By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Many vivid images are squeezed into this week’s Gospel passage from Luke (17.5-10), including one of the oddest in all the gospels: a tree being “planted” in the sea. Understanding this puzzling passage is even more challenging because the lectionary cuts it out of context. We need to start by taking a step back to listen to what’s going on at this point in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
Throughout the unit from 15.1-17.20, Luke uses the Pharisees as his foil. Previously, we saw them objecting to Jesus’ table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” (15.1-2), which led to the twice-told parable of the “lost” and “found.” Jesus then turns to the disciples to tell the story of the dishonest manager (16.1-8), as an object lesson in how to use an unjust economic order against itself. Jesus then offers a brief commentary on the story that leads to the famous injunction, “No slave can serve two lords; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (16.13). The Pharisees’ response is to “turn up their noses” (Gk, exemuktērizon) at him, because, in Luke’s unique description, they are “silver lovers” (Gk, philarguroi). While there is no historical evidence to suggest that the real Pharisees were particularly greedy or money-focused, Luke is using them as a stand-in for the elite “friends” of his audience. The idea that money isn’t at the heart of power and status seems as ridiculous to today’s “successful” elite as it did in Luke’s time.
The narrative quickly moves to Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, plainly directed at the Pharisees. Among the many powerful aspects of this tale of the divinely rejected rich and the divinely embraced poor is the ending: if people have not made the biblical narrative of the “religion of creation” the heart of their life’s discernment, they will not be convinced by resurrection. Jesus’ admonition echoes many prophetic calls for covenant faithfulness, none more than Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In other words, if the Pharisees—or anyone else—sought to live by the Creator’s covenant, they would not be surprised by the consequences of divine justice.
It is in this context that Jesus turns to his disciples at the start of Luke 17. Thus, the key to understanding what Jesus proceeds to say is the lingering image of the impossibility of obeying “two lords.” The cause of “stumbling” or “scandal” (17.1: Gk, skandala) is the same as that of “sin” (17.3): self-aggrandizement or teaching others that this is the “way” of Jesus.
As we listen to the entire opening section of Luke 17, therefore, we hear contrasting prospects of ending up in deep water. First, Jesus solemnly warns the disciples that being a cause of stumbling to “these little ones” is worse than “if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” A few verses later (within the lectionary passage), Jesus tells the apostles that if they had mustard seed sized faith, they “could say to this mulberry tree (Gk, sukaminō), ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” What will it be, Jesus followers? Be bound with a stone and drowned in the sea, or uproot a tree and see it “planted” in the sea?
What holds this section of the narrative together is the necessity of maintaining one’s commitment to the Way of radical discipleship, despite the ridicule of others and the occasions in which one stumbles on the path. Mutual rebuke, repentance (Gk, metanoia, recalling 3.3-14) and endless forgiveness are the means by which a discipleship community can overcome the countless obstacles placed on the road by the incorporation of imperial propaganda into one’s self. At the beginning of the Travel Narrative (Lk 9.51), Jesus rejected those who would commit to following him only after they had taken care of obligations laid on them by custom and the demands of the dominant culture. Later, he warned against those who would start but had not counted the cost of discipleship (14.26-35). Now, with Jericho practically in sight and Jerusalem in the near distance, Jesus turns to his disciples to strengthen them for practicing their faith for the long haul. They must avoid scandalizing “little ones” with “prosperity gospel” narratives and must be ready to help those who have fallen to get up and continue on the Way.
Who are the “little ones” (Gk, tōn mikrōn) with whom Jesus is so concerned here? While the word mikros can refer to any “small” thing, Luke’s usage points us in a specific direction. Earlier, Jesus proclaimed—in the face of the Pharisees’ rejection “of God’s purpose for themselves” (7.28-30)—that “…among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least (Gk, mikroteros) in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” A bit later, he adds, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least (Gk, mikroteros) among all of you is the greatest” (9.48). Thus, the “little ones” are those who are the “great” in God’s realm. That is, they are “humble” in the sense of close to the humus, the fertile ground, and thus “great” in God’s sight (see 14.11; 18.14).
Believing into such a Way indeed requires deep and abiding trust in the goodness and abundance of creation and the desire of the Creator to provide, like a good parent, just what children need (11.13). So, it is fitting that this is what the apostles seek from the “Lord” by their demand: “Increase our faith!” (17.5). Luke takes Mark’s image of the power of faith (Mk 11.23) and transforms it. In Mark, the narrative context is after Peter has perceived that the “fig tree” that Jesus had cursed just outside Jerusalem was now withered to the roots. Jesus replies: “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” In Luke, however, we are not yet in Jerusalem and the temple/mountain is not yet in sight. Instead, Luke’s Jesus proclaims that a mustard seed-sized faith can tell a tree to be “planted in the sea”. What is going on here?
The key to unraveling the odd image is the connection of the “little ones” and the specific kind of tree. What NRSV calls in Luke 17 a “mulberry tree” (Gk, sukaminō) is called at 19.4 a “sycamore” (sukomorean) This unhelpfully prevents us from hearing that they are the same kind of tree. As our friend from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, Jeff Dietrich, wrote many years ago, the tree in question was also known as a “false fig” tree: it looks from a distance to be fruitful and delicious, but in fact, offers meager fare that only the poor would choose to eat. In the latter context, it is a tree that a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus climbs in order to see Jesus, because he is hēlikia mikros (19.3). The term hēlikia can refer either to stature (i.e., physical height) or status. While the context implies that it is because Zacchaeus is height-challenged that he must climb a tree, Luke slyly also suggests that his wealth gained via imperial exploitation of the poor has resulted in his small status as well. In either case, Zacchaeus is a “little one,” in both these senses but more importantly in the sense that he repents of his economic injustice and seeks to make reparations. This leads Jesus to proclaim his house a place of “salvation” and Zacchaeus a “son of Abraham,” recalling the initial call of John the Baptist (3.8) and the consoling locale of Lazarus (16.22-30).
Returning to our passage, we can now hear that Jesus teaches his followers that a mustard seed-sized faith could remove the offer of false hope for the poor provided by imperial patronage, so that the true hope of the fulfillment of jubilee can become the Way disciples walk. The humorous and absurd image of the tree being “planted” in the sea perhaps recalls Pharaoh’s army rushing headlong to destruction in the sea (Ex 14). The link comes via Luke’s other use of the mustard seed image: “What is the reign of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Lk 13.18). The image of the “great tree” in which the “birds of the air” find a home was part of a standard imperial trope subverted by prophets (e.g., Ezek 31, a specific comparison with pharaoh) and apocalyptic visionaries (e.g., Dan 2.38; 4.10-22). That is, the vision imperial kings had of themselves sitting above it all in the treetops is confronted by counter-visions of the tree being cut down. Whereas Daniel’s vision contains a command to cut down the tree but to leave its stump and roots in the ground (Dan 4.14-15), Luke’s Jesus tells his followers that their faith will “uproot” (Gk, ekrizōtheti) the tree so that it can be re-planted in a place that both removes it as an obstacle on the Way and assures its lack of future fertility.
This much gets us through the first two verses of this week’s Gospel, but there is more. Jesus now shifts the metaphor from trees to slaves. At first glance, his analogy of a slave serving his lord seems both a non sequitur and a direct contradiction of his earlier word. Let’s listen:
Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their lord to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the lord finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. (Lk 12.35-37)
Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? (Lk 17.7-8)
As we wrote earlier in this series (see August 7), the first image is part of a passage seeking to inspire Luke’s elite audience to expansive table fellowship and servant leadership. Here, however, Luke has Jesus describe the “normal” lord/slave relationship to make a different point: to remind the apostles—i.e., those who would become known as “pillars” (see Gal 2.9)—that the power of their increased faith is not about them. This is an irony at the heart of Luke’s Gospel: the relinquishment of imperial power unleashes the greater power of God. Luke’s audience was formed deeply in Roman honor culture, where one would expect one’s public good deeds to be praised by throngs of clients and by inscription in marble. Even at the Last Supper, when Jesus has just warned them of a betrayer whose hand is on the table of fellowship, they are arguing about which one of them is the greatest (22.21-27). So, Luke works to hammer home this radically counter-cultural message: seeking to do God’s will is simply the expectation for disciples and is not a cause for self-promotion.
As a spiritual director, Sue well knows how such a message can be misused by those formed in “Christian duty.” Many people, imagining that faithful living is a series of tasks devoid of joy, carry out their daily work of discipleship with grim determination or even resentment. That is not Jesus’ message! As we hear in Acts 2.46, the presence of the Holy Spirit leads followers to practice their faith with “glad and generous hearts”. Luke began his Gospel with a promise of “joy and gladness” (Lk 1.14), a refrain which echoes throughout the narrative (1.44; 2.10; 6.23; 8.13; 10.17; 15.7; 24.41, 52). Jesus is not counseling joyless duty, but the surrender of what we’ve come to call ego gratification: clinging to one’s false self that demands public acknowledgement of one’s good works. This surrendered place is where God’s blessing is experienced: this is the reward for walking in the Way (cf. Luke’s Beatitudes, 6.20-23).
What imperial obstacles stand on our own path? How would a stronger trust in God’s abundance strengthen and empower us to uproot such obstacles and toss them into the sea? Whether it is the siren song of wealth and financial security or the need for personal praise that threatens to block our progress on the Way of Jesus, may we truly ask God for what we most need: the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit that “deep sixes” the way of empire.