[October 4, 2009] We remember that the physician Luke was a gentile (a non-Jew) from Philippi in Macedonia who first heard the Gospel from the apostle Paul when he was in Galatia. At that time he attended Paul who was sick, possibly with malaria. He then traveled to the land of Israel to interview to the eyewitnesses of Jesus. Later, after Matthew had published his scroll, Luke composed a gospel of his own and added to it another volume containing the history of the beginning of the church and its mission to the gentiles.
Luke was very interested in the apostolic mission and the churches that had begun in gentile lands. This is reflected in how he composed his gospel, reorganizing much—if not all—of the material he found in Matthew to bring a focus on this concern of his. We believe that both Matthew and Luke were composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that the Gospel of Jesus is refracted faithfully in each of them, though the colors they display differ.
In chapter 17 of Luke Jesus now turns to the disciples and speaks to them about the “little ones” and the importance of not causing them to stumble. The little ones are the lost ones in chapter 15 who have been found. Chapter 14 was about how the invitation of the Gospel is going out to the streets and lanes of the city and the roads and hedges of the countryside to bring in the poor, the crippled and blind and lame. It is going out to the tax collectors and sinners and even pagan gentiles. These are the ones described in chapter 15 as the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, all being found. The Pharisees took offense at this. Jesus tells them that instead they should be rejoicing. But their attitude, which was more interested in their own advantage—which Jesus exposes in chapter 16—was a source of stumbling to the ones whom God is now calling to Himself, the “little ones.”
These “little ones” refer to you and your fellow believers in the church. They refer to the “least” among us, the least desirable and most problematic. The little ones are the lost ones who have been found, and often they bring their character flaws with them.
Do Not Cause the Little Ones to Stumble (Luke 17:1-2)
The Pharisees looked down on those whom they considered lost and their attitude caused these lost ones to stumble. And when the lost ones were found by Jesus and He gathered them to Himself and made them His disciples, the Pharisees were offended instead of happy. Now Jesus turns to the disciples themselves and warns them that they must not be like the Pharisees and cause each other to stumble. It would be better, He tells us, if we were hurled into the sea with a heavy stone tied to our necks.
Do not cause each other to stumble! We all stumble often (James 3:2), but let us not cause each other to stumble. Do not look down on each other. We will be disciplined by our Lord when He comes! If we call ourselves Christians, it is very important that we take care of one another.
Bear with Each Other and Forgive One Another (17:3-4)
The problem is that these lost ones whom our Lord Jesus has found and gathered into the church, can often be very difficult people. They can be troublesome and can tax us greatly. Because they were lost, they are often ignorant and selfish when they first come. They bring with them annoying habits and practices. Their language is sometimes ugly and they may not take care of themselves. They may be poor or sick. They may have opinions about things that we find repulsive. In other words, they are not the kind of people we would ordinarily choose to be with.
The usual Protestant solution is simply to gather believers into little clubs of like-minded people who can worship in peace, surrounded by people whom they like and with whom they can get along. Protestants have divided into thousands of groups, each competing with each other. It is utterly offensive to our Lord, yet we have inherited this mess. Unless we can enjoy each other’s company we do not want to gather with each other. Nowadays people have taken this one step further and simply stay by themselves. It seems that to be a Christian you do not have to gather. Everyone to himself! This is the offensive Protestant practice brought to the extreme. It is Christianity with the cross.
But it offends our Lord who has called us. No one can seriously read the New Testament and not realize that the Lord gathered His disciples and wanted them to gather. The believers in a town should not be divided according to their preferences. All the believers in any given locality gathered with each other, no matter how surprising the mixture might be. They were not permitted to form their own groups. Christ only has ONE church, and has always only had such.
We need to insist on this even though we live in a situation in which we are already divided. Though we cannot fix it, we must renounce what causes it. And what causes it is our unwillingness to deny ourselves for the sake of Jesus and to love all those whom Jesus has called.
So to get down to the business of understanding Jesus’ words: What causes us to offend each other is that the other offends us. What causes us to stumble others is that they cause us to stumble. It works in both directions—the rich believer may look down on the poor but the poor believer envies and often despises the rich. We stumble each other.
So what is the solution? “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” (Of course, “brother” is an inclusive term, meaning sibling.) Do not ignore what is actually a problem as opposed to things that simply makes us uncomfortable. If he or she repents—notice that it is not okay for your brother or sister to remain in their sin—you must always forgive them. Accept the others the way they are. If they sin seven times in a day, that is, if they show remorse for what they have done but then, out of weakness, go ahead and do it again anyway, and repeat this cycle over and over again, you must still forgive them.
If they show no remorse, that is a problem (see Matthew 18).
But the rule in the church is this: “with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, bearing one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). Put on “inward parts of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, long-suffering, bearing one another and forgiving one another, if anyone should have a complaint against anyone (even as the Lord forgave you, so also should you forgive), and over all these things put on love, which is the uniting bond of perfectness, and let the peace of Christ arbitrate in your hearts, to which also you were called in one Body; and be thankful” (Colossians 3:12-15). This is the inescapable rule of the church.
The reason we do not get along is because we think too much of ourselves—we do not realize that we are just as “lowly” as these others who bother us—and because we lack love for others. Believers fool themselves who do not gather. They do not love their brothers and sisters. If we do not love each other, we have no assurance of salvation; and if we hate our brother or sister, there is not even the evidence that we have received eternal life (see 1 John 3:14-15).
Lord, Help Us! (17:5-6)
The disciples, looking on the motley crowd that Jesus gathers to Himself and considering their own weakness in the face of them, then say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” This is a plea in response to the difficulty of not offending another and not letting oneself be offended within the fellowship of the church. How can we bear one another? How can we avoid becoming so frustrated, discouraged and uncertain that we lose our faith? The situation Jesus wants to put us in seems impossible. We need more faith than we have.
Jesus rejects this plea. “If you have faith like a mustard seed”—in other words, even if you have the smallest amount of faith—“you would have said to this sycamine tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would have obeyed you.” The sycamine tree has strong wide spreading roots. It is a picture of the difficult people in the church who do not seem able to change. How ever small our faith may be, if it is genuine, God is able to work miracles in these others. Through grace people do change, as we ourselves have. Our faith does not cause the sycamine tree to be uprooted. God does that in response to our faith. Be patient! God looks for faith within the church in order to work.
To Not Offend or Be Offended Is Nothing Extraordinary (17:7-10)
The following parable about the slave who comes in from the field and serves his master is related to what Jesus just told His disciples. We have not accomplished something great when we avoid offending other believers and being offended by them, when we are able to forgive over and over those who seem so recalcitrant in their ways. There is no reward for this. This is simply what Jesus expects of all of us. “When you do all the things which are ordered you, ‘We are unprofitable slaves; we have done what we ought to have done.” Our love for one another cannot be a source of pride or self-righteousness. It must be taken for granted as a baseline standard. To fall below this standard is simply disobedience.
What this also means is that if we cannot live up to this minimal standard, we can expect to receive disapproval and discipline when we appear before Christ at His coming.
Praise to God Comes from the Unlikely Ones (17:11-19)
Following this teaching about rejoicing in the lost ones who have been found, no matter how hard to bear some of them may seem to us, comes this story of ten lepers whom Jesus heals. Presumably when Jesus tells us that the one who returned to glorify God was a Samaritan, the implication is that the others were Jews. All were healed—the Jews as well as the Samaritan—but the one who returned to Jesus, to fall at His feet and thank Him, and who was glorifying God, was a “foreigner.”
The Jews who do not own Jesus as their Messiah but are still faithful to the Torah (“go and show yourselves to the priests”), they still benefit from Jesus (because He remains their Messiah), but if they do not fall at His feet in this age, they withhold glory from God. The Samaritan foreshadows the gentile believers who do fall at the feet of Jesus in this age.
These words together, verses 1-19, illustrate perfectly what Paul says in Romans 15:5-12: “Now the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind toward one another according to Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, as Christ also received you to the glory of God.” We receive one another in the church, refusing all offenses that lead to division—to the glory of God. “For I say that Christ has become a servant of the Circumcision [the Jews] for the sake of God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and that the gentiles should glorify God for His mercy, as it is written, ‘Therefore I will extol You among the gentiles, and I will sing praise to Your name.’ And again he says, ‘Rejoice, gentiles, with His people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you gentiles, and let all the [gentile] peoples speak praise to Him.” The Samaritan, being a non-Jew, illustrates the praise that gentile believers ought to render to God at the feet of Jesus in thanksgiving to Jesus.
[A note: “He passed between Samaria and Galilee” probably just means that Jesus traveled east to get to the Jordan River where He could take the road south along the river until He came to Jericho (the next story).]