Luke 17 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Luke 17
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!

(1) It is impossible but that offences will come.—In this instance, the absence of any apparent connection might, perhaps, justify us in looking on the two precepts as having been noted by St. Luke for their own intrinsic value, without regard to the context in which they had been spoken. (See Notes on Matthew 18:7.) Even here, however, we must remember that there may have been what we have called “dropped links.” It is not hard to see that the self-indulgent life, after the pattern of that of the rich man in the preceding parable, was an “offence” which, in one sense, must needs come, in the history of the Christian Church, as it had come in the Jewish, and yet would bring a woe on the man through whom it came.

It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.
(2) It were batter for him . . .—See Note on Matthew 18:6, where the order of the two sayings is inverted. Assuming the words to have been repeated where we find them here, the “little ones” must mean the disciples of Christ who are, in both senses of the word “offended” by the worldliness of those who profess to be religious. They are made to stumble by the temptation to follow the bad example, or their faith in the reality of godliness is shaken by seeing that the form exists without the power.

Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.
(3) Take heed to yourselves.—The position of the words is remarkable, and they have nothing corresponding to them in the parallel passage in Matthew 18:21, where see Note. It is as though our Lord saw in the disciples the tendency to sit in judgment on the sins of others, on such sins especially as He had just condemned, and checked it by the words “take heed to yourselves.” They were in danger of faults hardly less fatal to the spiritual life than selfish luxury, and one of those faults was the temper of hard and unforgiving judgment. When they saw a conspicuous instance of worldliness or other evil, they did as we so often do—they condemned, but did not “rebuke.” In practice, as He taught them by example as by precept, open friendly reproof, aiming at restoration, is the truest path to the forgiveness with which, in the careless estimate of most men, it seems to be incompatible.

And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.
(4) If he trespass against thee.—Better, if he sin. The better MSS. omit the words, “against thee,” and so make the command more general, and the verb is the same as that in Matthew 18:21, the teaching of which is here manifestly reproduced. The outward form seems at first to present a somewhat lower standard of forgiveness, “seven times,” instead of “seventy times seven.” Here, however, it should be remembered that we have “seven times a day,” and the meaning is obviously the same in both passages. No accumulation of offences, however often repeated, is to be allowed to bring us to the hardness which refuses to forgive when the offender says that he repents and asks forgiveness.

And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.
(5) The apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.—The form in which the fragment that thus commences is brought before us suggests, as has been stated before (see Notes on Luke 7:13; Luke 10:1), that it was a comparatively late addition to the collection of “the words of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:35), and this is confirmed by the exceptional use of “the Apostles” for “the disciples.” It may have stood originally in an absolutely isolated form. On the other hand, its position here indicates a sufficiently traceable sequence. That command of a seven-fold—i.e., an unlimited—forgiveness seemed to make almost too great a strain on their faith. Did it not imply an almost miraculous victory over natural impulses, that could be wrought only by a supernatural grace? Was not the faith that could “remove mountains” wanted, if ever, here—a faith in the pardoning love of the Father, and in their own power to reproduce it? And so, conscious of their weakness, they came with the prayer that has so often come from the lips of yearning, yet weak, disciples of the Christ—reminding us of him who cried, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (see Note on Mark 9:24)—“Increase our faith.” May we not possibly think of Peter as having struggled to obey the rule which had been given to them before (Matthew 18:22), and as having found himself unequal to the task?

And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.
(6) If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed.—The words remind us, and must have reminded the disciples, of those of Matthew 17:20, which were called forth by the failure of the disciples to heal the demoniac boy after the Transfiguration. The “sycamine tree” (probably not the same as the “sycamore,” but identified by most botanists with the mulberry tree, still cultivated on the slopes of the Lebanon and in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem and Nablous, both for its fruit and as supplying food for silkworms) takes the place of “this mountain,” sc. Hermon, as an illustration of what true faith could do. If we suppose the conversation to have taken place near the Sea of Galilee, both features of the comparison gain a local vividness. It is remarkable that our Lord meets the prayer with what sounds like a reproof; and such a reproof, we must believe, was needed. The most elementary faith would have been enough to teach them (assuming the connection that has been traced above) that God is love, and that He would help them to overcome all hindrances to their love being after the pattern of His own. There was something, it may be, false in the ring of that prayer, an unreal diffidence asking for that as a gift which really comes only through active obedience and the experience which is gained through it.

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?
(7) But which of you, having a servant . .?—The words contain in reality, though not in form, an answer to their question. They had been asking for faith, not only in a measure sufficient for obedience, but as excluding all uncertainty and doubt. They were looking for the crown of labour before their work was done, for the wreath of the conqueror before they had fought the battle. He presses home upon them the analogies of common human experience. The slave who had been “ploughing” or “feeding sheep” (the word is that always used of the shepherd’s work, as in John 21:16, Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2, and so both the participles are suggestive of latent parables of the spiritual work of the Apostles) is not all at once invited to sit down at the feast. He has first to minister to his master’s wants, to see that his soul is satisfied, and then, in due course, his own turn will come. So, in the life of the disciples, outward ministerial labour was to be followed by personal devotion. In other words, the “increase of faith” for which the Apostles prayed, was to come through obedience, outward and inward obedience, to their Master’s will. Faith was to show itself in virtue, and virtue would bring knowledge, and knowledge would strengthen faith. Comp. 2 Peter 1:5, as showing that the lesson had been learnt.

And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
(8) Gird thyself, and serve me.—Better, minister to me. The words receive a fresh significance if we connect them with Luke 12:37, of which they are, as it were, the complement. There the Master promises that He will gird Himself, and minister to His disciples. Here He tells them that He too requires a service. They must give Him the meat and the drink of seeing that His Father’s will is done on earth (John 4:32; John 4:34), and then they too shall be sharers in His joy. Yet another aspect of the same truths is found in the later promise of the Lord of the Churches to the servant who watches for His coming, “I will sup with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).

Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.
(9) Doth he thank that servant . .?The words are spoken, of course, from the standpoint of the old relations between the master and the slave, not from that of those who recognise that master and slave are alike children of the same Father and servants of the same Master. In order to understand their bearing, we must remember how the subtle poison of self-righteousness was creeping in, even into the souls of the disciples, leading them to ask, “What shall we have therefore?” (Matthew 19:19), and to ask for high places in His kingdom (Matthew 20:21).

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.
(10) Say, We are unprofitable servants.—There is something very suggestive in the use of the same word as that which meets us in the parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:30). God, we are taught, may recognise and reward the varying use which men make of gifts and opportunities. But all boasting is excluded; and in relation to God the man who has gained the ten talents has to own that he has nothing that he has not received, and to confess that he stands, as it were, on a level with the “unprofitable servant.” Any personal claim on the ground of merit falls to the ground before such a declaration, and still more any speculative theory of works of supererogation, and of the transfer of the merits gained by them from one man to his fellow-servants and fellow-sinners.

And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.
(11) And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem.—This is the first distinct note of time in St. Luke’s narrative since Luke 9:51. It appears to coincide with the journey of which we read in Matthew 19:1, Mark 10:1, and is the commencement of the last progress through the regions in which our Lord had already carried on His ministry. The fact, peculiar to St. Luke, that it led Him through Samaria, apparently through that part of it which lay on the borders of Galilee, is obviously reported in connection with the miracle that follows, the other Gospels dwelling on the departure from Galilee, and the continuance of the journey to Jerusalem by the route on the east of the Jordan valley.

And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:
(12) Ten men that were lepers.—On the general character of leprosy, see Notes on Matthew 8:2. As only one of these was a Samaritan, it seems probable that the unnamed village was, as has been said, on the border-land of the two provinces. It is, perhaps, significant that our Lord takes neither of the usual caravan roads—one of which passed through Samaria, the other through Peræa—but chooses one for Himself that led through the one district into the other. The herding together of those who were shut out from all other fellowship has its parallel in the four lepers of 2 Kings 7:3.

Which stood afar off.—In this case, then, there was no running and falling at the feet of Jesus, as in the earlier case of healing. They kept, it would seem probable, to the legal limit of one hundred paces.

And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.
(13) Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.—The Greek word for “Master” is again that which has been noticed as St. Luke’s usual equivalent for “Rabbi.” (See Note on Luke 5:5.) We may believe that the earlier instance of leprosy being cleansed (Matthew 8:2), possibly many such instances (Matthew 11:5), had in some way come to their knowledge.

And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.
(14) Go shew yourselves unto the priests.—On the meaning and object of this command, see Note on Matthew 8:4. Here, however, it may be noted, there was no accompanying touch as the outward means and pledge of healing, and the command was therefore, in a greater degree than it had been before, a trial and test of faith. It did not necessarily imply a journey to Jerusalem. Any priest in any town was qualified for the function of inspecting and deciding on the completeness of the cure. Suddenly, or by degrees, as they went, the taint of blood disappeared, and their flesh became as it had been in the days of health.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God,
(15) Turned back, and with a loud voice.—The words imply that the work of healing was not accomplished till the company of lepers were at least out of sight.

And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.
(16) And he was a Samaritan.—As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, St. Luke’s purpose in the selection of the incident falls in with what may be called the Catholicity of his Gospel, the breaking down of every middle wall of partition that divided the Jew from the other nations of the world. As the narrative is peculiar to his record, we may reasonably believe that it was one of the facts with which he became acquainted in the course of his personal inquiries in Galilee and Samaria. It is significant, in this case, that the barrier had been already broken down for a time by the common pressure of calamity, but no enduring sense of fellowship had as yet taken its place. The nine would seem to have separated themselves from the Samaritan as soon as they were cleansed. Men want more than the “misery” which our common proverb associates with “strange” companions, before they learn the lesson of brotherhood in its fulness.

And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?
(17) Were there not ten cleansed?—There is, it is clear, a tone of mingled surprise, and grief, and indignation, in the question thus asked. Looking to the facts of the case, an ethical question of some difficulty presents itself. If the nine had had faith to be healed—and the fact that they were healed implies it—how was it that faith did not show itself further in gratitude and love? The answer is to be found in the analogous phenomena of the spiritual life which are found at times in cases that are as the cleansing of the soul’s leprosy. Men have the faith which justifies; they are pardoned, and they have the sense of freedom from the burden and the disease of sin, and yet their lives show no glow of loving gratitude. They shrink from fellowship with those who, having been sharers in the same blessing with themselves, are separated from them by outward lines of demarcation. We may, perhaps, think, without being over-bold, of the twelve disciples of the Baptist, who continued in their separatist life at Ephesus, without knowing the warmth and love and joy of the indwelling of the Spirit, as presenting such analogous phenomena. (See Notes on Acts 19:1-7.) The history of most churches or smaller religious societies, perhaps also that of most individual men, presents many more.

There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.
(18) Save this stranger.—The word for “stranger” means literally, a man of another race, an alien. It is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but is used in the LXX. of Isaiah 56:3. It was probably a term of contempt in common use among the Jews. (Comp. the kindred word “aliens,” with special reference to the Philistines, in Hebrews 11:34, and “one of another nation” in Acts 10:28.) It implied, as did the whole treatment of the Samaritans by the Jews. that the former were not recognised as being, in any sense, children of Abraham.

And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.
(19) Thy faith hath made thee whole.—The verb, elsewhere rendered, as in Luke 7:50, “hath saved thee,” is obviously used here so as to include both its higher and lower meanings. The nine had had sufficient faith for the restoration of the health of their body; his had gone further, and had given a new and purer life to his soul.

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
(20) When he was demanded of the Pharisees.—The question may have been asked in a different tone, by different classes of those who bore the common name of Pharisee. There were some who were really looking for the coming of the Messianic kingdom; there were some who altogether rejected the claim of Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ. In the lips of the one set, the question implied a taunt; in those of the other, something like impatience. The terms of the answer contain that which met both cases.

Cometh not with observation.—The English noun exactly answers to the meaning of the Greek, as meaning careful and anxious watching. There was, perhaps, a special force in the word, as referring to the two forms of “watching” of which our Lord had been the object. Some of the Pharisees had “observed” Him once and again with a purpose more or less hostile. (Comp. Luke 6:7; Luke 14:1; Mark 3:2; where the Greek verb is that from which the noun here used is derived.) Others were looking for some sign from heaven, to show that He was the promised Head of the Kingdom. They are told that when it comes it will not be in conjunction with any such “observation” of outward things; it would burst upon them suddenly. In the meantime they must look for the signs of its presence in quite another region. The marginal reading, “outward shew”—that which is subject to observation—though giving an adequate meaning, is rather a paraphrase than a translation.

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
(21) The kingdom of God is within you.—The marginal reading, “among you.” has been adopted, somewhat hastily, by most commentators. So taken. the words emphatically assert the actual presence of the Kingdom. It was already in the midst of them at the very time when they were asking when it would appear. The use of the Greek preposition is, however, all but decisive against this interpretation. It is employed for that which is “within,” as contrasted with that which is “without,” as in Matthew 23:26, and in the LXX. version for the “inward parts,” or spiritual nature of man, as contrasted with the outward, as in Psalm 103:1; Psalm 109:22; Isaiah 16:11. It was in that region, in the life which must be born again (John 3:3), that men were to look for the kingdom; and there, whether they accepted it or rejected it, they would find sufficient tokens of its power.

And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.
(22) When ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man.—The words express both the backward glance of regret, and the forward look of yearning expectation. The former feeling had been described before, when the disciples were told that the children of the bride-chamber should fast when the Bridegroom should be taken from them (Luke 5:34; Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19). The latter was expressed by-one of those who were now listening, when he spoke of men as “looking for and eagerly hasting” the coming of the day of God (2 Peter 3:12); by another, when he recorded the cry of the souls beneath the altar, “How long, O Lord?” (Revelation 6:10). It is, we must re member, the disciples, and not the Pharisees, who are now addressed. In the long, weary years of conflict that lay before them, they would often wish that they could be back again in the pleasant days of friendly converse in the old Galilean life, or that they could be carried forward to the day of the final victory. Analogous emotions of both kinds have, of course, been felt by the successors of the disciples in all ages of the Church. They ask, Why the former days were better than the latter? (Ecclesiastes 7:10); they ask also, in half-murmuring impatience, “Why tarry the wheels of His chariots?” (Judges 5:28); sometimes, even in the accents of unbelief, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:4).

And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them.
(23) See here; or, see there.—See Note on Matthew 24:23. The words are all but identical, but the difference in the context and the occasion should be noticed as another illustration of that reproduction of the same forms of thought and language to which attention has so often been called.

For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day.
(24) For as the lightning.—See Note on Matthew 24:27. There is, however, a noticeable variation in the form; the two “parts under heaven” taking the place of the “east” and the “west,” and the “day of the Son of Man” taking the place of the more formal “coming,” or parousia, which, as far as the Gospels are concerned, occurs only in St. Matthew. There is also, perhaps, more pictorial vividness in the two words, “lighteneth,” “shineth,” than in St. Matthew’s “cometh out,” and “appeareth,” which is probably the right rendering of the word there translated “shineth.” In any case, the words in St. Matthew are less vivid in their force.

But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.
(25) But first must he suffer many things.—See Notes on Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22. The interposition of this prophecy of the Passion in a discourse which bears primarily on the Second Advent is an individualising feature of this record of St. Luke’s.

And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.
(26) As it was in the days of Noe.—See Notes on Matthew 24:26-27. Here, also, the “days” of the Son of Man take the place of the parousia.

They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.
(27) They did eat, they drank.—Better, as in St. Matthew, they were eating and drinking, marrying, . . .; the tense throughout being that which implies continuous and repeated action.

The flood.—The Greek word is always used in the New Testament for the deluge of Noah, that meaning having been stamped on it by the use of it in the LXX. version in Genesis 6:17; Genesis 7:6-7; Genesis 7:10; Genesis 7:17.

Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
(28) Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot.—The illustration does not occur in the otherwise parallel passage of Matthew 24:26-27, but was naturally suggested by our Lord’s frequent reference to the Cities of the Plain (Luke 10:12; Matthew 10:15; Matthew 11:23); The allusion to Lot in 2 Peter 2:7, may perhaps be traced to the impression made on the Apostle by this revival of the history.

They bought, they sold.—As in the preceding verse, the imperfect tense is used, they were buying, they were selling. There is a characteristic difference in the insertion of these verbs and the two which follow, as indicating a higher advance in social life than in the days of Noah.

But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
(29) It rained fire and brimstone.—The combination of the two Greek words is found in the LXX. version of Genesis 19:24, and obviously suggested the like combination here and in Revelation 14:10; Revelation 20:13; Revelation 21:8.

Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.
(31) He which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff.—Better, his goods, as in Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:27. (See Notes on Matthew 24:17-18.)

Remember Lot's wife.
(32) Remember Lot’s wife.—The reference to this, as to the history of Lot generally, is peculiar to St. Luke, and speaks strongly for the independence of his Gospel. The account of Lot’s wife had, however, already been used, or was used shortly afterwards (the date of the Wisdom of Solomon being an unsettled problem), to point a like moral, and the “standing pillar of salt” had become “a monument of an unbelieving soul” (Wisdom Of Solomon 10:7). She had looked back, as the disciples were told not to look, and the glance had been fatal (Genesis 19:26).

Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
(33) Whosoever shall seek to save his life.—The better MSS. give a word which is rendered elsewhere by “purchase” (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:13), and perhaps always suggests, as the other word for “save” does not suggest, the idea of some transaction of the kind. So here, the man must purchase, as it were, his lower life at the price of the higher, and he will be a loser by the bargain.

Shall preserve it.—Here, again, the English verb is weak. Better, shall give life to it. The same Greek word occurs in the better MSS. of 1 Timothy 6:13, and is there rendered by “quicken,” and in its passive form in Acts 7:49, where it should be translated preserved alive, and this is clearly the meaning here. The man who is content to risk his natural life shall gain a life of a higher spiritual order.

I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
(34, 35) Two men in one bed.—See Notes on Matthew 24:40-41. The one to be “taken” is probably here, as there, the man who is rescued from destruction. Here there is a variation enough to prove independence, the “two in one bed” being prefixed to the examples given in St. Matthew as an instance of even closer companionship.

Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.
(37) Where, Lord?—The question comes in naturally here, where the future had been foreshadowed in parables and dark sayings. It would not have been natural in Matthew 24:28, where the whole context determined the locality of which our Lord was speaking.

Wheresoever the body is.—See Note on Matthew 24:28, the only variation being the use of “body” instead of “carcase.” The repetition of the half-proverbial saying at a later period indicates its importance as a law of God’s government. Men ask where His judgments fall, and the answer is that they fall wherever they are needed.

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