17 Yeshua said to his disciples, “It is impossible that snares will not be set. But woe to the person who sets them! 2 It would be to his advantage that he have a millstone hung around his neck and he be thrown into the sea, rather than that he ensnare one of these little ones. 3 Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 Also, if seven times in one day he sins against you, and seven times he comes to you and says, ‘I repent,’ you are to forgive him.” 5 The emissaries said to the Lord, “Increase our trust.” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had trust as tiny as a mustard seed, you could say to this fig tree, ‘Be uprooted and replanted in the sea!’ and it would obey you. 7 If one of you has a slave tending the sheep or plowing, when he comes back from the field, will you say to him, ‘Come along now, sit down and eat’? 8 No, you’ll say, ‘Get my supper ready, dress for work, and serve me until I have finished eating and drinking; after that, you may eat and drink.’ 9 Does he thank the slave because he did what he was told to do? No! 10 It’s the same with you — when you have done everything you were told to do, you should be saying, ‘We’re just ordinary slaves, we have only done our duty.’”
Luke places all this teaching within the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he knows he will suffer. The teaching itself reflects the need for communal discipline and personal obedience.
The word translated snares in this version is often translated as “0ffences” or “scandals”. It originally refers to a device for making enemies trip up, a stumbling block. Used metaphorically by Jesus it points to actions that cause people to lose their trust. Sometimes it is Jesus’ own actions that are so radical they cause disciples to lose trust in him; sometimes it is the actions or words of fellow disciples which have this effect, sometimes the pressure of ordinary society. Here Jesus recognises that there will be pressures that cause disciples to lose trust, but he issues a very severe judgement on those who cause them to stumble, for trust is precious. Obviously disciples may wrong each other and that may lead to loss of trust in Jesus, so the duty of forgiveness is vital to the preservation of communal trust. Even the most aggravating brother or sister must be forgiven if he/ she repents.
The disciples recognise Jesus’ concern to maintain trust, so they ask him to increase their trust, as if it was a commodity which they already possessed and could be given more of. Jesus treets this complacent request with rough humour. Real trust would let them order trees to uproot themselves and jump in the sea! Then he attacks their view that they are decent followers who need built up a bit. No, he tells them, they are slaves. Does anyone run after a slave attending to his needs? Of course not; the master expects his needs to be met first. Disciples should not get above themslelves: obedience is a duty not an achievement.
This may seem pretty harsh on the disciples, but of course it’s only what Jesus has learned in his own relationship with the father. He is not asking of his disciples what he has not given himself.
But I have to remind myself that of all biblical traditions, the Jesus tradition makes the greatest use of the institution of slavery. All those parables where the KJV carefully used the word “servant” are really about slaves. At no point in any of these stories is there any hint of sympathy for slaves; they may be good slaves or bad, rewarded or rejected, but their inferiority is unquestioned. St Paul, who is often criticised for his acceptance of slavery, shows a greater awareness of the issues raised by it, than Jesus.
Behind the frequent reference to slaves in the Jesus tradition may be the so-called “Servant Songs” of Isaiah in which a figure representing Israel suffers on behalf of all peoples. Jesus knew these songs, as did the gospel writers. He may have recognised in them the special dignity of being “God’s slave” which he took upon himself and passed on to his disciples in sayings and parables.
It’s worth noting that St Paul, writing to the Romans about God’s Spirit, insists that it is “not a spirit of slavery” but rather, one of “adoption” thus extending Jesus’ relationship with the father to all believers. He saw that relationship as characterised by freedom, boldness and love, as well as filial obedience. John in his Gospel provides a unified view of Jesus’ relationship, by having Jesus say, ‘ I have obeyed my father’s commandments and abide in his love.’
These reflections bring me back to today’s passage with its clear emphasis on disciples of Jesus doing (at least) what they’ve been told. Anytime we get too fancy about Christian Faith we need to to be reminded that our first duty is mere obedience to Jesus. It’s usually been good for me.