Luke 17
MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!
Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.


Luke 17:9 - Luke 17:10

There are two difficulties about these words. One is their apparent entire want of connection with what precedes-viz., the disciples’ prayer, ‘Lord, increase our faith,’ and the other is the harshness and severity of tone which marks them, and the view of the less attractive side of man’s relation to God which is thrown into prominence in them. He must be a very churlish master who never says ‘Thank you,’ however faithful his servant’s obedience may be. And he must be a very inconsiderate master, who has only another kind of duty to lay upon the shoulders of the servant that has come in after a long day’s ploughing and feeding of cattle. Perhaps, however, the one difficulty clears away the other, and if we keep firm hold of the thought that the words of my text, and those which are associated with them, are an answer to the prayer, ‘Lord, increase our faith,’ the stern and somewhat repelling characteristics of the words may somewhat change.

I. So I look, first, at the husk of apparent harshness and severity.

The relation between master and hired servant is not the one that is in view, but the relation between a master and the slave who is his property, who has no rights, who has no possessions, whose life and death and everything connected with him are at the absolute disposal of his master. It is a foul and wicked relation when existing between men, and it has been full of cruelty and atrocities. But Jesus Christ lays His hand upon it, and says, ‘That is the relation between men and God; that is the relation between men and Me.’

And what is involved therein? Absolute authority; so that the slave is but, as it were, an animated instrument in the hand of the master, with no will of his own, and no rights and no possessions. That is not all of our relation to God, blessed be His Name! But that is in our relation to Him, and the highest title that a man can have is the title which the Apostles in after days bound upon their foreheads as a crown of honour-’A slave of Jesus Christ.’

Then, if that relation is laid as being the basis of all our connection with God, whatever else there may be also involved, these two things which in the human relation are ugly and inconsiderate, and argue a very churlish and selfish nature on the part of the human master, belong essentially to our relation to God. ‘Which of you, having a servant, ploughing or feeding cattle, will say unto him . . . when he has come from the field, Go {immediately} and sit down to meat, 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?’ You will get your supper by-and-by, but you are here to work, says the master, and when you have finished one task, that does not involve that you are to rest; it involves only that you are to take up another. And however wearisome has been the ploughing amongst the heavy clods all day long, and tramping up and down the furrows, when you come in you are to clean yourself up, and get my supper ready, ‘and afterward thou shalt eat and drink.’

As I have said, such a speech would argue a harsh human master, but is there not a truth which is not harsh in it in reference to us and God? Duty never ends. The eternal persistence through life of the obligation to service is what is taught us here, as being inherent in the very relation between the Lord and Owner of us all and us His slaves. Moralists and irreligious teachers say grand things about the eternal sweep of the great law of duty. The Christian thought is the higher one, ‘Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid Thine hand upon me,’ and wherever I am I am under obligation to serve Thee, and no past record of work absolves me from the work of the present. From the cradle to the grave I walk beneath an all-encompassing, overarching firmament of duty. As long as we draw breath we are bound to the service of Him whose slaves we are, and whose service is perfect freedom.

Such is the bearing of this apparently repulsive representation of our text, which is not so repulsive if you come to think about it. It does not in the least set aside the natural craving for recreation and relaxation and repose. It does not overlook God’s obligation to keep His slave alive, and in good condition for doing His work, by bestowing upon him the things that are needful for him, but it does meet that temptation which comes to us all to take that rest which circumstances may make manifestly not God’s will, and it says to us, ‘Forget the things that are behind, and reach forth unto the things that are before.’ You have done a long day’s work with plough or sheep-crook. The reward for work is more work. Come away indoors now, and nearer the Master, prepare His table. ‘Which of you, having a servant, will not do so with him?’ And that is how He does with us.

Then, the next thought here, which, as I say, has a harsh exterior, and a bitter rind, is that one of the slave doing his work, and never getting so much as ‘thank you’ for it. But if you lift this interpretation too, into the higher region of the relation between God and His slaves down here, a great deal of the harshness drops away. For what does it come to? Just to this, that no man among us, by any amount or completeness of obedience to the will of God establishes claims on God for a reward. You have done your duty-so much the better for you, but is that any reason why you should be decorated and honoured for doing it? You have done no more than your duty. ‘So, likewise, ye, when ye have done all things that are commanded you’-even if that impossible condition were to be realised-’say we are unprofitable servants’; not in the bad sense in which the word is sometimes used, but in the accurate sense of not having brought any profit or advantage, more than was His before, to the Master whom we have thus served. It is a blessed thing for a man to call himself an unprofitable servant; it is an awful thing for the Master to call him one. If we say ‘we are unprofitable servants,’ we shall be likely to escape the solemn words from the Lord’s lips: ‘Take ye away the unprofitable servant, and cast him into outer darkness.’ There are two that may use the word, Christ the Judge, and man the judged, and if the man will use it, Christ will not. ‘If we judge ourselves we shall not be judged.’

Now, although, as I have said about the other part of this text, it is not meant to exhaust our relations to God, or to say the all-comprehensive word about the relation of obedience to blessedness; it is meant to say

‘Merit lives from man to man,

And not from man, O Lord! to Thee.’

No one can reasonably build upon his own obedience, or his own work, nor claim as by right, for reward, heaven or other good. So my text is the anticipation of Paul’s teaching about the impossibility of a man’s being saved by his works, and it cuts up by the root, not only the teaching as to a treasure of ‘merits of the saints,’ and ‘works of supererogation,’ and the like; but it tells us, too, that we must beware of the germs of that self-complacent way of looking at ourselves and our own obedience, as if they had anything at all to do with our buying either the favour of God, or the rewards of the faithful servant.

II. Now, all that I have been saying may sound very harsh. Let us take a second step, and try if we can find out the kernel of grace in the harsh husk.

I hold fast by the one clue that Jesus Christ is here replying to the Apostle’s prayer, ‘Lord, increase our faith.’ He had been laying down some very hard regulations for their conduct, and, naturally, when they felt how difficult it would be to come within a thousand miles of what He had been bidding them, they turned to Him with that prayer. It suggests that faith is there, in living operation, or they would not have prayed to Him for its increase. And how does He go about the work of increasing it? In two ways, one of which does not enter into my present subject. First, by showing the disciples the power of faith, in order to stimulate them to greater effort for its possession. He promised that they might say to the fig tree, ‘Be thou plucked up and planted in the sea,’ and it should obey them. The second way was by this context of which I am speaking now. How does it bear upon the Apostles’ prayer? What is there in this teaching about the slave and his master, and the slave’s work, and the incompatibility of the notion of reward with the slave’s service, to help to strengthen faith? There is this that this teaching beats down every trace of self-confidence, and if we take it in and live by it, makes us all feel that we stand before God, whatever have been our deeds of service, with no claims arising from any virtue or righteousness of our own. We come empty-handed. If the servant who has done all that is commanded has yet to say, ‘I can ask nothing from Thee, because I have done it, for it was all in the line of my duty,’ what are we to say, who have done so little that was commanded, and so much that was forbidden?

So, you see, the way to increased faith is not by any magical communication from Christ, as the Apostles thought, but by taking into our hearts, and making operative in our lives, the great truth that in us there is nothing that can make a claim upon God, and that we must cast ourselves, as deserving nothing, wholly into His merciful hands, and find ourselves held up by His great unmerited love. Get the bitter poison root of self-trust out of you, and then there is some chance of getting the wholesome emotion of absolute reliance on Him into you. Jesus Christ, if I might use a homely metaphor, in these words pricks the bladder of self-confidence which we are apt to use to keep our heads above water. And it is only when it is pricked, and we, like the Apostle, feel ourselves beginning to sink, that we fling out a hand to Him, and clutch at His outstretched hand, and cry, ‘Lord, save me, I perish!’ One way to increase our faith is to be rooted and grounded in the assurance that duty is perennial, and that our own righteousness establishes no claim whatever upon God.

III. Finally, we note the higher view into which, by faith, we come.

I have been saying, with perhaps vain repetition, that the words of our text and context do not exhaust the whole truth of man’s relation to God. They do exhaust the truth of the relation of God to any man that has not faith in his heart, because such a man is a slave in the worst sense, and any obedience that he renders to God’s will externally is the obedience of a reluctant will, and is hard and harsh, and there is no end to it, and no good from it. But if we accept the position, and recognise our own impotence, and non-desert, and humbly say, ‘Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but by His mercy He saves us,’ then we come into a large place. The relation of master and slave does not cover all the ground then. ‘Henceforth, I call you not slaves, but friends,’ And when the wearied slave comes into the house, the new task is not a new burden, for he is a son as well as a slave; but the work is a delight, and it is a joy to have something more to do for his Father. If our service is the service of sons, sweetened by love, then there will be abundant thanks from the Father, who is not only our owner, but our lover.

For Christian service-that is to say, service based upon faith and rendered in love-does minister delight to our Father in heaven, and He Himself has called it an ‘odour of a sweet smell, acceptable unto God.’ And if our service on earth has been thus elevated and transformed from the compulsory obedience of a slave to the joyful service of a son, then our reception when at sundown the plough is left in the furrow and we come into the house will be all changed too. ‘Which of you, having a servant, will say to him, Go and sit down to meat, and will not rather say to him, Make ready whilst I eat and drink?’ That is the law for earth, but for heaven it is this, ‘Blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He cometh, shall find watching. Verily, I say unto you, that He shall gird Himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.’ The husk is gone now, I think, and the kernel is left. Loving service is beloved by God, and rewarded by the ministering, as a servant of servants, to us by Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

‘Lord, increase our faith,’ that we may so serve Thee on earth, and so be served by Thee in heaven.

And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.


Luke 17:11 - Luke 17:19

The melancholy group of lepers, met with in one of the villages on the borders of Samaria and Galilee, was made up of Samaritans and Jews, in what proportion we do not know. The common misery drove them together, in spite of racial hatred, as, in a flood, wolves and sheep will huddle close on a bit of high ground. Perhaps they had met in order to appeal to Jesus, thinking to move Him by their aggregated wretchedness; or possibly they were permanently segregated from others, and united in a hideous fellowship.

I. We note the lepers’ cry and the Lord’s strange reply.

Of course they had to stand afar off, and the distance prescribed by law obliged them to cry aloud, though it must have been an effort, for one symptom of leprosy is a hoarse whisper. Sore need can momentarily give strange physical power. Their cry indicates some knowledge. They knew the Lord’s name, and had dim notions of His authority, for He is addressed as Jesus and as Master. They knew that He had power to heal, and they hoped that He had ‘mercy,’ which they might win for themselves by entreaty. There was the germ of trust in the cry forced from them by desperate need. But their conceptions of Him, and their consciousness of their own necessities, did not rise above the purely physical region, and He was nothing to them but a healer.

Still, low and rude as their notions were, they did present a point of contact for Christ’s ‘mercy,’ which is ever ready to flow into every heart that is lowly, as water will into all low levels. Jesus seems to have gone near to the lepers, for it was ‘when He saw,’ not when He heard, them that He spoke. It did not become Him to ‘cry, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street,’ nor would He cure as from afar, but He approaches those whom He heals, that they may see His face, and learn by it His compassion and love. His command recognised and honoured the law, but its main purpose, no doubt, was to test, and thereby to strengthen, the leper’s trust. To set out to the priest while they felt themselves full of leprosy would seem absurd, unless they believed that Jesus could and would heal them. He gives no promise to heal, but asks for reliance on an implied promise. He has not a syllable of sympathy; His tender compassion is carefully covered up. He shuts down, as it were, the lantern-slide, and not a ray gets through. But the light was behind the screen all the while. We, too, have sometimes to act on the assumption that Jesus has granted our desires, even while we are not conscious that it is so. We, too, have sometimes to set out, as it were, for the priests, while we still feel the leprosy.

II. We note the healing granted to obedient faith.

The whole ten set off at once. They had got all they wanted from the Lord, and had no more thought about Him. So they turned their backs on Him. How strange it must have been to feel, as they went along, the gradual creeping of soundness into their bones! How much more confidently they must have stepped out, as the glow of returning health asserted itself more and more! The cure is a transcendent, though veiled, manifestation of Christ’s power; for it is wrought at a distance, without even a word, and with no vehicle. It is simply the silent forth-putting of His power. ‘He spake, and it was done’ is much, for only a word which is divine can affect matter. But ‘He willed, and it was done,’ is even more.

III. We note the solitary instance of thankfulness.

The nine might have said, ‘We are doing what the Healer bade us do; to go back to Him would be disobedience.’ But a grateful heart knows that to express its gratitude is the highest duty, and is necessary for its own relief. How like us all it is to hurry away clutching our blessings, and never cast back a thought to the giver! This leper’s voice had returned to Him, and his ‘loud’ acknowledgments were very different from the strained croak of his petition for healing. He knew that he had two to thank-God and Jesus; he did not know that these two were one. His healing has brought him much nearer Jesus than before, and now he can fall at His feet. Thankfulness knits us to Jesus with a blessed bond. Nothing is so sweet to a loving heart as to pour itself out in thanks to Him.

‘And he was a Samaritan.’ That may be Luke’s main reason for telling the story, for it corresponds to the universalistic tendency of his Gospel. But may we not learn the lesson that the common human virtues are often found abundantly in nations and individuals against whom we are apt to be deeply prejudiced? And may we not learn another lesson-that heretics and heathen may often teach orthodox believers lessons, not only of courtesy and gratitude, but of higher things? A heathen is not seldom more sensitive to the beauty of Christ, and more touched by the story of His sacrifice, than we who have heard of Him all our days.

IV. We note Christ’s sad wonder at man’s ingratitude and joyful recognition of ‘this stranger’s’ thankfulness.

A tone of surprise as well as of sadness can be detected in the pathetic double questions. ‘Were not the ten’-all of them, the ten who stood there but a minute since-’cleansed? but where are the nine?’ Gone off with their gift, and with no spark of thankfulness in their selfish hearts. ‘Were there none found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger?’ The numbers of the thankless far surpass those of the thankful. The fewness of the latter surprises and saddens Jesus still. Even a dog knows and will lick the hand that feeds it, but ‘Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider.’ We increase the sweetness of our gifts by thankfulness for them. We taste them twice when we ruminate on them in gratitude. They live after their death when we bless God and thank Jesus for them all. We impoverish ourselves still more than we dishonour Him by the ingratitude which is so crying a fault. One sorrow hides many joys. A single crumpled rose-leaf made the fairy princess’s bed uncomfortable. Some of us can see no blue in our sky if one small cloud is there. Both in regard to earthly and spiritual blessings we are all sinners by unthankfulness, and we all lose much thereby.

Jesus rejoiced over ‘this stranger,’ and gave him a greater gift at last than he had received when the leprosy was cleared from his flesh. Christ’s raising of him up, and sending him on his way to resume his interrupted journey to the priest, was but a prelude to ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole,’ or, as the Revised Version margin reads, ‘saved thee.’ Surely we may take that word in its deepest meaning, and believe that a more fatal leprosy melted out of this man’s spirit, and that the faith which had begun in a confidence that Jesus could heal, and had been increased by obedience to the command which tried it, and had become more awed and enlightened by experience of bodily healing, and been deepened by finding a tongue to express itself in thankfulness, rose at last to such apprehension of Jesus, and such clinging to Him in grateful love, as availed to save ‘this stranger’ with a salvation that healed his spirit, and was perfected when the once leprous body was left behind, to crumble into dust.

Expositions Of Holy Scripture, Alexander MacLaren

Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

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