Every now and then it’s a good idea to step back and remember that we are reading a whole document, not a bunch of unconnected stories. The writers of Luke have method in their madness and there is beauty in the creation of the whole as well as the individual parts. We are slap-bang in the middle of a large teaching slab of Luke’s Gospel. But it’s far more than a bunch of teaching parables tied loosely together. Looking across my various study bibles, I really like the way that the Ryrie Study Bible has mapped the Gospel.
I. Chapter 1: Method and Purpose of Writing
II. Chapters 1-4: The identification of the Son of Man with Men
III. Chapters 4-9: The Ministry of the Son of Man to Men
IV. Chapters 9-19: The Repudiation (rejection) of the Son of Man by Men
V. Chapters 19-23: The Condemnation of the Son of Man for Men
VI. Chapter 24: The Vindication of the Son of Man before Men
Section IV is further broken down for chapters 12 through 19 as “Instruction in the Light of Rejection.”
I really like this logical breakdown of the Gospel, and the light it sheds on today’s reading in chapter 17. The disciples have been literally bombarded with 8 chapters of teaching – stuff to avoid and stuff to do, the requirement to turn their thinking completely on upside down, the prospect of leaving their familiar kinship relationships – and on and on Jesus goes seemingly without end in sight (or at least another 2 chapters). It seems perfectly understandable that they want some payback for their efforts, or at least some serious arsenal to fight with. “Increase our faith” they cry, kind of like, “what’s in it for us?” or “bless us for our efforts.” Jesus retorts with quite a put-down.
His parable is of a slave-owner, who, at the end of a day of toil sits down to have his evening meal. Does he ask his slave to join him for his meal, or order him to prepare the evening meal and eat later? In first century middle-east slaves were extremely common, even for relatively poor folk. The very poor would effectively ‘sell’ their children as slaves to pay debts or buy land etc. This was perfectly normal and was just part of life in a first century agrarian economy. It bangs up against our 21st century sensibilities, where we would want to say “yes, we ask them to sit with us because aren’t we all equal?”, but the truth for first century folk was that all weren’t equal, people lived in stratified communities, with slaves at the very bottom. There was no way possible that a slave-owner would act in such an egalitarian way to someone he had payed good money for. The message of Jesus is that this is the way the things works, that we don’t get special privilege for just doing what it is our duty to do. A modern equivalent might be going to our boss at work and requesting extra pay for completing a task on time. The answer would be that if the task wasn’t completed on time you might be out of a job!
The Jesus way is a hard way, and anyone that says otherwise is not following the Jesus way. You don’t get special credit for following the Jesus way, it’s what’s expected of a follower of the way. Of course we want to encourage each other and build each other up, this is not the focus of the story. The message of the story is not to expect or demand benefits because you are doing the right thing, a little like going into a police station and demanding a reward for driving under the speed limit (try this out and do write what happens won’t you). We do what we do because we have love for God, and love for each other, not because we are expecting some big reward or great notoriety. The Jesus way is a life of self sacrifice, not self aggrandisement, a life given to others, not a life lived waiting for a big reward at the end. Give, and expect nothing in return is the message of Luke 17:5-10.