Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Increasing Faith and Undeserving Slaves

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Luke 17:5-10, the Gospel reading for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary. This pericope begins with a request from the Apostles, but it also begins with verse 5 of the chapter. I suppose that the folks who composed the lectionary and the folks who first originally added verse distinctions to this text had different interpretations of whether vv. 1-4 are necessarily connected to vv.5ff.

Two interpretive questions strike me from the outset.
1. What is the relationship between the Apostles’ request of v.5 and the comments that precede it in vv.1-4? Vv.1-4 pose a bit of a challenge on their own. It is not clear what vv.1-2 have to do with vv.3-4.
2. What is the relationship between vv.5-6 and vv.7-10? Vv.5-6 are the Apostles’ request and Jesus’ immediate response. Vv.7-10 are a parable, which ends up with a “So also you …” comment.

I must admit that, after the three parables of lost things (sheep, coin, son) in c.15 – which seems obviously aimed at the Pharisees for grumbling that Jesus was eating with the “lost” – the next section of Luke (cc.16, 17, and the first 10 vv. of 18) seems hard to follow thematically. A friend of mine once imagined Luke with a desk full of post-it notes with stories, parables, and teachings that Luke intended to include in his gospel. My friend said that when Luke finished writing the gospel there were some leftover notes, so he went back and plugged them in as cc.16-18. That may sound far-fetched, but consider this: The New Revised Standard Translation subtitles 17:1-10 as “Some Sayings of Jesus.” I think that is another way of saying, “We don’t see how the post-it notes fit together either.”

5 Καὶ εἶπαν οἱ ἀπόστολοι τῷ κυρίῳ, Πρόσθες ἡμῖν πίστιν.
And the Apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Πρόσθες: AAImpv, 2s προστίθημι, 1) to put to  2) to add 
1. This seems an odd request, since the previous conversation has not included anything implying that the apostles lack enough faith. The last mention of faith in Luke’s story is back in c.8, when Jesus tells a woman who touched his garment, “Your faith has made you whole.” The last time Jesus says that the disciples lack faith is in that same chapter, when he calmed the raging sea and asked, “Where is your faith?” 
2. To me, our pericope feels as if it should follow the story of Jesus calming the raging sea (8:22-25). Not only is there the topic of adequate faith, but also the elements listening/obeying (v.6).
3. While I called the Apostles’ words a ‘request’ above, it is in the imperative voice, so it could read more like a command/demand. If we follow Boyer’s suggestion (see below*) we can hear the Apostles’ aorist imperative as wanting something in its entirety, as opposed to an ongoing process. “Increase our faith” would have a ‘right now’ sense, rather than a ‘daily’ sense. It might also carry a desperation sense, particularly following Jesus’ words about how one is to forgive an offender seven times a day. The Apostles’ use of the aorist imperative might carry the connotation of “Who can do such a thing? We need more faith!” 

 6 εἶπεν δὲ  κύριος, Εἰ ἔχετε πίστιν ὡς κόκκον σινάπεως, ἐλέγετε ἂν τῇ 
συκαμίνῳ [ταύτῃ], Ἐκριζώθητι καὶ φυτεύθητι ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ: καὶ 
ὑπήκουσεν ἂν ὑμῖν.
Yet the Lord said, “If you have faith as a seed of mustard, whenever you were saying to [this] sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; even then it would listen to you.” 
εἶπεν:  AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἔχετε : PAI 2pl, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἐλέγετε : IAI 2pl, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ἐκριζώθητι : APImpv, 2s, ἐκριζόω, 1) to root out, pluck up by the roots 
φυτεύθητι :APImpv, 2s, φυτεύω,  1) to plant  
ὑπήκουσεν : AAI 3s, ὑπακούω, 1) to listen, to harken ... 2a) to obey, be obedient to, submit to demand.
1. I am trying to capture the ἂν ... ἂν structure with “whenever ... even then”.
2. Passive imperatives are interesting things. I’m sure there’s something profound about them and I am relying on my text-friends to help me understand it. A person with grainy faith does not say to the tree, “Go plant yourself in the sea!” but says, “be uprooted” “be planted in the sea!” The actual agent of who is doing the uprooting and the planting seems implied or irrelevant.
3.  This being ‘plucked up’ and ‘being planted’ are reminiscent of Jeremiahs’ prophetic calling: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up (ἐκριζοῦν  in LXX) and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (κατα-φυτεύειν in LXX).’ (Jer.1:10). Are these words of Jesus an echo of that prophetic activity? Is that prophetic power what the Apostles are seeking?
4. Or, is Jesus contrasting the Apostles’ wrongful use of the imperative voice to him with a faithful use of the imperative voice to a sycamore tree? (The next story will call into question what a slave is entitled to expect from a master.)
5. More importantly, is Jesus rebutting the Apostles’ demand, or fulfilling it? Is this parabolic connection between faith and the mustard seed a way of saying, “Thanks for asking. Here is a parable that will increase your faith”? Or, it is a way of saying, “You have no idea what you are asking. You don’t need more faith, you need to realize the power of the faith that you have”? Should the “yet” (δὲ) have the sense of “But Jesus said …” or “So Jesus said …”?
6. I realize that I have “listen” for ὑπήκουσεν and every other translation known to the English speaking world has “obey.” I am trying to keep the sense of “hear” (ακούω) with the prefix “under” (ὑπω), which could imply something that is done secretively or at least in a hidden, non-obvious way.

 7 Τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν δοῦλον ἔχων ἀροτριῶντα  ποιμαίνοντα, ὃς εἰσελθόντι 
ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Εὐθέως παρελθὼν ἀνάπεσε,
Yet who among you having a slave plowing or shepherding, who having come in out of the field will say to him, ‘Having come beside, sit back at table immediately?’
ἔχων: PAPart, nms, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
ἀροτριῶντα : PAPart, ams,  plowing
ποιμαίνοντα: PAPart, ams, ποιμαίνω, 1) to feed, to tend a flock, keep sheep
εἰσελθόντι :AAPart, dms, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter
ἐρεῖ: FAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
παρελθὼν : AAPart, nms, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by 
ἀνάπεσε: AAImpv, 2s ἀναπίπτω, 1) to lie back, lie down  2) to recline at a table, to sit back

 8ἀλλ' οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω, καὶ περιζωσάμενος 
διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ;
Rather, will he not say to him, “Prepare something I may dine, and having girded yourself serve me so that I may eat and drink, and after these things you may help yourself eat and drink.   
ἐρεῖ : FAI 3s, λέγω 1) to say, to speak  (The NRSV makes this 2nd person, you)
Ἑτοίμασον : AAI 2s, ἑτοιμάζω, 1) to make ready, prepare  1a) to make the necessary preparations, get everything ready 
δειπνήσω: AASubj 1s, δειπνέω, 1) sup, to take the chief meal, to dine
περιζωσάμενος : AMPart, nms, περιζώννυμι, 1) to fasten garments with a girdle or belt  2) to gird one's self 
διακόνει: PAImpv 2s, διακονέω, 1) to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve,
φάγω: AASubj, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat 
πίω: AASubj, πίνω, 1) to drink 
φάγεσαι : FMI 2s, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat 
πίεσαι : FMI 2s, πίνω, 1) to drink 
1. The last ‘eat and drink’ are reflexive, so I added ‘help yourself’.

 9μὴ ἔχει χάριν τῷ δούλῳ ὅτι ἐποίησεν τὰ διαταχθέντα;
Does he have thanks to the slave that did the things that were ordered? 
Perhaps: ‘Isn’t it grace enough to expect a slave to have done what has been ordered?’
ἔχει : PAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold  
ἐποίησεν : AAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make 
διαταχθέντα: APPart, anpl, διατάσσω, 1) to arrange, appoint, ordain, prescribe, give order
1. I really disagree with the NRSV’s decision to make this 2nd person, “Do you not thank ...” instead of keeping the verb in the 3rd person. I realize that this whole set of questions was begun with “Who among you...” in v.7, but the verbs since then have been clearly 3rd person and that sets up the contrast to where the verbs become 2nd person in v.10.
2. Likewise, the verb here is not ‘to thank’ but ‘to have,’ followed by the object of the verb χάριν , which can mean ‘thanks’ but also could mean ‘grace.’ I guess ‘have thanks’ is too awkward for clarity’s sake.

 10οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ποιήσητε πάντα τὰ διαταχθέντα ὑμῖν, λέγετε ὅτι 
Δοῦλοι ἀχρεῖοί ἐσμεν,  ὠφείλομεν ποιῆσαι πεποιήκαμεν. 
Thus also you, when you might do all the things that have been ordered to you, say “We are undeserving slaves, that which we were obligated to do we have done.”
ποιήσητε : AASubj, 2pl, ποιέω, 1) to make 
διαταχθέντα : APPart, anpl, διατάσσω, 1) to arrange, appoint, ordain, prescribe, give order
λέγετε : PAImpv, 2pl, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐσμεν: PAI 1pl, εἰμί, 1) to be,
ὠφείλομεν : IAI 1pl, ὀφείλω, 1) to owe  1a) to owe money, be in debt for  1a1) that which is due, the debt  2) metaph. the goodwill due 
ποιῆσαι: AAInf, ποιέω, 1) to make, do 
πεποιήκαμεν: PerfAI, 1pl, ποιέω, 1) to make, do
1. One question for this verse is how to translate ἀχρεῖοί. Some of the definitions given are: ‘unprofitable’/‘worthless’, ‘of no use’/’useless’, or ‘not wanted’. It seems to me that the point is not that the slave has no value to the master, but that the slave has no reason to assume that she is entitled to eat as a reward for doing her/his obligatory service. Hence, I am saying ‘undeserving’ with respect to being served by the master.
2. A second question is how to employ ἀχρεῖοί. It could be a simple adjective, “worthless slaves” as I have it above. Or, since the main verb is a form of the verb ‘to be,’ it could be a nominative predicate, with Δοῦλοι the nominative subject, like “We slaves are worthless.” I don’t know if “We slaves” is a legitimate rendering for Greek. It sounds like my southern roots are showing.

The interpretive question for this text, it seems to me, is whether verses 5-6 are necessarily connected to verses 7-10 and, if so, what that connection is. If this is one connected pericope, then it might be that the “undeserving slaves” who have no reason to expect special treatment at the table are the Apostles, whose request for increased faith was wrongheaded. Since I don’t really get what, exactly, that request meant, perhaps it was an attempt to become ‘super disciples,’ to have an extra measure of faith in order to perform the kinds of things Jesus is able to do. The retort, then, would be, “Why do you think you deserve special treatment, simply because you have responded to the call that you were given?”

In addition, I can’t help but to hold this teaching in contrast with the words of Luke 14, “[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ (Food for thought.)

* Here is what James Boyer says about the use of the aorist imperative, as in v.5
“It is obvious that the distinction is not in the time of the action, for only in the indicative mood is time involved; all the other moods are future in time reference. Rather, the difference is in the way the speaker chooses to speak of the types of action. There are three basic kinds: (a) durative, continuing, repeated, or customary, expressed by the present tense; (b) simple action, "do it," expressed by the aorist tense; and (c) completed and lasting, expressed by the perfect tense. Major grammars are usually clear on these.
Thus the present imperative expresses a command or request that calls for action that is continuing or repeated, often general, universal, habitual; action that characterizes the doer. "Love one another" means, not "do something," but "always be doing things for one another." On the other hand, the aorist imperative is used to command or request an action that is specific and occasional, dealing with everyday procedural decisions, or in general admonitions simply to say, "Do it."
James Boyer, “A Classification of Imperatives: A Statistical Study” (Grace Theological Seminary, 1987).


  1. Thanks for sharing your work, Mark. Very helpful.

  2. Re: ἀχρεῖοί

    It may mean useless but only in a very narrow context. Have you never done a good deed or favor because it seemed the right(expected/courteous) thing to do and then said, "no problem" or "I'm glad to do it" in a show of, perhaps, false modesty? The implication, according to Thayer is it is meritorious only to go beyond the expected necessary action, suggesting perhaps the passages on forgive not once but 7 times seventy, or walk the extra mile?

  3. Somewhen along the line, I made a note that v. 6, rather than being a "conditional statement contrary to fact" (which is how the English-speaking world traditionally understands it), it is a "conditional statement according to fact." (This is penciled in the margin of my Greek Testament; I do not recall the source of this claim.) To illustrate/expand: "IF you have faith as small as a seed of mustard - AND YOU DO - whenever you were saying to this sycamine tree..." Hence the purpose is to encourage rather than chide. In the NIB commentary, Culpepper states, "The point is not that they need more faith; rather, they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person's life in ways that defy ordinary human experience." I find Culpepper's remarks in the "Reflection" section of the NIB helpful in perceiving a possible connection between vs. 5-6 and 7-10, as well: in sum, we can never exceed the requirements of discipleship, and it is only through faith that we can ever begin to approach what is expected of us. Our relationship with God is based not on our merit but on God's unmerited grace toward us. So your translation, "undeserving" (or the NIV's "unworthy"), seems to interpret the intent of the passage more clearly than the NRSV's "worthless". Mark, thanks for your work! ~Barry Rempp

  4. Is it possible that, in any given moment, trust is an either/or reality vs. an incremental one? Kierkegaard's sense of the greengrocer walking down the street, living in the eternal?

    1. Having come from a tradition where faith was a "crisis" experience - not so much as "in any given moment" but in terms of being able to name the moment one was 'converted' - I tend to shy away from either/or language. As captivated as I am by Kierkegaard's language, it does not resonate with me as powerfully as it seems to with him.
      I was trained to think that each of us has a "Saul on the road to Damascus" experience which begins our Christian journey. I have come to appreciate even more than "Ethiopian who was already readying the Bible" kind of experience, where there are evidences of significant faith already at work prior to his encounter with Philip and his subsequent baptism. That appreciation has caused me to re-evaluate Paul's experience, such as when Krister Stendahl says it is not a 'conversion' but a 'call' story.

  5. can you say more, Bill? are you maybe saying "faith is not quantitative, you either jump or you don't?"

    1. Hadn't seen the question previously. I think I'm considering faithfulness as an orientation in a given moment. As a combination of loyalty and trust, I'm being loyal and trusting towards something in most of my decisions. I may trust and be loyal to my economic well-being, or my physical security, or a relationship with another person. There are hierarchies of such things, with one being chosen over another when they come into conflict. But at bottom, there's a fundamental level of loyalty and trust towards something at the center of life. In any given moment, I may decide that is self-preservation (even though I know I'm going to die), or the protection of those around me (we call those folk 'heroes' in hard situations), or something else. The claim of the text is that Jesus as embodiment of the center of life is the appropriate object of loyalty and trust - even when that takes us away from self-preservation and preservation of systems that identify and sustain our primary groups. So we either are operating - in any given moment - from that primary loyalty and trust or from some other. Faith therefore happens in a moment - or it doesn't. It isn't a moralistic issue (you ought to do this) but an existential or phenomenological one. You're there or you aren't. It isn't magic, or something done in order to get something else (heaven or a star in one's crown). It happens often as a discovery that one was trusting in something false - an illusion - and in awakening to that fact, one may (or may not) embrace being embraced by reality.


  6. Mark Davis I rely heavily on you when it's my turn to teach! Can you tell me if there's some kind of significance that the text has been talking about "disciples" but now it calls them "apostles"? And Jesus goes from "Jesus" to "Lord".....curious.....

    1. Excellent questions, for which I have no answers. I suspect the answer would come from taking out a concordance and following patterns and contexts.

  7. I suspect the shift from Jesus/disciples to Lord/apostles has some significance (even if I don't know what that might be). An apostle is one sent with the authority of another; the 12 are authorised by the Lord. Later in Luke 22 (?) the apostles are are table, they argue about who is the greatest, and Jesus says he is among them as one who serves, and then tells them they will be kings of the twelve tribes. Maybe here too Jesus is teaching his apostles about service as much as anything. Care for the little ones who sin? They too are 'only' servants?

    I think the translation 'Increase our faith' is dubious. more literally, it's 'add faith to us' (dative; it can indicate possession but much more common is the genitive (v 19 pistis sou; is this story connected in some way?). I think they are demanding (?) that they be given faith as an additional. Jesus seems to ignore that and to remember that they have been commanded by their Lord to serve (the little ones?). No room for claiming privilege?

    yet another intriguing passage. makes preaching difficult, but that's healthy! Anonymously, Rick

  8. Fantastic post.

    Really enjoyed reading it and it held my attention all the way through! Keep it up.

    Read my Latest Post

  9. I'm drawn to to the way you've translated "faith as a seed of mustard". The Greek has no mentioned of comparison of size. I hadn't thought of that before. What if size/amount/quantity is not the issue? What if we look at the question as actually put by Jesus: What is the faith of the seed of mustard? What is is trusting? What is active? What is passive?

  10. Thanks for all of the comments. I've been most taken by the change between "Which of you have a servant" to "So also you, say, 'We are undeserving slaves.'" I wonder if the Apostles request for faith - given how powerful even a seed of faith can be! - is tantamount to a slave wanting to be served at the table. Perhaps the point is that they ought to have simply said, "Whatever it takes and whatever we can give with what we have is right and good" instead of "give us something we don't have" (or "give us more of something.")

  11. Some more questions rather than proposed answers: Why would anyone want to rip up a big tree and plant it in the sea? Is the Lord suggesting, with hyperbole, that what the apostles are asking for might in fact be damaging and destructive and non-productive? The 'Lord-apostles' change from 'Jesus-disciples' seems significant. Even then, they are told: 'I assign to you a kingdom so that you may eat and drink at my table in the kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel'.(Luke 22:29-30). Ironically, when they do sit at table with him ('and the apostles with him', 22:14), they argue about who's the greatest! The apostles in Acts also clearly have a status and authority not given to others. So, is the Lord actually rejecting their request for their faith to be added to? The servant parable is also addressed to the apostles (that is, to the Lord-authorised-called-commissioned ones in their community). Is it still in answer to their command for their faith to be added to? Is the Lord in both cases putting the apostles (again, = the church leaders) in their place. If they do what they are commanded to do ('commanded' in the sense of what is arranged/ organised/ designed), then they gain no merit, no charis (v 9; often it is an empowerment word).


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