TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied,
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?
Would he not rather say to him,
‘Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
Joel Green, in his commentary (see home page), points out that the early verses of Chapter 17 are a pause in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as he takes stock of identifying just who are the true disciples who will enter the kingdom. This is an appropriate time to ask such questions: consider that this Sunday’s Gospel is well into Luke’s text, and the time of the final showdown is coming perilously close. Even the Catholic Calendar reflects growing urgency: next Sunday is the 27th of the 34 Sundays of Ordinary time. The end game is not far off.
The immediate text prior (Luke 17: 1-4) is not read at the Sunday liturgy, but it begins this section with an indictment of precisely who will not be entering the Kingdom of God. This brief text includes the scandalizers (“It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were cast into the sea”) and those who fail to rebuke sinners and, on the other hand, refuse to forgive them. Our text for consideration begins with Luke 17:5, where a question is posed to the Lord by the Apostles. Titles are very important interpretive keys in Biblical study. Jesus did not refer to his intimate follower as Apostles; his preferred appellation was “The Twelve,” the new fathers of the restored twelve tribes of Israel brought to bear by Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross. The term apostle is most likely an early Church term for those who walked with Jesus, and more importantly, witnessed the resurrected Christ. St. Paul feels free to call himself an Apostle because of the appearance of Jesus on his journey to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) Given that Luke’s Gospel was written two generations after Christ, the use of the word “apostle” might seem anachronistic unless the term was understood in Luke’s day as a generic for those who were passing along the witness of the Resurrection, i.e., the post-apostolic generation of bishops.
The term “Lord” in 17:5 is generally understood as having divine overtones. Jesus rarely used the term “Lord” to describe himself, choosing the more apocalyptic and mysterious “Son of Man,” which we will discuss in November. The disciples themselves more often used the name “teacher” or “master;” Green, noting the disciples’ request for faith, observes that the word “faith” is used only five times in Luke’s Gospel, but always with an eye to “faithful behavior.” The sentence then is a solemn request to God’s Son for greater strength and fervor in living faithfully as disciples in the final times. One can almost imagine that the Christians in Luke’s audience, particularly the leaders (bishops), were praying for right knowledge in time of trial.
In response to this request of the apostles, the Lord Jesus (divine) tells them that even a smidgen of faith would enable them to do even greater things than they have seen Jesus do. Jesus performed miraculous deeds, to be sure, but none with quite the optics of a giant mulberry tree animating itself and jumping into the Sea of Galilee. Green has an interesting comment here, noting that “Jesus’ reply cast doubt on whether his apostles have yet even this much faith, the smidgen.” But at least the apostles, in their poverty, know enough to turn to the Lord for help. The Pharisees and the crowd at large do not do even this much. (p. 613) The question of entering the kingdom of God continues to loom large, and as Luke’s narrative continues, it would seem that the “circle of salvation” continues to constrict.
Green’s commentary is of great assistance in understanding the following example of the householder and his slave. He explains that in modern day English the term “thanks” does not have the meaning it had in Jesus’ day, when “thanks” implied an indebtedness. In our text here, Jesus asks whether a slave, in the performance of his everyday duties, is owed a thanks for preparing his master’s dinner. Jesus answers his own question in the negative, to the point of actually providing the appropriate script: “we are unprofitable servants: we have done what we were obliged to do.” Jesus’ answer appears cold until one remembers that “thanks” in his day was a literary phrase meaning “you owe me a favor.” No owner would ever find himself with indebtedness toward his slave in the mores of Jesus’ day.
What is Jesus’ intent here, or what is he teaching? The best answer seems to be his insistence that no one can make a special claim on God, or bring God into one’s own debt, even by the act of performing good deeds or meeting obligations. God owes nothing to anyone; more to the point, God owes admission to his kingdom to no one. Invitation to the eternal banquet is gracious and gratuitous. Green believes that Jesus is attempting to help his disciples avoid the errors of the Pharisees, who believed that by obedience to the Law they were entitled to God’s favor. What the Pharisees considered extraordinary services “are simply the daily fare of discipleship.” (p. 615) That said, the disciples themselves had not shown themselves exempt from self-justification and honor-seeking in earlier chapters of Luke. As the timetable of deliverance is now fast approaching with Jerusalem on the horizon, Jesus decides that this was a timely moment to reinforce the identity of the true son of the kingdom. Evidently Luke, writing in the 80’s AD, felt it was time for his church to be reminded, too.