Yesterday, after spending several weeks looking at Luke's stories and teachings about wealth in 14-16, we came to chapter 17.
Now at first glance this is a ragbag of sayings and teachings of Jesus which Luke has arranged and positioned for a particular purpose. The difficulty is assessing the purpose. I'm not going to say anything about that, firstly because I'm not sure I know and secondly because it looks as if the teaching which follows will be doing that more than the teaching which has gone before. In other words it introduces a new section.
Let's remind ourselves of the passage:
Jesus said to his disciples: 'Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.
'If a brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying "I repent," you must forgive them.'
The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!'
He replied, 'If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it will obey you.
'Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, "Come along now and sit down to eat"? Won’t he rather say, "Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink"?
'Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty."’
Geza Vermes, in his little book The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, takes all the things that Jesus said and separates them into that which is clearly the authentic teaching of an itinerant, first-century rabbi and that which may have been (may have, not has) added to by an editor or invented for the benefit of a current situation. One of the things he says is this:
Compared with the solemn tone of the Gospel, the use of the millstone imagery in rabbinic literature is humorous ... If Jesus ever said anything humorous, the evangelists and the early church saw to it that no trace of wittiness would survive.
So our passage has four ideas:
If you cause someone young in the faith to falter you may as well commit suicide by drowning.
If your annoying brother keeps getting things wrong keep on forgiving him over and over and over.
If you have a little faith you can get a tree to grow in the sea (it will mark your grave?).
No way should you be kind to servants.
Can you not see that a good stand-up could mine these four ideas for comedy gold? Once upon a day these sayings were a little light relief in Jesus' various heavy teachings. Put together and without the comic timing they turn into an evangelical sermon:
- Cause no offence
- Take no offence
- Be simple and earnest in faith
- Remember you are a servant