Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Luke 17:5-10




These verses are composed of four apparently unrelated sayings, but Luke weaves them together in a natural flow:

• First, Jesus deals with the problem of temptation—”occasions of stumbling” (vv. 1-2). This could include any number of stumbling blocks to faith: Hireling shepherds (John 10), sexual or financial sins on the part of the clergy, persecution, false teaching, behavior by established believers that could be misinterpreted by newer believers to their detriment (1 Corinthians 10) (Stein, 431). The penalty for such misconduct, Jesus says, is worse than sudden death.

• Second, Jesus balances judgment with grace by addressing the way that we should deal with people who hurt us. We are to rebuke the offender and, if there is repentance, we must forgive. The requirement for forgiveness is absolute, even if the offender repeats the offense and the plea seven times a day (vv. 3-4). Earlier, Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (11:4). We are in frequent need of being forgiven, so we need to forgive frequently.

• Third, the disciples, sobered by these requirements, ask Jesus for the faith required to meet them. Jesus does not respond by dispensing faith on the spot, but instead tells them about the power of faith, even a very little faith (vv. 5-6).

• Finally, Jesus tells a parable that helps the disciples to understand their high calling. Expectations are high. Nothing that we do can be considered to be above and beyond the call of duty (vv. 7-10).


5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” 6The Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you would tell this sycamore tree (Greek: sukamino), ‘Be uprooted, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

“Increase our faith” (v. 5). The demands of verses 1-4 are harsh, and the disciples wonder how they can ever meet them. They recognize faith as a gift from God, and ask, “Increase our faith!” They can ask for faith; they can prepare themselves to receive it; but it is God’s to give.

In this Gospel, faith has been mentioned only five times so far (5:20; 7:9, 50; 8:25, 48). These all relate faith to faithful behavior, so these disciples might be asking Jesus to help them to remain faithful (Green, 613).

“If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed” (v. 6a). The mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds. Jesus chooses this tiny seed to set up a contrast with the large sukamino tree—engaging in hyperbole to demonstrate the great power of even the smallest bit of faith. It is the same kind of exaggerated language that he will use later to describe a camel going through the eye of a needle (18:25).

Is Jesus suggesting that the disciples have the required faith or not? Some scholars believe that Jesus is affirming the disciples’ faith, while others believe that his words constitute a rebuke to disciples for their lack of faith. In the parallel story in Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples failed to heal an epileptic boy, and Jesus says that their failure was one of faith (Matthew 17:20). Since Luke leaves the matter of the disciples’ faith unsettled, we should probably let Matthew settle it for us. If we do that, Jesus means, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed—which you do not yet have….” The time will come, however—after the resurrection—when they do have such faith.

But the required faith is faith in God—not faith in self or money or weapons or raw power or people. The power behind the faith that Jesus mentions here is God’s power, and it is faith in God that allows us to appropriate that power.

“you would tell this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (v. 6b). Matthew’s version, the more familiar one, speaks of moving a mountain instead of uprooting a tree. In Luke’s version, Jesus speaks of uprooting a sukamino tree—probably a large mulberry tree—and planting it in the sea. The point is that faith, even in small quantities, has great power. The person of faith taps into God’s power, which makes all things possible—even moving trees (difficult) and causing them to grow in saltwater (impossible). It is not our faith that works these wonders, but the God who stands behind our faith. Our faith, then, is like the thousand-dollar bill printed on paper worth only a penny. Such a bill has value only as it is backed by the full faith and credit of the government. So also our faith has value only because God blesses faith and empowers the faithful.

Jesus will nudge the disciples along one small step at a time—but only after the resurrection will they have great faith and great power.

How, then, do we get this powerful faith?

• The disciples had it right; faith is the gift of God, so we can pray that God will increase our faith. Time spent in prayer is fundamental to faith development—but there are also other things that we can do to cooperate with God, who wants to increase our faith.

• Association with people of faith builds faith, so our participation in the worship and life of the church is important.

• The scriptures inform and correct our faith. Without the guidance of the scriptures, we tend to have faith in something smaller than God—money, a charismatic person, the government—something that will ultimately disappoint us. The scriptures keep drawing us to God so that we can develop the kind of powerful faith of which Jesus speaks here.

• We grow in faith as we act in faith. Every gift of God is strengthened by the exercise of it, and this is true of faith. One word of caution: Just as the ordinary foot soldier sees too little to know how well or badly the battle is going, the ordinary Christian also has limited vision. The early Christians who were dying on crosses alongside the roads or in the Coliseum were acting in faith, and some may have felt that God had betrayed their faith. We can now see that their blood was not shed in vain, but instead became the manure that promoted the church’s strong growth. Faith means believing even when the outcome seems in doubt.


7“But who is there among you, having a servant (Greek: doulon—servant or slave) plowing or keeping sheep, that will say, when he comes in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down at the table,’ 8and will not rather tell him, ‘Prepare my supper, clothe yourself properly, and serve me, while I eat and drink. Afterward you shall eat and drink’? 9Does he thank that servant (Greek: me echei charin to doulo—surely he does not have gratitude or grace to the servant) because he did the things that were commanded? I think not. 10Even so you also, when you have done all the things that are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants. We have done our duty.'”

Next we have the Parable of the Under-Appreciated Servant (my title). The master has a servant or slave who works both in the fields and in the master’s house. It would seem fair after the servant has worked all day in the fields for the master to fix the servant’s dinner. Instead, the servant prepares the master’s dinner and cleans up the table. Only then does he tend to his own needs.

This parable is difficult for several reasons. First, it seems as if Jesus is approving slavery. Second, it seems uncaring and unfair. Third, it is not our experience. We are accustomed to rewarding faithful employees (or to being rewarded), lest they find a more generous employer (or lest we find another job).

This story, however, does not commend slavery any more than the Parable of the Good Samaritan commends robbery. It simply uses a situation common in Jesus’ day to illustrate a spiritual truth—that our relationship to God is based on grace rather than works (Culpepper, 323).

This is a hard but important reality for us to grasp. The Christian life is often difficult, and we are tempted to feel that God has abandoned us. Even Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). But once we have adopted “the attitude described in this parable we can meet the most severe temptations that come our way in our Christian work” (Wallace, 116).

We should also note that the Greek doulon or doulos can be translated servant or slave. Given our sensibilities regarding slavery, it would seem better to translate it “servant” here.

Jesus modeled the kind of servant-ministry to which he calls us. He came to earth, not in Rome, but in Palestine—not with a silver spoon in his mouth but with a feeding trough for his cradle—not in a time when he could address the world on television, but when communication was limited to the reach of his voice—not to sit on a throne, but to hang on a cross. If we have a quarrel with the demands of discipleship, we must address our objection to the one who has modeled the kind of sacrifice that he asks us to make.

Bailey notes a number of parallels between this parable and the Parable of the Watchful Slave, where the master serves slaves who have proven themselves faithful (12:35-40). The earlier parable has to do with Jesus’ Second Coming, but the current parable has Jesus already present among his believers. It calls believers to focus on serving Jesus today rather than inheriting a spiritual reward at the end of time (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 119).

“Does he thank that servant” (me echei charin to doulo—surely he does not have gratitude or grace to the servant) (v. 9). In Luke’s Gospel the word charin or charis usually has to do “with credit (6:32-34) and favor (1:30)” (Bailey, 121). The issue, then, is whether the master is indebted to his servant for carrying out the master’s orders. This rhetorical question anticipates the response, “No! Of course not!” (Bailey, 122).

The point is NOT that God does not reward obedience, but that our obedience never puts God in our debt. Our salvation is therefore always dependent on God’s grace (God’s undeserved favor—God’s gift). We stand in need of grace every day. We would be supremely foolish to stand before God at Judgment Day and request to be judged on the basis of justice instead of grace.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Wallace, Ronald S., Many Things in Parables: Expository Studies (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1955)

Wright, Stephen I., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)

Copyright 2004, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan