Of Millstones and Mustard Seeds: Bock on Luke 17

"Magisterial" is perhaps not an exaggeration
“Magisterial” is perhaps not an exaggeration

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

–Luke 17:5-6 (NIV 2011)

This Sunday I’ll preach on the above verses, taken from the lectionary reading of Luke 17:5-10. The rest of the passage goes on:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

My first three questions of the text were as follows:

  1. How should I take Jesus’ statement about the mulberry tree? Should I really be trying to uproot trees (or move mountains, in a synoptic parallel)? Can I?
  2. What do verses 7-10 have to do with 5-6?
  3. What about Jesus as a servant? Is he here the one being served, and we are just dutiful servants, with no expectation of thanks or “well done” from God? 

Darrell L. Bock has spent some three decades in Luke and Acts. His two volumes on Luke top 2,000 pages in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT) series.  2,000+ pages of commentary on a single biblical book could just mean that a writer is in need of an editor. Not so here.

Bock incisively answers my above questions and more in his treatment of Luke 17. Here I’ll interact with his commentary on Luke 17:1-10 (focusing especially on vv. 5-10). This serves as part 3 of my review of the 15-volume Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT) series in Logos Bible Software (and focuses more specifically on commentary content). Part 1 of my review is here (commentary introduction, layout, setup in Logos on a computer); part 2 is here (navigating BECNT for Logos in iPad).

Bock in Logos
Bock in Logos (click to enlarge)

To the right is what the commentary looks like in Logos–you can navigate your way there via the table of contents (left sidebar) or by searching (also possible in iOS).

Bock sees the 10 verses as primarily consisting of four discrete units, and outlines it as follows:

1. Warning about false teaching (17:1–3a)

a. Woe to the one who entices others to sin (17:1)
b. Terrible fate of the tempter (17:2)
c. Call to watch (17:3a)

2. Instruction about confronting the sinner and forgiving the penitent (17:3b–4)

a. Rebuke the sinner (17:3b)
b. Forgive the penitent (17:3c)
c. Forgive again and again (17:4)

3. Exhortation to exercise even a little genuine faith (17:5–6)

a. Request for faith (17:5)
b. The power of a little genuine faith (17:6)

4. Parable of the dutiful servant (17:7–10)

a. The parable proper (17:7–9)
b. Application: we have only done our duty (17:10)

His first sentence in this section sets the passage in context right away: “Jesus turns from wealth in Luke 16 to a brief discussion of four discipleship characteristics in 17:1–10.” He goes on:

The passage is difficult to summarize because its unity is hard to determine. In fact, most hold that these are four unrelated teachings that Luke has brought together (Klostermann 1929: 170; Marshall 1978: 639–40; Fitzmyer 1985: 1136), an observation that seems likely.

I note that Bock interacts with and is not afraid of so-called critical scholarship. This is refreshing in an “evangelical” commentary. In fact, it seems that there’s not much literature on Luke with which Bock doesn’t interact. Regarding the passage’s structure he concludes:

Seen in this light, the unit functions much like a collection of proverbs, each addressing its own topic without a direct relationship to the other sayings. The common thread is that every point deals with the disciple’s walk.

There’s the answer to my second initial question of the passage (what verses 7-10 have to do with 5-6). Bock’s conclusions throughout the commentary are balanced, well-reasoned, fully thought out. His “Sources and Historicity” section on this passage interacts with the Jesus Seminar and the possibilities of source material. Not to mention the fact that this passage shares some common language (“mustard seed” and faith, for example) with the synoptics, while still being fairly different. “[T]o disentangle this tradition, given its confusion (i.e., its variety of expressions in the Gospels), makes any conclusion mere conjecture and renders tentative results at best.” A good, careful landing spot.

Ultimately, then, while Bock fairly cites those who disagree with him, “the passage is a collection of sayings.”

Bock’s own translation of Luke 17:5-10 follows the above considerations and precedes his comments on the text. This was one part of the passage that I took just a bit of issue with, since his translation was on the literal/wooden side. This is potentially helpful insofar as he stays closer to the Greek word order than the NIV and NRSV do, but as a translation, more fluidity could be desired:

Luke 17:7 (Bock): “Which of you, who has a servant who plows or shepherds, says to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit at the table?’
Luke 17:7 (NIV): “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?
Luke 17:7 (NRSV): “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’? 


Bock helped clear up a misconception (if he is right) that I’d had for a long time about 17:2 (the millstone verse):

The reference to “little ones” (μικρῶν, mikrōn) may allude to new disciples who need instruction….The reference to “little ones” need not be seen as a reference to children (Manson 1949: 138–39). The image is a tender way of saying that disciples need care and protection like a parent gives a child.

Looking at Luke 17:5, Bock explores the nature of the apostles’ request for faith. Were they asking for faith where they didn’t have it (“Give us faith”)? Or asking for more of what they already had (“Increase our faith”)? Looking at the Greek ποτιτίθημι Bock goes with “add.” And this is where as a preacher I particularly have been appreciating Bock. He moves smoothly from lexical analysis to so-called exegetical “payoff”:  “Jesus alters the request for more faith, speaking of ‘having’ faith. Faith’s presence is more crucial than its quantity. Jesus is essentially saying that God can do a lot with a little trust.” Further, the apostles “know that faith is not a moment, but a journey,” so they ask for strengthening in their faith.

What about my first question of the passage, regarding the faith required to re-plant a tree in the ocean?

The idea of planting (φυτεύω, phyteuō; BAGD 870; BAA 1735) a mulberry tree in the sea is a paradoxical image similar to that of a camel going through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25 = Matt. 19:24 = Luke 18:25). It is designed to graphically and hyperbolically illustrate that faith can do the amazing (Ernst 1977: 480) and is by no means intended to be taken literally. The metaphor of a tree and the sea fits Jesus’ style of using surprising images. This image is designed to delight and provoke thought and wonder about faith.

Not easy to uproot
Not easy to uproot

Bock’s saying that the mulberry tree had a “vast root system that enabled it to live up to six hundred years” is, I thought, more dependent on rabbinic tradition than scientific fact. Bock sounds like he’s suggesting the latter, and he’s certainly cited in that way in at least one other major commentary. It’s hard to fault Bock for lacking detail in the commentary, but on this point I would have liked to see more discussion of the sources behind the 600 years figure.

But perhaps that is to get lost in the weeds (or roots). The point is: “Uprooting and replanting a tree in the sea pictures faith’s ability to accomplish incredible things.”

Verses 7-10 raised for me the question of servanthood. It may sound a little cold when we first read it. But Bock sets the passage in larger biblical context, reminding readers of Paul’s writing about serving Christ in 1 Corinthians 4. 1 Cor. 4:5 says, “…each one will receive commendation from God.” So being a servant of Christ is not a literally thankless duty. It’s just that, as Bock puts it, “A disciple should never forget one’s position before God. Obedience does not obligate God to the disciple. God does not owe the disciple anything for faithfulness. The disciple is to humbly serve God and respond as part of duty.”

I’ll consistently turn to Bock’s commentary on Luke when I’m studying or preaching on the passage. He blends scholarly analysis, attention to detail, and homiletical application in a way that is readily useable and readable. No commentary is without faults, but this one has few of them. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Logos Bible Software for the review copy of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, given to me for the purposes of review, but with no expectation as to the content of my review. Baker’s product pages for the series (print version) is here. Bock on Luke (2 vols.) is at Amazon here.

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