The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity is on October 2, 2022.

Readings for Year C can be found here.

The Gospel is as follows (emphases mine):

Luke 17:5-10

17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

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.

17:7 “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’?

17:8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?

17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?

17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Regular readers of this series will know that between Luke 9 and Luke 19, the Gospel writer gives us our Lord’s teaching to His disciples as well as to His critics, the Pharisees and scribes. Year C readings have explored many of these lessons during the season of Trinity.

Jesus condemned pride, especially spiritual pride.

John MacArthur tells us:

Our Lord then sets His teaching in this text against the negative example of the ever-present Pharisees and scribes who were in most of the crowds to whom He spoke. And on occasion He speaks directly to them as well as directly to the disciples, as well as generally to the massive crowd. It seems as though every large crowd could be broken down to at least these two groups: there were those who were following Him and there were the ever-present Pharisees and scribes who were trying to hold onto their power and influence over the people and find a way to get rid of Jesus. They were deadly. Heresy and hypocrisy is a damning combination.

If there was one attribute that generally characterized them, and for that matter all false religious leaders, and for that matter all sinners, it is the characteristic of pride. Pride is that dominant sin, that motivational sin behind all kinds of sins. It is that sin that God hates most. It appears in the Old Testament at the top of God’s hate list …

Well, the Pharisees and the scribes had developed pride into an art form. And so, in the last months of our Lord’s life as He trains true spiritual leaders in Israel, apostles and disciples, it is critical that they understand that what He is asking for is in exact opposition to what they’re used to. The flesh by its nature, the fallen unredeemed flesh is proud and it will turn pride into a virtue, as you well know from the culture in which you live. That’s bad enough, but when you compound it with religious pride, spiritual pride which takes it to a higher level of virtue and you sell that as if that’s legitimate religion, it is a difficult disconnect to remove people from those things which are both instinctive to their fallenness and cultivated in them from their youth as virtuous. And so Jesus spends a lot of time teaching His disciples about humility, while at the same time they’re having discussions about which of them will be the greatest in the kingdom. And even so audacious, a couple of them to send their mother to ask Jesus if they can please be on His right hand and left hand, and when that was unfolded, the rest of the disciples were angry not because they were more humble but because the two of them got there first. They were struggling deeply with these issues of humility, it just wasn’t part of their nature and nor was it part of their religious culture

MacArthur takes us through the lessons of the first four verses of Luke 17 as well as those of the previous chapters:

Suffice it to say that there are four elements of humility that appear in this text, four of them.  Now we know that the Lord has said to them already, Luke 14:11, that God will humble the proud and exalt the humble.  And this will be repeated again in the 18 chapter and the 14th verse as well.  And so God has defined very simply that you better humble yourself if you want God to exalt youThey understand that.  That’s the big principle.

But what does that look like?  What does it mean to be humble?  How do humble people act?  There aren’t any models for this that are manifest, or not many.  So Jesus gives us some hallmarks of humility.  The first one is restraint from offense, restraint from offense.  Verses 1 and 2, “He said to His disciples, ‘It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come.'” The Pharisees were very adept at putting stumbling blocks, scandalous stumbling blocks in front of people to hinder them on their spiritual journey.  That’s why they were producing sons of hell.  They did it by their heresy and their hypocrisy.  But the humble don’t do that.  The humble don’t flaunt their freedoms and liberties.  The humble don’t say this is what we teach and no matter what effect it has we’re going to be faithful to it.  The humble don’t live hypocritical lives that set bad examples.  He is calling for the kind of life that leaves no offense, that causes no entrapment; that seduces no one into error or into evil.  In fact, in verse 2 comes the warning, “You would be better off to die a horrible death, having a millstone tied around your neck and to be dropped in the middle of the sea than to cause one of these little ones” not children, not infants, not toddlers, but believers, these little ones “who believe in Me, it says in Matthew in the passage that is very similar to this, the 18th chapter.  It’s a very dangerous thing to cause the people of God to fall into heresy and into iniquity.  Humble people don’t do that.  Humble people understand they have a responsibility to the truth for the sake of others.  They have a responsibility to spiritual integrity for the sake of others, to teach what is true, as we have seen, and to live what is right.

The second thing, and we’ve already discussed it, is the humble are not only marked by restraint from offense but readiness to forgive, readiness to forgive.  Another aspect of their true holiness is if a brother sins, they rebuke him, if he repents, they forgive him, if he sins against you seven times a day and returns to you seven times saying I repent, forgive him.  They are known by their eagerness to forgive.  They are magnanimous, they are merciful. They are gracious.  They are forgiving even offenses against them seven times a day, which is simply a way of saying endlessly, without limit.  This is totally contrary to how the Pharisees conducted themselves.  They had nothing but disdain for sinners.  They wouldn’t so much as go near the riff-raff that accumulated around Jesus.  The rabbis even said, “Even so much as to teach them the law,” they kept their distance, to carry on the masquerade of their holiness.  They had no interest in them.  They had nothing but contempt for them.  They associated them with Satan.  They were not interested in their repentance.  They were not interested in offering them grace or mercy.  Contrary to this, Jesus says, “Those who are humble are eager to forgive, even those who repeatedly again and again and again and again and again sin against them.  That’s what humble people do.  That’s what lowly people do.  They are magnanimously merciful, gracious and forgiving.  And in the first place, while they will not purposely lead someone into sin, they are eager to lead someone out of sin.

Now that brings us to the final two; that brief review.  The third characteristic is so important.  Humble people not only are marked by restraint from offense and readiness to forgive, but, thirdly, recognition of weakness, recognition of weakness …

A final point, humble disciples are marked by restraint from offense, readiness to forgive, recognition of weaknesses, and finally, rejection of honor, rejection of honor.

In response to the first four verses, the Apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith (verse 5).

It is a correct request although it seems oddly placed here.

Matthew Henry’s commentary offers possible reasons why the Twelve would have asked Jesus for more faith and adds practical applications for us today:

we have all need to get our faith strengthened, because, as that grace grows, all other graces grow. The more firmly we believe the doctrine of Christ, and the more confidently we rely upon the grace of Christ, the better it will be with us every way. Now observe here, 1. The address which the disciples made to Christ, for the strengthening of their faith, v. 5. The apostles themselves, so they are here called, though they were prime ministers of state in Christ’s kingdom, yet acknowledged the weakness and deficiency of their faith, and saw their need of Christ’s grace for the improvement of it; they said unto the Lord, “Increase our faith, and perfect what is lacking in it.” Let the discoveries of faith be more clear, the desires of faith more strong, the dependences of faith more firm and fixed, the dedications of faith more entire and resolute, and the delights of faith more pleasing. Note, the increase of our faith is what we should earnestly desire, and we should offer up that desire to God in prayer. Some think that they put up this prayer to Christ upon occasion of his pressing upon them the duty of forgiving injuries:Lord, increase our faith, or we shall never be able to practise such a difficult duty as this.” Faith in God’s pardoning mercy will enable us to get over the greatest difficulties that lie in the way of our forgiving our brother. Others think that it was upon some other occasion, when the apostles were run aground in working some miracle, and were reproved by Christ for the weakness of their faith, as Matt 17 16, etc. To him that blamed them they must apply themselves for grace to mend them; to him they cry, Lord, increase our faith.

MacArthur acknowledges the confusion among Bible scholars through the centuries and says:

Some commentators have said this has got to come from a different time and a different place and a different discussion because it doesn’t make any sense. Oh I think it makes perfect sense and I’ll show you why …

They were basically from Galilee, which was no significant place at all and they sustained their homes in Galilee through the ministry that the Lord gave them. They were just nobodies; no rabbis, no Pharisees, no scribes, no Sadducees, no synagogue leaders, they were just twelve ordinary men. But they became extraordinarily privileged. They become the foundation of the church … They had already begun to preach. They had already begun to see the power unleashed through their lives. But as privileged as they were, they were equally human, very, very human. In fact, five times Jesus said this to them, “Oh you of little faith.” You … wonder, how could someone who has had that experience walking and being with Jesus, seeing massive display of miracles, even performing some, hearing Him preach, being taught by Him, nurtured by Him, discipled by Him day in and day out, preaching yourself, seeing the impact, negative and positive, how could one continue to have little faith? But they did. And here we are in the last few months before the cross and their response to what Jesus just says is, “Lord, increase our faith.” They’re saying, “This is a huge leap, this is completely contrary to what we’ve always been taught. This is completely contrary to natural impulses.”

Living with this kind of care, never to teach anything that is in error, but always to rightly represent the truth so no one is harmed or hindered in their spiritual progress because they’ve been taught something that isn’t right, to live your life in such a godly fashion that you never cause another person to see anything in your life that leads them down a path of disobedience, sets a bad example. Who can live like that? That is such a demanding standard. And then, to be so merciful and so gracious along with being so committed to holiness that you confront sinners and no matter what they might have done to you repeatedly, you just continually to try to restore and restore and restore and restore and you’re just magnanimously forgiving them all the time. This is contrary to the normal and this is contrary to the religious patterns that we’ve been taught. They’re just essentially saying, “I don’t think we’re up to this. Lord, You’re going to have give us more than we’ve got to live like that.”

And this, I tell you, folks, is where the humble live. The humble live with a sense of their own inadequacy. This marks true saints

They’re feeling the weight of this kind of spiritual responsibility and they’re honest about their weakness.  And so they say, “increase,” imperative aorist from prostithēmi, meaning add to, supplement, develop, grow.  They’re not denying that they have faith, they just don’t know if they’re ever going to be adequate for this

Jesus replied with a favourite analogy of His, the mustard seed, the tiniest in Israel out of which huge bushes grew. He said that, with faith the size of a mustard seed, they could tell the mulberry tree in front of them to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea and the tree would do it (verse 6).

Mulberry trees were exceedingly old, as MacArthur explains, by way of the mustard bush:

A couple of times He said this, only there was a mountain nearby so He used the mountain as an illustration. Here He’s standing by a mulberry tree so He uses it. “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” You’re right. You do need a stronger faith. He affirms it. It’s a good question, it’s the right question, and it’s absolutely true. If you just had a small amount of faith, you would have enough faith to have a powerful life.

Now let’s talk a little agronomy for a minute here, agriculture. Look at the mustard seed. Mustard has been around a long time … It’s an herb and it’s been used in the ancient Middle East for centuries, millennia.  There were a number of seeds that were used sort of semi-domestically that grew plants for food that the families ate.  And of those seeds, the smallest one, not the smallest seed in the world, but the smallest of those common seeds in the land of Israel used for food was the mustard seed.  And so in Matthew 13:31 Jesus refers to it as the smallest, smaller than any other of the seeds that were used in the gardens of the people of Israel.  And the thing that made it so interesting was as small as it was, as tiny as it was, it grew disproportionately.

And a typical mustard bush or tree could be twelve to fifteen feet in height and in width as well. And that’s a lot coming from a tiny, tiny little seed. And so Jesus is simply saying this: If you just had mustard-seed kind of faith… What does that mean? Growing faith. If you just had the kind of faith that grows and expands and develops, you could … do amazing things. And He’s still talking in a sort of agricultural fashion, so He says, “You could…you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea.” The rabbis…some of the rabbis used to say that the mulberry tree had roots that would survive for 600 years. And so to uproot a mulberry tree would be a significant thing to do. And then to have it move across the sky and plant itself in the middle of the sea would be even more significant. That would be absolutely supernatural

He’s talking in analogies.  They all understood that.  They knew He wasn’t talking about moving trees around.  The point of our Lord’s lesson is simply this: You have, if you will trust Me and trust My strength, the power to do what is supernatural what you cannot do humanly.  That’s what He’s saying.  By the way, the mulberry tree is probably…It’s in the Greek it’s sukaminos, some call it a sycamine tree just transliterating that.  It’s not a sycamore tree, that’s a different kind of tree.  This tree occurs also in 2 Samuel 5 and 1 Chronicles 14. It’s a part of the willow tree family, or a cottonwood tree.  You know what that is?  A kind of tree that grows in a semi-arid area.  And they used to say silkworms lived in these kinds of trees.  They grew all over the place in the Jordan Valley. So they knew about these trees and they knew the character of them. That one happened to be sitting right there so Jesus says, “If you had enough faith you could move this mulberry tree to the middle of the ocean.”  He’s saying in a manner of speaking a small growing faith, a small expanding faith can do unimaginable things.  Why?  Because as you entrust yourself to the power of God, He does His work through you.  The Lord is not saying do pointless things. He’s not saying do crowd-pleasing tricks.  He is saying you don’t think you can live a godly life, you don’t think you can always speak the truth correctly.  You don’t think you can set a pure example so no one stumbles.  You’re not sure you can live such a magnanimous, generous, merciful, forgiving life.  You’re not sure you can do that and I’m telling you, if you will continue to trust Me, My power through you will accomplish all of that.  That’s what He’s saying.

This increase in faith comes through the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus sent the third Person of the Trinity to His disciples at the first Pentecost. The Spirit enables God’s work to be done on earth:

when Jesus went to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit, the Day of Pentecost, the explosion began and we have not done greater works, you couldn’t do greater works than the greatest work Jesus does and the greatest work Jesus does is raise the spiritually dead, right? The greatest work is the work of regeneration, the work of salvation, the work of conversion, transformation, the new birth that’s discussed in John 3. That’s the great work of Jesus, that’s what He came to do, to seek and to save that which was lost, to bring salvation. That work is the greatest work that He did. We can’t do a greater work but we are used by God to do it at a greater extent. The limits are off and we have been used along with all the generations prior to this generation to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and to go to those places and to teach the truth and to live the truth and to live a gracious and forgiving life, to do all the things that seem impossible. We do them because when Jesus went back to heaven, it says if you follow the text, “I will ask the Father, He’ll give you another helper that He may be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth.” Jesus goes back, He sends the Spirit, the Spirit comes and we are now empowered as we entrust our lives to the power of God and the indwelling Spirit. We can do everything that He asks. And that’s what it says in John 14, “Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” “In My name” means consistent with who I am, consistent with My will.

Then Jesus began a lesson on humility by discussing the duties of doulos, or bondservants.

None of the Apostles had bondservants, or slaves, but they understood their role in a master’s household.

Jesus asked the Twelve who among them would request that a bondservant, after finishing his morning and early afternoon duties of plowing the field or tending sheep, take his place at the table (verse 7).

He went on to say that the usual reflex would be to expect the servant, or slave, to prepare and serve his master’s meal before taking his own repast (verse 8).

Some today will find this offensive, but MacArthur explains that a bondservant had more privileges and personal security than a day labourer:

… doulos, a bond slave, which meant he was basically attached to the owner, lived in his house, was cared for, provided for, not a bad thing. It was a wonderful thing when it was handled well, it was a good thing.  It’s a perfect illustration of the relationship between a believer and God, between a believer and Christ and therefore in itself is a pure and wonderful kind of relationship on a spiritual level, and it can be good on a human level as well.  This was just the way that employment was handled. And it was better than being a day laborer because a day laborer had to hope somebody would show up and hire him every day and go back to the marketplace standing there hoping that that would happen.  But a doulos was bound to a master and cared for, kept in the home like a family member and did his work there

Now this is the picture of a small farm, probably a one-servant household, could be more but perhaps.  This is a guy who sort of does everything.  He has to take care of the sheep.  He has to take care of the field and then his job is also to prepare a meal.  Now which of you are going to say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Wow, you’ve done so well, sit down and take a load off your feet and let me serve you?’ You’re not going to do that anymore than your boss is going to come to you after you’ve worked for five hours and say, “You know, you’ve done so well in five hours, take a break for three hours.  Go home.”  Wait a minute, don’t I have no more value than that?  I’m…I’m supposed to do what I’m supposed to do because you’re paying me for an eight-hour day, right?

Well, this is the way this whole system worked then as well.  He had a job.  He understood exactly what that job required.  And he understood that it was not asking more of him than was expected for him to do what was required by the job.  And what was required by the job was you work a long day and you take care of the field and you take care of the sheep and you come in and you give what… This particular meal is about three o’clock in the afternoon, it’s not the eight o’clock meal, it’s not the last meal of the day, it’s the mid-afternoon meal and the work is not done until that meal is given to the master.  So everybody knows the answer.  Which of you is going to say to him, come immediately and sit down to eat?  Nobody… Nobody, because a servant needs to do his duty.

So … verse 8 He says, “Will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat?’” That’s part of your responsibility. And properly clothe yourself and serve me.  Don’t come in here with…smelling like sheep and dirt.  “Go clean up and get me something to eat,” while the master’s caring for whatever he’s caring for.  “And I’ll eat and drink and then your day is over and afterward, you eat and you drink.” 

Henry says that Jesus is telling us to serve God first by serving Christ, then attend to our own needs:

1. We are all God’s servants (his apostles and ministers are in a special manner so), and, as servants, are bound to do all we can for his honour. Our whole strength and our whole time are to be employed for him; for we are not our own, nor at our own disposal, but at our Master’s. 2. As God’s servants, it becomes us to fill up our time with duty, and we have a variety of work appointed us to do; we ought to make the end of one service the beginning of another. The servant that has been ploughing, or feeding cattle, in the field, when he comes home at night has work to do still; he must wait at table, v. 7, 8. When we have been employed in the duties of a religious conversation, that will not excuse us from the exercises of devotion; when we have been working for God, still we must be waiting on God, waiting on him continually. 3. Our principal care here must be to do the duty of our relation, and leave it to our Master to give us the comfort of it, when and how he thinks fit. No servant expects that his master should say to him, Go and sit down to meat; it is time enough to do that when we have done our day’s work. Let us be in care to finish our work, and to do that well, and then the reward will come in due time. 4. It is fit that Christ should be served before us: Make ready wherewith I may sup, and afterwards thou shalt eat and drink. Doubting Christians say that they cannot give to Christ the glory of his love as they should, because they have not yet obtained the comfort of it; but this is wrong. First let Christ have the glory of it, let us attend him with our praises, and then we shall eat and drink in the comfort of that love, and in this there is a feast. 5. Christ’s servants, when they are to wait upon him, must gird themselves, must free themselves from every thing that is entangling and encumbering, and fit themselves with a close application of mind to go on, and go through, with their work; they must gird up the loins of their mind. When we have prepared for Christ’s entertainment, have made ready wherewith he may sup, we must then gird ourselves, to attend him.

Christ followed this example Himself in perfect obedience to His Father, unto death on the Cross then the Resurrection. He did not shirk his duty. Nor should we shirk out duty to God as His servants:

This is expected from servants, and Christ might require it from us, but he does not insist upon it. He was among his disciples as one that served, and came not, as other masters, to take state, and to be ministered unto, but to minister; witness his washing his disciples’ feet.

Jesus asked if the master would thank the slave for doing what was commanded of him (verse 9).

MacArthur says that everyone knew the answer to that question:

Verse 9, “He doesn’t thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?”  That’s just an interesting thing, isn’t it?  They’re all rhetorical questions that don’t need an answer because everybody knows the answer.  Nobody is going to tell the guy that he doesn’t have to finish the day’s work.  They all understand that he is going to say, “Feed me and then come and eat.”  They all understand that he’s not going to thank … That’s the word charon, charis, “grace.”  He’s not going to favor this guy especially because he hasn’t done anything special.  He’s not a volunteer, he’s an employee and he’s done what he’s paid to do.

This is difficult to understand in the 21st century, in an era when we all seek validation just for breathing. Fortunately, MacArthur cites an expert on Middle Eastern life who puts it all into perspective for us:

Kenneth Bailey who has done so much great work in studying the life in the villages of the ancient Middle East and even modern Middle East, writes this, “In a technological age with a 40-hour week, powerful labor unions and time and a half for overtime, the world of this parable seems not only distant but unfair. After a long, hard day in the field such a servant surely has earned the right to a little appreciation, some comforts and a few rewards. But Jesus is building on a well-known and widely accepted pattern of behavior in the Middle East. The master-servant relationship and its ancient and modern expression implies acceptance of authority and obedience to that authority and it’s a matter of honor. Yet the outsider needs to be sensitive to the security that this classical relationship provides for the servant and the sense of worth and meaning that is deeply felt on the part of a servant who serves a great man. These qualities of meaning, worth, security and relationship are often tragically missing from the life of the modern industrial worker with his 40-hour week. The servant offers loyalty, obedience, a great deal of hard work, but with an authentic Middle Eastern nobleman, the benefits mentioned above are enormous.” And as I said, this is the mid-afternoon lunch and so the work day is not really over.

Bailey goes on, “Certainly no one in any Middle Eastern audience could imagine any servant expecting special honor after fulfilling his duty. The master is not indebted to him for having plowed the field or guarded the sheep. We’re not even dealing with harsh hours imposed by an unfeeling master, but rather the normal expectation of a relatively short day’s chores.”

Jesus pressed home the idea of humility by telling the Twelve that they should say after a day of serving God that they are but worthless slaves doing only what they should have done (verse 10).

We need to remember that we can do nothing better than God can Himself. We are fallen men and women.

MacArthur interprets verse 10 as follows, pointing out that our reward for faithful service comes in the next life, not in this one:

Don’t pat yourself on the back and think that God’s really impressed and that He owes you some special favor. You’ll get your reward in heaven. We’re not talking about doing something to please men here. We’re talking about assuming that somehow God is in your debt. You don’t thank the servant for doing what he’s supposed to do. And when you and I have done everything we’re supposed to do, we’re not worthy of some special merit, as if God is now indebted to us. This is all about grace. And the fact of the matter is, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how well we’ve done it, we have never been able to do what God is worthy of. So we are unworthy servants, right?

This is all about humility. Humble people reject honor. They know they’re not in God’s debt. They know they’re still living under grace. You are justified by grace, you’re being sanctified by grace, you’ll be glorified by grace and you’ll be rewarded in heaven forever by grace. Never do we merit anything God gives us. And the flip on this is in the…as we noted earlier in the gospel of Luke…you remember when Jesus brings us into His banquet and our labors are done, He sits us down and He serves us. That’s totally against the grain of their expectation. But that’s going to happen in heaven. That’s in our heavenly reward. As long as we’re here in this life, we can never do what God deserves. And it is a wonder of wonders, as Paul says again in 1 Timothy 1, that God has chosen to use me who am the chief of sinners. The humble never forget that reality.

This brings us back to the proud Pharisees:

And so, Jesus is calling for a kind of life that is just so far away from the Pharisaic example. And we are called to this life today. Humble, so as to always submit to Scripture in doctrine and practice, never then to lead anyone into error or sin. Humble so as to always forgive those who sin against us no matter how many times. Humble so as to be aware always of our own weakness and have a growing dependency on the power of God. Humble so as always to recognize that even our best service falls far short and we are unworthy servants who have only done what we have ought to have done and hardly even that, ascribing all God’s gifts then to grace.

Humble yourself like this and you will manifestly demonstrate that you are a true child of God and one day God will exalt you and the Lord will seat you at His table and serve you.

This is a tough lesson for many of us. We enjoy the accolades of fellow men and women. We like to think that God is inordinately pleased with our efforts.

However, we are His servants, and we are imperfect. We can never match His holiness, His mercy, His love or merit His grace based on our own innate fallen nature.

Henry closes with this:

God cannot be a gainer by our services, and therefore cannot be made a debtor by them. He has no need of us, nor can our services make any addition to his perfections. It becomes us therefore to call ourselves unprofitable servants, but to call his service a profitable service, for God is happy without us, but we are undone without him.

Therefore, let us give thanks for His grace, mercy and forgiveness.

May all reading this have a blessed Sunday.

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