Luke 17 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Faithful in Looking for the King, the Kingdom and Its Consummation
Here Luke's attention turns to the program of God's rule, the kingdom. A miracle highlights Jesus' central role and reminds us that we should honor God. Then in a long discourse Jesus declares the kingdom's availability and speaks of the events associated with its future decisive manifestation. The unit closes with a parable that calls the saints to pray for divine justice and not lose heart, for God will vindicate them. Everything Jesus teaches here serves to reassure saints like Theophilus.
This passage appears to be a simple healing account. But this miracle is not like most other miracles, since the healing itself is not emphasized as much as the reaction to it. As with all five miracles in the journey section, the miracle is less important than its results. Jesus heals as he continues his journey to meet his fate in Jerusalem. Luke often notes the journey's progress, but the notes become more frequent as Jerusalem nears (9:50-52; 13:22, 33; 14:25; 17:11; 18:35; 19:1, 11, 28, 41, 44). Jesus is passing between Samaria and Galilee. Moving east to west, his journey of destiny continues. That he would meet a Samaritan in this setting is not surprising.
The lepers of ancient society were rejected. They were treated as outcasts, like many who have AIDS today (see discussion of 5:12-16). They were required to live outside the city in leper camps (Num 5:2-3) and were to cry out to warn others to keep away from then as they walked the streets (Lev 13:45-46).
The ten of this story cry out, only this time it is for mercy. Such calls to Jesus are common in the Gospels (Mt 9:27; 15:22; Mk 10:47-48; Lk 16:24; 18:38-39). The lepers are perceptive: they understand that merciful acts constitute a major aspect of Jesus' ministry. The address of Jesus as "Master" is Luke's way of saying that Jesus has authority, since Luke uses it in texts where the other Synoptics have "Teacher" or "Rabbi" (Lk 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33). There is no significance to the number ten, though later the fact that one is different from the other nine will be significant. The only question at this point is whether Jesus' work of compassion will continue, given the strong rejection that has arisen against him.
The answer comes quickly. When Jesus tells the men to go to the priest to prove that they have been cleansed, it is clear that Jesus has acted to heal them (Lev 13:1-8; 14:1-11; Mk 1:44; Lk 5:14). Jesus mentions going to the priests, using the plural, because there are so many of them. The priests will be busy receiving testimonies about Jesus' work! The request calls for faith, since the men must turn and go to the priests without having experienced the healing first. In that sense the miracle is like Elisha's telling Naaman to go wash himself in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:10-15). As they depart, they are cleansed. Jesus does not touch them as he had the leper of 5:12-14. The messianic times are present as Jesus heals from a distance (7:1-10, 22). The prospect of normal life has returned to the ten through the Master's work.
The lessons of the healing follow. There are several points: (1) God's mercy should yield thanksgiving. (2) God works through Jesus (v. 15). (3) Getting close to God is a matter of trusting him. One who seems far away can really be near. (4) The outsider, the foreigner (allogenes), is the most sensitive to Jesus. Those who respond to God may not be the ones we expect to respond. (5) God's blessing can be appreciated or underappreciated.
It is this last point that Jesus highlights when he asks, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?" Only the foreigner has returned to give thanks. Now what Jesus praises here is the Samaritan's initiative. Jesus had instructed the men to go to the priest. All of them had turned to do so, apparently. But only one has taken the trouble to return and thank Jesus. God's graciousness is often ignored and unappreciated. In addition, often those who have blessed forget to take time to thank those God uses. Jesus appreciates the Samaritan's sensitivity and commends it.
So Jesus asks, "Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Yes, he was the only one who gave thanks. Those who do not take blessings for granted make up an exclusive club of surprising people. In our small group at church we recently studied joy. In the materials we used there was a discussion of how some Americans had gained fortunes in the early 1980s: "The average salary for Fortune 1000 CEO's is over $500,000/year. The actor Marlon Brando is said to have collected a fee of $3.7 million plus $15 million in profit percentages for a mere 12 days work in the 1978 film Superman--a rate of $1.5 million a day." Many people in Western nations are showered with material blessing. Yet an article in U.S. News & World Report on the wealthy of the same period reported, "Half of those considered successful by their peers are unhappy." Why is this so?
Maybe it is because success and meaning are being defined in the wrong places by the wrong things. Life's real blessings are not valued and appreciated, while things that cannot really bless are assigned value and worth they do not really possess. Often our families and friends and, more important, the God of life are underappreciated, taken advantage of or ignored--not necessarily to their detriment, but always to ours.
There is one other lesson in the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan man. God's grace, even though it is extended to all, does not mean that all gain salvation. God blesses humanity in a general way, but only the responsive who appreciate what he has done in Christ receive his full blessing and acceptance. Among the ten former lepers, only the Samaritan hears the comforting words "Your faith has made you well." His gratitude has revealed his faith. Jesus commends him for his response and assures him that the appreciation he expressed is also appreciated.
When one surveys the Scripture to see what we are called to be grateful for, an interesting point emerges. Often biblical texts simply call on us to thank God. No specific reason is cited. It is a "fill in the blank" exercise, an exercise in reflection on how God has been good recently. The perspective seems to be: Look for the sun; do not dwell on the clouds. Don't focus on events or things, but on people and on God. Perhaps if we responded to God and other people in this way, life would be brighter. A typical passage is 1 Chronicles 29:10-13, in which God is to be thanked for his presence and availability. But if we live apart from God, who is there to thank? The pursuit of things, status or power ultimately is a lonely existence.
A perusal of the Word provides a full list of large reasons to be grateful. God is thanked for his deliverance (Ps 35:18), for loving us and being faithful (Ps 52:9; 107:8), for hearing our cry (Ps 118:21), for safe arrival after a long, arduous journey (Acts 28:15), for other believers and for the testimony of their faith (Rom 1:8), for the gift of salvation that enables one not to sin (Rom 6:17), for delivering us from our tendency to sin (Rom 7:25), for the spiritual gift of being able to address God (1 Cor 14:18), for resurrection hope (1 Cor 15:57), for testimony, deliverance and victory in the midst of persecution (2 Cor 2:14), for the support of a colleague in ministry (2 Cor 8:16), for other believers (Phil 1:3; Col 1:3; 2 Tim 1:3; Philem 4), for those who respond to God's Word (1 Thess 2:13), for being able to serve others for God (1 Tim 1:12) and for his attributes (Rev 4:9). Those are just some of the options for thanksgiving.
Notice that this list includes not one item having to do with things, with possessions. The occasions for gratitude all have to do with relationships or circumstances in relationship to others. Colossians 3:15 says to "be thankful." That is what the foreigner was. That is what disciples are to be. Remember thank-yous, especially to our good, gracious and great God--and let the sun shine in.
If you ask a student of the Gospels where Jesus gives his eschatological discourse, he or she will answer, "The Olivet discourse." During the last week of Jesus' ministry, both Matthew 24--25 and Mark 13 indicate that Jesus spoke of events that would signal the return of "the Son of Man" with power. Of course, this phrase refers to Jesus' return. Interestingly, what Matthew and Mark set in one location, Luke sets in two. Luke 17:20-37 is the first discourse on the end; 21:5-38 is the second discourse, the one that matches most of the Matthew and Mark texts.
Jesus has two goals in relating this material. First, he wants it to be unmistakably clear that the kingdom program is inextricably tied to him (vv. 20-21). Second, he wants to encourage his disciples (v. 22) that although times will be tough and they will long for the day of the Son of Man, it will eventually come suddenly and bring harsh judgment for those who resist him. The implication is that disciples should be prepared, dig in and hang in there.
The first portion of the discourse is a response to the Pharisees. They want to know when the kingdom of God is coming (on the kingdom, see discussion of 9:57-62). Jesus explains that the kingdom does not come "with signs to be observed, nor will people say, `Here it is,' or `There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst." My rendering here sticks close to the Greek, for reasons I will make clear.
The reply has caused no lack of discussion, because it suggests the immediacy of the kingdom's presence. The question is very practical: When will God manifest his rule and consummate his plan? Though Judaism did not have a unified picture of the expected Messiah's coming, in most conceptions it was a powerful and glorious arrival (Frerichs, Green and Neusner 1987; Charlesworth 1992). A famous example of Jewish expectation is Psalms of Solomon 17--18, where a powerful Messiah rules in Israel and rescues it from the nations. According to Jewish teaching, the arrival of Messiah would be clear and obvious to all. The question's implication may well be that whatever Jesus' ministry is, it does not reflect the anticipated glory. So his ministry cannot reflect the kingdom's presence.
But Jesus challenges the premise. The kingdom does not come "with observation." This phrase's meaning is disputed (Marshall 1978:654; Fitzmyer 1985:1160; Nolland 1993:852). Does it mean through legal observation, so Jesus denies that faithfulness to the law is required before he returns? Does it mean the kingdom comes mysteriously? Or--most likely--is it an allusion to the apocalyptic signs that are supposed to accompany the kingdom's coming? Jesus argues that the kingdom's coming does not require apocalyptic observation, since that was the normal expectation. The initial phase of the kingdom does not come that way.
Why? Because "the kingdom of God is in your midst." This phrase is one of the most discussed in Luke's Gospel. It is one of the few statements of Jesus that puts the kingdom in the present. In fact, so unprecedented is this statement that some argue the idea is really futuristic. The idea is, The kingdom is as good as present, since I am here. You need not miss it when it comes (Nolland 1993:853-54; Mattill 1979:198-201).
But a futuristic meaning is unlikely here. The verb that normally takes a futuristic present is erchomai, not eimi, which is the verb in verse 21. Thus Luke's shift of verbs in this context is significant, as is his shift of tenses. Moreover, the verb is placed in an emphatic position in the Greek text. More important, the remark about signs in verses 20-21 is specifically denied if a future sense exists, for Jesus appears to go on and enumerate the signs! It is better to interpret this phrase as referring to the initial coming now with a consummation to come later. Then Jesus' reply is, "You do not need to look for the kingdom in signs, because its King (and so its presence) is right before you. But its display in comprehensive power will come visibly to all one day. You will not need to hunt to find it then."
When Jesus says it is "in your midst," he does not mean in one's heart (but so NIV: the kingdom of God is within you). Jesus is speaking to Pharisees who have rejected him. They do not have the kingdom in their heart. And nowhere else in the New Testament is the kingdom described as an internal entity. He must mean something else here.
Two senses are possible. Jesus could mean "in your grasp or power." The kingdom's presence is related to one's ability to repent (Beasley-Murray 1986:102-3). The view depends on substantiating the presence of an idiom claimed also to be found in various Greek papyri, but that reading of the papyri is challenged (Riesenfeld 1949:11-12; Wikgren 1950:27-28). Also against this view is that it appears to be a nonanswer. To say the kingdom is within your grasp is not to say where it is or how you can get it--at least not very explicitly. In contrast to such vagueness, the second possible sense is that the kingdom is "in your midst"--that is, "in your presence." It is present in Jesus, so he and it stand before you. You do not have to look for it, because it is right before your face! This answer is very much like 7:22-23 and 11:20. It also fits the time perspective of 7:28 and 16:16, as well as the explicit declarations of current fulfillment in 4:16-23.
Now some in challenging this reading argue that Jesus is saying he is present but the kingdom is not. But that approach makes no sense here. Why would Jesus mention his personal presence in distinction from the kingdom's and then use an expression that mentions the kingdom? The whole point is to discuss the kingdom, not just him. The Pharisees know Jesus is present, and they know he claims to bring the time of fulfillment, so they are asking where the kingdom is. Jesus' reply is that the kingdom program comes with him, even in the present.
The program of God's reclamation of creation starts and stops with Jesus. Signs are not necessary because Jesus is the sign. As the entire discourse shows, the kingdom has an "already-not yet" character (Bock 1994d:193-97, 116-17). Luke 1:67-79, Acts 2:25-36, Romans 1:2-4 with 16:25-27, 1 Corinthians 15:25, Ephesians 1:18-23, Colossians 1:12-14, Hebrews 1:5-13, 1 Peter 2:4-10 and Revelation 1:6-8 share this two-phased kingdom perspective. Efforts to tie the presence-of-the-kingdom language of the New Testament to the ongoing presence of God's universal kingdom fail, since the context of these kingdom texts is an announcement of the arrival of something that previously was missing. In addition, efforts to argue that Jesus rules over a spiritual kingdom now that is distinct from the promised rule of the Old Testament also fail to note the declarations of explicit fulfillment in the contexts in which the statements are made (for example, Lk 4:16-23; 7:22-23; 24:43-49; Acts 13:16-41; Rom 1:1-7; Heb 1:1-2). Finally, attempts to argue that the kingdom is present but rule is not ignore the fact that when Jesus saves he exercises regal, executive authority as the promised Christ (Acts 2:16-41). Since Christ is a regal title, and since authority is a function of person and office, an expression of rule is present, though the full coercive rule of Jesus the King over all the creation will come in the future.
If the Pharisees had read the sign of the present time correctly, the question would not even be asked (12:54-56). Jesus has declared that the process of kingdom growth has started, so they should not assume it is absent, though it has made such a humble start (13:18-20). They need to respond to the King.
At this point Jesus turns to his disciples and elaborates on the ultimate answer to the Pharisees' question, the kingdom's future nature. That our attention turns to the future is clear by the words "days are coming," a phrase that can indicate the approach of decisive judgment (Is 39:6; Jer 7:32; 16:14; Ezek 7:10-12; Amos 4:2; Zech 14:1). The NIV renders this in the idiomatic the time is coming. Ultimately the kingdom's manifestation will include its powerful and coercive establishment on the earth, with total authority over all of humanity. That period could be described as one of the days of the Son of Man. When the Son of Man returns with authority to vindicate the saints and exercise power on their behalf, it will be a grand day of judgment (Dan 7). For a time, disciples will long to see it, but it will not come. That day does not come immediately. People will claim that it has come, but Jesus warns that the disciples should not go to check for his arrival. Those claims are not the real thing. When it comes, it will be sudden and visible like the lightning across the sky.
But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Luke uses his frequent dei here ("it is necessary" that these things occur). Before that day of great rule can come, the Son of Man must suffer at the hands of humankind. Jesus' rejection is an intervening reality. That rejection is why he heads for Jerusalem (13:31-35). The description of its necessity is put in decretal terms, since dei speaks of the direction of God's plan. Before glory there is rejection and suffering. The kingdom's decisive arrival will be obvious, but for now rejection dominates. One day the kingdom will wield a gavel, but for now it bears a cross.
Scholars often argue that the church suffered from the "delay of the parousia": Jesus predicted a soon arrival, and when it did not come the church struggled to explain why it did not come. In Lukan studies the major name tied to this view is Hans Conzelmann (1961). He taught that much of Luke is dedicated to concern over the fact that Jesus did not come as quickly as the church had expected (or, in some views, as quickly as he had led them to believe). But in this speech and in the Olivet discourse Jesus is outlining a series of events that precede the return. He makes clear in texts like Mark 13:10, 32 that the exact timing is not known and that other things must happen first, like his suffering and the church's preaching of the gospel. These discourses function to reassure disciples that God has a plan, even if we cannot know the exact timing of all these events. If there is a problem with "delay," it is because the church failed to reflect on the whole of Jesus' teaching.
Jesus compares the day of that arrival to the times of Noah and Lot. The two examples are parallel. Life went on with eating, drinking, marriage, buying and selling--and then judgment came. For one it was the flood, for the other fire and sulfur. But to be outside the family that day was to face instant judgment. The time of the Son of Man will be no different: it will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.
Last of all, Jesus tackles the conditions of the return. When the judgment comes, he says, it will be swift. There will be no time to gather possessions from your home, whether you are on the roof or in the field. Unlike Lot's wife, do not look back, longing for what you are leaving behind. To seek to protect your life is to lose it. But to lose your life will be to gain it. In other words, if you identify with God, suffering and persecution may result, but God will redeem you. If you fear the rejection of persecution, you will not come to Christ, but neither will you be redeemed by God. Jesus' words here recall 12:1-12. Again the point is, Expect suffering but persevere with patient faith. Redemption comes, and so does God's vindication.
Picturing what the day will be like, Jesus portrays a division within humanity. Two pictures make the same point. Whether two are asleep or two women are grinding at a mill, on that day one will be taken and another left. It is debated whether the one is taken into judgment and the one is left for salvation or the other way around. Given the Noah and Lot metaphors, as well as the picture of the birds gathering over the dead bodies in verse 37, it seems that it is those who are left behind who experience the judgment. Those who flee, like Noah and Lot, are spared.
When the disciples ask, "Where, Lord?" they appear to be asking where this will occur or what will happen to the bodies. Jesus replies that where the bodies are, the eagles (or better vultures) are gathered. Though the term for the birds (aetos) can mean eagles, in this context of judgment it should be rendered vultures, as it is in other such contexts (Lev 11:13; Deut 14:12; Job 39:30; Mt 24:28). Eagles do not seek carrion; vultures do. The image is grim. The Son of Man's return means massive judgment; it will be final and will carry the stench of death. The return will be deadly serious. You should not be on the wrong side when it comes. Be assured that the vindication of the saints will come (18:1-8). The Son of Man's return means humanity's separation into two camps: those who were for him enter into everlasting life, while those who were against him face an everlasting judgment.
To the theologically sophisticated prayer can sometimes seem to be an odd spiritual practice. If God is all-knowing, sovereign and all-caring, then why bother him with our requests? Interestingly, Luke's portrait of Jesus highlights prayer. He prays before receiving the Spirit (3:21-22), all-night prayer precedes the selecting the Twelve (6:12), and two parables focus on prayer (11:5-13; 18:1-8). The answer to the dilemma of prayer is that it is not intended to do something for God, but for us. It is one of the mechanisms of relationship that God gives to his children to be in touch with him. God may not need prayer, but we do.
This parable highlights that point, as verse 1 makes clear: Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. Since Jesus was speaking to his disciples in 17:22-37, the same audience is assumed by the NIV to be present here, since the Greek says only that he told them a parable. Jesus shows that God responds to prayer and listens to his children. He does not wind up the universe like a watch, as the deists of old argued. He does not merely send the universe ticking on its merry way and sit back to observe as an uninterested spectator; God relates to his creation. This is especially the case when our prayers cry out for justice and the righteous treatment of his children. In such cases, when God acts, his response will be swift and certain (v. 8).
One of the strengths of Jesus' parables is that they are filled with interesting characters. This is especially true of this parable. Two characters are central to the story: a nagging widow and an independent judge who does not show preference to anyone. I am sure all of us know someone we would call a nag. Such persons are always complaining about something, and if there is an important issue or principle involved, they will not let it go until it is fixed. Such a woman is the example in this parable. We are to pray just as she nags, especially when we desire God's vindication of our commitment to him. We are to pray and keep praying for this.
Now, of course, we need not whine in our prayers to God, but simply express our sincere desire to see him and those who are his vindicated. Often when we pray we do not share our true feelings with God (as if he does not know them already!). It gives me pause to realize that the most common type of psalm in the Psalter is the lament. The mature Old Testament saints were honest about their feelings before God. Yet often as we voice our concerns to God, he renews our faith and trust in him. So when we pray, we should express our deepest feelings, even our complaints, as we urge God to bring justice. Perhaps the prayer found in Acts 4:24-32 is an example. There God's people pray, in essence, "Lord, give us boldness and show your presence."
Yet it is significant that the encouragement not to grow weary in such prayer (Lk 18:1) indicates that God's response may not always come when we want it. We may have to wait for it. Jesus did teach that God's vindication of the saints might take some time. Prayer can help us stay in touch with God and stay patient in the interim.
It would be a mistake to assume that the woman in this story is old. In the ancient culture, women married in the early to mid teens, and the life expectancy for men who reached adulthood often did not exceed "thirtysomething" (Jeremias 1972:153). Yet being a widow, she was among the most vulnerable people in her society. She was to be cared for by others (Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12-13; 27:19; Ps 94:6; Is 1:17, 23; 10:2; Jer 5:28 LXX; 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 22:7; Mal 3:5; as God does, Ps 68:5; 146:9; in Judaism, m. Ketubot 4:12; 11:1-6; m. Gittin 4:3; L. T. Johnson 1991:269). Her precarious position parallels the risk believers experience in an often-hostile world.
One other bit of cultural background helps us understand the account. In a civil dispute the judge would be responsible for dealing with the woman's claims. Since she is alone, if she is to find justice, the judge must supply it. Although the judge is not known for his compassion--he neither feared God nor cared about men--he still is responsible to hear her case.
The woman takes her problem to the judge again and again and again and again! Like a great defensive lineman rushing the passer or a famous goal-scorer sweeping down on the goal, she just keeps coming. Her message is, "Grant me justice against my adversary." Simply put, she wants justice. For some time the judge resists. Exactly how long he holds out we are not told. Apparently he thinks his nonaction will get rid of her. He does not wish to act on her behalf. But every time he holds court, she is there. She had the right to keep coming back, because in that culture her case had to be heard (Stahlin 1974b:450 n. 86). Finally he responds: "Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out by her coming!"
The description of the judge being "bothered" is rather picturesque. What she does is "cause him trouble" (to parechein moi kopon). She gets on his nerves. In fact, the judge characterizes himself as "beaten down," using figuratively a term that refers to having a black eye (hypopiazo). Though some argue that the judge is worried about being shamed (Nolland 1993:870), this cannot be the meaning, since he does not care about his public reputation. The woman has just worn him out. Her constant intercession has brought success.
Jesus applies the picture to prayer for God's action to bring justice for his children. Like 11:5-13, this is not a carte blanche to ask for whatever we want. Rather, it is designed to encourage us to pray for God's righteous ways to be revealed. The argument follows the popular Jewish "how much more" style: if an unrighteous judge responds this way, how much more will a righteous God!
In two rhetorical questions Jesus makes it emphatically clear (ou me) that God will vindicate his elect and that he will not delay over them (or he will have patience concerning them--see discussion of views below). Vindication is clearly the issue, since it repeats the terms of verses 3 and 5. Judgment against those who persecute the righteous will come (Ps 149:7). Chosen ones is a term Luke uses only here to describe believers. Their constant calling to God day and night will be heard.
The idea of God's nondelay has caused much discussion, given that the final judgment has still not come. Though many explanations have been offered, two are more likely (Bock 1995: on Lk 18:8).
The first possibility is that rather than meaning God will not delay long over them, it means God will show patience to them (L. T. Johnson 1991:270). In other words, he will be patient about their request and honor it by vindicating them. This view fits Sirach 35:19 LXX, which appears to be a conceptual parallel. Texts like 2 Peter 3:8-9 show that God's patience reflects his merciful desire that more come to know him.
Another possible meaning is that God will prevent excessive persecution of the community until the vindication comes (Catchpole 1977:81-104). "Patience" can refer to the delaying or putting off of a consequence of an action (Ex 34:6; Num 14:18; Joel 2:13; Sirach 5:4). Thus God will lighten his people's suffering until vindication comes.
It is hard to be certain which of these ideas is meant, though the first option seems less subtle. Regardless, it is clear God will vindicate his saints.
Jesus closes by making two more points: (1) God will act quickly. (2) When Jesus returns, will he find faith on earth--that is, will people persevere in looking for his return? Jesus' second remark assumes that his people will need faith and trust as they consider how history is proceeding. This notion helps to explain the first point. Jesus is not promising that God will come soon--that is, in a short period of time; otherwise God's people would not have become discouraged, which seems to be the assumption behind Jesus' second point. Rather, his coming is soon in that it is next on the eschatological calendar. Prophetic texts often foreshorten the timing of events to show their sequence (for example, Is 61:1-2 and the two comings of Jesus). God has not forgotten the elect. Next on the calendar is his bringing their vindication in justice. Until the vindication comes, it seems a long way away, especially in the midst of persecution, but after it comes and is established for eternity, it will not seem so delayed.
So Jesus urges prayer and perseverance. God will vindicate his saints. Trust him to do so and keep praying for his return, which is the vindication of the saints. We should pray because, unlike the judge in the parable, God is not grudging about granting our desires for justice. And we should keep asking for the vindication of the people of God; our patience and willingness to make this request should never run out. By continuing to make the request, we stay sensitive to the need for justice to come. So like the nagging widow, just keep asking.