the home of Israel’s enemy oppressors where the exiles now lived. It was too painful even to speak, or write its name.
Attributed to the “bridge” prophet, Jeremiah (who lived before, during and after the siege), each of the five chapters in Lamentations utilizes acrostic format to give voice to the horrors of war. It is as though in each, the writer is saying, “From beginning to end, my pain is beyond measure.” Not unlike the hurt experienced by Jesus on the cross, this hurt leaves nothing untouched.
The writer wondered why God would permit the beloved city/nation to suffer such a devastating loss. While the reader knows that nation of Babylon is the implied offender, this offender lies silently in the background. God is the sole offender and is so named in Lamentations 1:5. The loss is so great, no one but God could be responsible. This was no ordinary loss. It was the death of a nation, the death of a people, and the death of faith in God … If Israel did not exist, who would take a stand for worship of … [one] God? Israel’s loss would be a loss for all the earth. So much is at stake, her voice must be heard.
The book itself is an intervention, one that simultaneously stops the nation in its tracks and compels it to move forward. The intervention insists Israel hope in God, even if that hope is only a faint glimmer. Even if hope will have to wait until God’s undisclosed timing.
Although the poems in Lamentations provide no resolution, they do provide a literary mechanism for expressing the emotions associated with it. Sometimes just to be heard by another is sufficient, for in the process one hears oneself. Sometimes that is enough to begin to heal the woundedness and release the giftedness that lies beneath the hurt. Sometimes that is enough to energize and empower an individual, a community, a nation to do the work that needs to be done. The astute reader notices that this is one of those times, not only for Israel, but for our nation and the world today.
The lessons of lament have much to teach the world about finding healing and restoration in times of crisis or after tremendous loss. Lament is part of the healing process. Failure to lament makes it difficult to move forward when we encounter life at its worst. Lament releases the energy that is bound up in grief and regret. Ever cognizant that life will never be the same, lament makes room for life to begin again. Lament did its work, for under Ezra and Nehemiah and in 1948, the nation did begin again.
These verses in Lamentations are a reminder that while most nations’ stories are told to portray its victories, Israel’s genius lay in its ability to struggle and come to terms with, to recall and tell its story in terms of difficult realities. This creative capacity, to see clearly not only the best of times but also the worst of times, laid the foundation for Judaism and Christianity. As a consequence of struggling with its painful realities, in a stroke of theological genius, Israel turned its memories of crisis, national reflection, and mourning into a sacred text that spoke words of comfort, conviction, correction, challenge, and change to its own community in its own time. It continues to speak words of hope to communities around the world for our day and for generations to come.
1 Portions of this article are adapted from Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy — An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011).
Commentary on Psalm 37:1-9
Psalm 37 addresses an enduring concern, the seemingly untroubled and prosperous lives of wrongdoers (verse 1).
It is an acrostic wisdom psalm that shares some language with Proverb 24. Verse one of the psalm is found in Proverb 24:19. Verses 1-2 and 19-20 of Proverb 24 echo the theme and content of Psalm 37. Whether by composition or placement Psalm 37 serves as an expansion of the final verse in Psalm 36: “the evildoers lie prostrate; they are thrust down, unable to rise.” The psalm is also rooted in Israel’s theology of the land.
The psalmist counsels her hearers to not to “burn” because of the wicked (Psalm 37:1). The presence of women like the daughters of Heman among the psalmists means that it is possible some psalms have women as their authors, see 1 Chronicles 25:5-6; Psalm 88. The language of “burning” is the language of wrath and jealousy. The burning anger some folk who work hard to do right have while watching other folk live however they want can be quite considerable. The language the psalmist chooses for that anger is the same as the anger of Jacob’s sons over the rape of their sister in Genesis 34:7. The psalmist knows that in addition to burning with rage some of her hearers may also be burning with jealousy or as it is rendered in the NRSV, “envy.” Wrath and jealousy have the same “burning” sense in our context as they do in Biblical Hebrew idiom.
The psalm is set against the backdrop of the classic theology of the Hebrew Bible: Do good and good things will happen to you. Do bad and bad things will happen to you. This psalmist and others, like Job, know the world is not so simple. Some of those who do wrong live long and prosper while continuing to do wrong in many cases with their ill-gotten gain on display. No matter how long the lives and ascendancy of the wicked, the psalmist is sure they will come to their just end soon. In the scheme of things their lives — like all lives — are no more than grass (verse 2).
Rather than obsessing over the wicked and their ill-gotten gain the psalmist counsels putting one’s priorities in order in verse 3: Trust God to be God and do what you are supposed to do. In return the hearer will continue to live in “the land,” meaning Israel/Palestine — here it is important to remember that the psalm was written for ancient Israelites. The promise is Deuteronomistic. In Deuteronomy 11:8-9 God charges Israel to keep the entirety of what God has commanded through Moses in order to “live in the land.” In Deuteronomy 31:19-20 Israel is called to choose life, love and obey God in order that they might live in the land God promised. In fact, failure to keep God’s commandments comes with the threat that the land may “vomit” Israel out of it, (see Leviticus 18:26-28; 20:22). Verses 3 and 4 also have corollaries in Proverb 3:5-6.
Contemporary interpreters must take into account the great differences in time and place, patterns of migration, occupancy, and citizenship between biblical Israel and any modern nation. Our world is not the same as the psalmist’s and some texts do not translate easily from culture to culture. The conditional promise of “security” in verse 3 is surely resonant for contemporary readers and hearers in a world ravaged by terrorism and horrific interpersonal and international violence. It is important to remember that this psalm is a devotional text, reflecting on the world through the eyes of faith. It is not a formula for how to get what you want out of life. Psalm 37 is an inspirational psalm whose simple message is that faithfulness will yield the rewards of a life well-lived. It is important to take the genre of the psalm seriously else the text is vulnerable to claims of magical thinking, particularly in verse 4: If you just do X God will give you whatever you want.
The promise of Psalm 37:5-6 is significantly different from the one in the preceding verses. Now the concern is justice. The reader/hearer is exhorted to trust God and trust their path to God, literally roll their concerns onto God. Unlike in the previous section, the two halves are not framed as cause and effect. The claim in verse 5 is definitive. God will act. This is an answer to the person who is troubled by the evildoer in verse 1 as well. God will act and will do justice.
Having spiraled back to its beginning the psalm returns to another of its opening points in verse 8, burning anger and wrath. It repeats its opening advice — don’t “burn.” Now the psalmist supplies a rationale, don’t let the wicked burn you up because that burning rage and jealousy will lead you to evil. You don’t want to be counted among the evildoers when God does act in the interest of justice.
Verses 9-15 turn to the fate of the wicked with glee. That glee seems to have been too much for the lectionary framers who trim the text at verse 9. The lectionary portion ends with the promise that God will cut off the wicked but those who wait for God — perhaps to act for justice as promised earlier — those who wait for God shall inherit the land. Again, the land is the land of Canaan which Israel claimed as the fruit of a divine promise.
Modern readers should be aware of the many colonizing expeditions in Africa and Asia and the dispossession of native peoples in the Americas all based on the conquest of Canaan paradigm. Those interpreters were certain they were the chosen people and the land they desired was promised to them. The names of many towns and cities in the U.S. bear witness to expansionist theology that considered this land a “new Canaan.” On the civil calendar of the United States, the second Monday in October is designated as Columbus Day. Some prefer to commemorate the lives of displaced and decimated native peoples instead. Psalm 37’s theology of the land provides an opportunity for its contemporary readers to consider their theology in light of recent and ancient history.
Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14
After a standard opening sequence of greetings and thanksgiving, Paul jumps into a section of generalized statements about the Gospel and ministry.
There are several profound theological truths in 2 Timothy 1:5-14 that exist underneath the surface. We will address two here namely: the home as a root and sanctuary of Gospel ministry and the power of the Spirit for engaging in Gospel ministry.
This passage really takes off in verse 5 where the focus shifts from general greetings to the specific family background of Timothy. Paul lists Timothy’s grandmother and mother by name, noting their key roles in Timothy’s life as the predecessors of the faith which now dwells in him. Verse 6 begins with the strange phrase “for this reason.” It is easy as a reader to skip over the grammatical force and function of prepositional phrases and connecting particles. However, skimming the text and neglecting the inner working of the grammar could cause us to miss the way in which all of the sentences together contribute to the flow of the passage. In this case we must ask: To what does “for this reason” refer and in what way is it functioning in the discourse?
In terms of the phrase’s function, the Greek evidences the fact that what is about to be said in 2 Timothy 1:6 — namely, that Timothy should fan into the flame the gift of God given to him — is grounded in what has been previously communicated in verse 5. Thus, the phrase refers back to the seminal role that Timothy’s mother and grandmother played in the power and potential of his present ministry. Paul’s reminder to Timothy in verse 6 to boldly cultivate and embrace his own current calling and ministry is because of, on account of, and rooted in the reality of Timothy’s initial exposure to the faith within the context of his family. It is warming and humbling to recognize that Paul’s confidence and foundation for his pastoral charges to Timothy have their genesis first and foremost in the faith that he received from the sincere saints of his own household. This familial principle is immediately applicable to our own contemporary context. To what extent have the acts of teaching, catechesis, and religious practice been relegated to the religious “professionals” of the Church? Are we as followers of Jesus pursuing Gospel ministry from within the sanctuary of our own homes with intentionality, frequency, and excellence? These are important questions to consider as we encounter the foundational role that Timothy’s family played in his walk with the Lord.
Though the emphasis begins with the family and the home, it is not unimportant that Paul references the commissioning, ordination, or consecration (whichever you fancy) of Timothy through “the laying on of hands” for the task of vocational ministry in the Church. Yet, the fact remains, the beginning of Timothy’s call to walk in the light of the Gospel began in his oikos (Greek meaning household) not in his ordination. And, it is unto the Spirit-led tending of the household of God (see also 1 Timothy 3:15) that this young minister is being called, commissioned and spiritually-equipped. Timothy learned the truth in a household (his family), for a household — the Church. For the ordained person, this is a sobering and centering reality, but it is also an encouraging word for the entire Church. While there is a particular responsibility that comes with the ecclesial laying on of hands, the sanctuary of the home occupies the initial and foundational place in which the priesthood of all believers begin to exercise their Gospel ministry.
Switching gears, in 2 Timothy 1:7 Paul calls Timothy to cultivate this ministry on the basis of the fact that he had received “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” This is contrasted with “a spirit of cowardice.” While it is possible that the word “spirit” here is referring to a mere general disposition, it more likely refers to the Holy Spirit from which source flows forth the spiritual fruits of power, love, and self-discipline. This is especially probable because the immediate contextual antecedent to this in verse 6 is “the gift” which is received through the laying on of hands (see also 1 Timothy 4:14). The word translated as “gift” here is the Greek word charisma which is used frequently (but not exclusively) in the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline corpus to refer to spiritual gifts which are given for the ministry of building up the body of Christ (see also Romans 1:11; 12:6ff.; 1 Corinthians 12:4; 9; 28; 30-31; 1 Peter 4:10). Further adding to the likelihood of this view is the fact that in verse 14 the commands to “guard the good deposit” and to “follow the pattern of sound words” are grounded on the reality of the indwelling “Holy Spirit.” But even if this is just a “spirit” as in an “ethos, character trait, way of behaving” the distinction would be a moot point because, theologically, such fruits are elsewhere directly tied by Paul to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer (see also Galatians 5:22-26).
Why does this matter? Well, the nouns that characterize the “Spirit” here are words that generally do not play nice together. “Power” — in the eyes of the world — is often approached as a “will to Power” which seeks to subjugate love and self-control to a peripheral place on the basis of their inability to manipulate and coerce. Yet, here for Paul the Spirit given for ministry is one that is both powerful and loving. This loving power and powerful love is indicative of how power operates in the heart of God and in those made in his image. We can see this love most clearly demonstrated in the power of Jesus’ sacrificial death which is viewed as weakness in the eyes of the world but which — through the Resurrection — is actually the strength and power which defeats death. Thus we have here an eschatological, pneumatic redefinition of “power” that is only illuminated and explicated in the work of Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection. Therefore, whether it is in the sanctuary of the home or in the sanctuary of the Church, it is our calling and responsibility to subvert the present world order rooted in the “will to Power” with the Gospel of love by the power of the Spirit who in turn redefines power by love.
How much faith does a person need?
According to the Gospel of Luke, the ones closest to Jesus believe they need more. “Increase our faith!” they plead.
Despite 2000+ years separating their experience from ours, their appeal would be right at home in the up-sizing, bigger-better-more culture of today. It is all too easy to notice what one lacks rather than to recognize gifts already received.
Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, healing and teaching en route. Traveling with him are disciples and apostles (Luke sometimes distinguishes the two). Crowds gather, people seek healing, and challengers seek answers. Occasional literary signposts intensify the long shadow of the cross that hovers over the entire journey (see Luke 9:51; cf. 9:53; 13:22; 17:11; 18:31; 19:28).
Our passage is framed by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, on one side, and the Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks, on the other. It constitutes the second half of a four-part series of loosely connected teachings related to discipleship, which may be summarized thus: (1) Don’t be the cause of another’s sin (Greek skandalon, stumble); (2) Forgive, again; (3) Miniscule faith is sufficient; (4) Discipleship is not about reward: Just do it!
These are challenging commands — maybe even impossible ones — then and now. It is a sobering thought to recognize one’s capacity to cause another’s stumbling, despite intentions otherwise. Plus, it is hard enough to forgive, even once. But seven times in a single day?! No wonder the apostles ask Jesus for a transfusion of faith (literally “Add faith to us!”).
More faith? Better faith? Any faith at all?
When it comes to faith (Greek pistis, may also be translated as trust, confidence, commitment), Jesus suggests that size does not matter; even a seed of faith holds tree-like potential. Jesus’ followers can live and act on the basis of whatever faith is theirs, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. We might recall that even the immeasurable reign of God is compared to a mustard seed (Luke 13:19).
As commentators note, the Greek grammar of Jesus’ response to the apostles’ request in Luke 17:6 presents difficulties for translation. It is a mixed conditional sentence. The “if” clause is a simple condition (assumed to be true for the sake of argument), while the “then” clause suggests a contrary-to-fact condition (assumed to be untrue for the sake of argument).
Mulberry trees do not routinely replant themselves, in the sea or elsewhere, suggesting that most Jesus-followers have faith even smaller than a mustard seed. So then, is Jesus chastising the apostles for a complete lack of faith? Or, rather, is he encouraging them not to worry about the smallness of their faith? Greek grammar or no, Jesus’ answer seems to be a mixed one.
Indeed, throughout Luke’s Gospel, the closest followers of Jesus reveal their own “mixed” level of faith. On one hand, they have left homes and jobs and families in order to follow Jesus. It has not been easy, as they have encountered hostility from many who oppose Jesus (Luke 11:53; 13:31; 16:14). Still they have stuck around, even for this final journey toward Jerusalem, and even when they have received a warning of what is to come (Luke 9:22). Similar examples of faith are, no doubt, present in every preacher’s congregation.
At the same time, in our own world’s days of turmoil and fear, we can empathize with the disciples when faith wavers. When the wind roars and the waves batter their boat as they cross the Sea of Galilee, even as Jesus sleeps beside them, they are overwhelmed by terror. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asks, after calming the storm (Luke 8:25). Later, he chides their limited trust in God. “If God clothes the grass … how much more will [God] clothe you — you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28).
Proximity to Jesus does not guarantee unwavering faith.
Still, examples of faithfulness abound in Luke’s Gospel, suggesting that faith is not defined primarily by cognitive certainty, nor acceptance of proper theological constructs, nor even (necessarily) by people who consider themselves to be closest to Jesus. Faith manifests itself in many ways, by a variety of people.
Faith is persistence in reaching out to Jesus (Luke 5:17-26) and trusting in Jesus’ power and authority (7:1-10). Faith is responding with love to forgiveness received (7:44-50), not letting fear get the upper hand (8:22-25), and being willing to take risks that challenge the status quo (8:43-48). Faith is giving praise to God (17:11-19), having confidence in God’s desire for justice (18:1-8), and being willing to ask Jesus for what we need (18:35-43).1
Preachers can offer comparable examples from their community’s contexts — moments of faithfulness as insignificant as a mustard seed, and as magnificent as if a mulberry tree were to uproot itself and be replanted in the sea.
Jesus closes his four-part teaching moment with a couple of parable-like questions, both of which anticipate a negative answer: “Who among you … ?” and “Do you thank … ?” (Cf. Luke 11:5-7; 15:4).
His teaching draws from the role of a servant (Greek doulos) in the first century agrarian household. Note the similar (but different!) illustration in the parable of the watchful servants (Luke 12:35-38). In that case when the head of the household (Greek kyrios) returns from a wedding banquet, “he will fasten his belt and have them [servants] sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” In our passage, Jesus seems to suggest that those who would be leaders (the apostles; note Luke 17:5) would do best to view themselves as ones who serve.2
Instead of worrying about the size of their faith, perhaps these Jesus-followers should just get on with living it out in obedience to Jesus’ commands. After all, we might add, one who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much (Luke 16:10).
1 Audrey L. S. West, et. al., New Proclamation: Year C, 2010; Easter through Christ the King, David B. Lott, ed. (Fortress: Minneapolis, 2009), 234.
2 The NRSV uses slave to translate doulos here and most other occurrences in Luke. Among the exceptions are Mary and Simeon, who are called servants (Greek doule, doulos respectively, Luke 1:38; 2:29). The NIV uses servant throughout. I have chosen the latter translation in order to distinguish first century practices from the chattel slavery of the U.S. To be sure, both institutions were oppressive, often horrifyingly so, but there are significant differences between them.