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Stumblingblocks and the Kingdom (Luke 17:1–10)

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Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51–20:26

9. “Faith and Faithfulness” (Luke 17:1–10)

Immediately after the interruption by the Pharisees, Jesus turns back to continue His discussion with the disciples. We should notice, then, that Luke 17:1–10 belongs to the same scene that began all the way back in 15:1. There Jesus began addressing the Pharisees’ criticism of Him for hanging around sinners, and He tells the three parables of lost things; He then turns privately to the disciples with the parable of the unjust manager, but is interrupted by the Pharisees mocking Him in 16:14. So, He condemns them again with both direct teaching and with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Then, finally, He turns back to the disciples in 17:1 with the opportunity to finish what He had been saying in 16:13.

You may notice now that we largely skipped over 16:10–13 when we arrived there before. I did so because the subject matter connects properly with what follows here in 17:1–10. It also connects with the overall theme of this scene from 15:1ff, which deals with a justification of Jesus and His disciples ministering among the sinners and tax collectors. It was important, however, to deal with the interruption by the Pharisees first, and then treat these two sections as one context.

Faithfulness and Stumblingblocks

No Man Can Serve Two Masters (Luke 16:10–13)

Jesus continues after the parable of the unjust manager with the following encouragements toward faithfulness:

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:10–13).

We just learned how properly to understand the parable of the unjust steward. It directed the disciples to prepare themselves for soon-coming economic stress and homelessness. They should find it beneficial to have many friends among the sinners, pagans, etc., despite the mocking by the Pharisees. Now Jesus repeats the central idea in clear didactic teaching. The issue was faithfulness in the face of coming economic losses. So many people claim to be faithful believers until the kingdom duties impact their bank accounts. We saw Jesus cover this exact same issue in previous didactic sessions (12:22–34; 49–53) and parables (12:35–48). Here He once again reminds the disciples of impending judgment, the need to cut losses and get out quickly when the time came, and that economic sacrifice was an issue of ultimate allegiance the kingdom of God. Could the disciples truly “seek ye first the kingdom of God”? They must learn that the very distinction of the elect remnant would be that no matter the cost, they served only the true Master. They would not give in to the love of social status or wealth as had done the Pharisees.

Stumblingblocks to Faithfulness (Luke 17:1–10)

After the interruption by the Pharisees, Jesus continues with the disciples. He adapts His teaching on the costs of discipleship and faithfulness more finely to what had just happened. This whole scene had been spurred by criticism from Pharisees, so Jesus turns to inoculate His disciples further against the powerful social influence of that synagogue-ruling sect (an influence which we could probably not overestimate). They had just witnessed Jesus deal with scorn and mocking by the most powerful lay leaders who also happened to permeate the land of Israel. Would the disciples be prepared to stand up against these derisive and pervasive forces? Jesus taught,

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:1–4).

The KJV translates the phrase “Temptations to sin” as “offences.” The NAS uses “stumbling blocks.” The ESV is more equivalent to modern English in meaning, but the NAS is certainly closer to the biblical theological tradition. The Greek word skandala (from which we get our English “scandal”) refers to a trap set for one to fall into—an occasion for falling or stumbling. Thus the idea appears in Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” It appears most famously in Isaiah 8:13–15 (though it is not reflected in the Greek Septuagint, only in the original Hebrew):

But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.

Jesus will go directly to this passage in a later interaction with the whole people including the chief priests and the lawyers as He was teaching in the Jerusalem temple itself. After a parable about the vineyard owner (in which, as we shall see, it is clear that Israel would kill the son of God and lose the kingdom because of it), the people responded, “Surely not!” (Luke 20:16). Jesus responded by citing Isaiah 8:14–15:

But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Luke 20:17–18).

In fact, Isaiah’s prophecy had been in the foreground of Jesus’ ministry since the day of His circumcision. The old man Simeon, inspired by the Holy Spirit, took the child in his arms and said:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (Luke 2:29–34).

Paul’s later teaching confirms everything we have said in this context. In Romans 9:30–33 he writes:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So, the sinners and tax collectors—indeed, even gentiles—receive the kingdom while the Jews lose it. The decisive issues are faith and faithfulness. This is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which, Isaiah tells us, pertains to both houses of Israel (8:14). This theme of Jesus as a stumblingblock (skandalon), especially to the Jews, appears in other places in Paul’s writings (1 Cor. 1:23; Gal 5:11).

It appears elsewhere in the Gospels as well. Even the disciples originally stumbled at the offense of the cross, just as Jesus predicted (Matt. 26:31ff). Nevertheless, in the upper room discourse (John 14–16), Jesus also prepared them with in-depth teaching about the coming Holy Spirit, their relationship to the True Vine, and the new commandment to love one another despite the persecution they would soon endure. He then tells them plainly, “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away [hina me skandalisthete—literally ‘so that you will not be scandalized/caused to stumble’]. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:1–2).

Perhaps the most relevant instance of scandal for the eschatological message of Jesus’ lawsuit against Israel, appears in the previously considered parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43). When Jesus explains the parable to His disciples, He says, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin [skandala] and all law-breakers” (Matt. 13:41). This would be the great judgment of Jerusalem, when all of those that had stumbled at the stumblingblock of the Messiah would be destroyed.

So it is clear that the idea of stumbling played a significant role in Jesus’ message. Stumblingblocks would be inevitable due to the polarizing nature of the coming judgment and transfer of the kingdom. Either you were with Jesus or against Him. To stand with Him was necessary, but would come at tremendous short-term costs, and the pressures to give in (stumble, sin) would be numerous and powerful. This is why Jesus reiterated the situation within the context of the parable of the unjust manager (coming monetary sacrifices) and faithfulness to the true Master.

The disciples clearly understand this message and the great costs it demanded. So they respond, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). If we read these few verses by themselves, this response does not exactly seem the most intuitive. But it makes perfect sense in light of the larger context. These guys were still hanging on Jesus’ words from before the interruption by the Pharisees. They understood that the stumblingblocks that would be laid before them would be tremendous. So they desired more faith.

Jesus reassures them of the power of even a tiny bit of faith: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (17:6). Of course the hyperbole brings the point home: even a tiny bit of faith can accomplish seemingly impossible feats. But the image here is interesting in its allusions to the idea of something that seems to be permanently fixed being moved. Again, we should never read too much into the details of a parable, but this speculation is interesting. The kingdom which the Jews thought was fixed forever in Jerusalem was about to the plucked by the root, and transplanted in the sea. The sea is a classic reference to all peoples and tongues of the gentile nations (Is. 11:9; 60:5; Hab. 2:14). We are told in Revelation that the Great Whore “sits upon” such “waters” (17:15), had committed fornication with all these nations (18:3), and indeed was the sorceress who had deceived them all (18:23). But Jesus would smite them with a rod of iron (19:15), would bind the serpent that these nations could be deceived no more (20:3), and that the undeceived (saved) would walk in the light of the New Jerusalem (21:24–26). It is indeed true that the kingdom was about to be transplanted, and would be removed from Jerusalem and given to the elect remnant of Israel and to the gentiles. This redeemed multitude makes up the sea of glass before God’s throne (Rev. 4:6; 15:2).

But faith in itself must always bear fruit in obedience and courage. Faith must always manifest as faithfulness. This will appear as obedience and as humility. Jesus presses this point upon the disciples as well:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:7–10).

Jesus expects His disciples to remain faithful through all of the tribulations and stumblingblocks they would face, and once they emerge out the other side of those blessings, they must take care never to fall into that greatest religious trap of all—the Pharisaism of self-assurance that says, We now deserve status, wealth, blessing, rest, etc. No, the disciples must remain in work mode, serving their master; and even when they can look back upon the greatest accomplishments of any in their generation, they must remain humble: We deserve nothing; we are forgiven sinners, debtors to God’s grace; we have only done that which we were indebted to do.

These last words of this scene tie the context directly back, again, to the parable of the unjust manager. “Duty” is from the Greek opheilomen which is also used in that parable (16:5, 7) and elsewhere as a reference to debtors and the debts they owe. It is clear that Jesus is still speaking of faithfulness as He was when He finished that parable, and that the disciples must learn to see their true indebtedness to their true Master.

Purchase Jesus v. Jerusalem

Next Section: The Faithful Remnant (Luke 17:11–18:43)

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