1 Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen, but how terrible it is for the person through whom they happen. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into a lake with a large stone hung around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to trip and fall into sin. 3 Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. 4 Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person.”
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
7 “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? 8 Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? 9 You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? 10 In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.'” (CEB)
Doing What We Ought
This text causes me to suspect that Jesus was probably not a dog owner. Besides the fact that Jews considered dogs to be unclean animals—a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree—I don’t think the theologian in Jesus would have been able to take a dog’s constant need for praise. Dogs are, by and large, the kind of creatures that need constant approval from their masters for doing the most basic of daily tasks. If you let your dog out into the yard and tell him to go potty, he’ll go out, finish his business, and come back to you proudly wagging his tail as if he had just solved the problem of world hunger. Dogs look for praise simply because they did what they were supposed to do: even what they already needed to do before you told them.
To be fair, I doubt Jesus was a cat owner either. My wife and children own a cat and a dog, so I can speak to this. Cats think they deserve the worshipful attention of the world for simply gracing us menial humans with their benevolent presence. They’re rather tiring creatures.
It’s obvious Jesus says some difficult things in Luke 17. While he acknowledges that people trip and fall into sin, he also says that it’s awful for the people who sin and for those who cause others to sin. Jesus says about those who entice others to sin that it would better for them to be tossed into a lake with a millstone hung around their neck rather than cause another person fall into sin.
This doesn’t exactly sound like our dear, sweet, loving Jesus here. If we stop reading right here, it sounds like Jesus is tough as nails when it comes to sin. And Jesus IS tough on sin. There are repercussions for all sin that reach far beyond what we can often imagine. The disobedience of Adam and Eve has had repercussions that we all feel. Because of one act of disobedience, the human race knows death, sickness, pain, and sorrow. Our sin, too, affects others in ways we seem incapable of imagining.
But then Jesus says, “Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person” (Lk 17:3-4). That’s tough stuff. Jesus is telling us that we must forgive as often as forgiveness is sought. It’s not always easy to forgive, but it is important for us to forgive.
We pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, but have you ever really paid attention to what we’re asking of God in that prayer? It’s a dangerous prayer to pray. In one of the lines, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are asking God to forgive us according to the same measure that we forgive others. Conversely, we’re essentially saying to God, do not forgive us in the same measure that we withhold forgiveness from others. The Lord’s Prayer is a frightful prayer to pray, and we ought to examine ourselves to make sure we have forgiven or are actively trying to forgive those who have wronged us before we pray it. That’s why we pray the prayer of confession before we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We need to let go of our grudges against others. We need to confess to God our sins and our struggles, even our struggles to forgive others because forgiveness is not always easy.
Sin has disastrous effects for those who are touched by it. We are called to forgive, but forgiveness is a difficult thing. Many of us gathered here know this first hand. It’s no wonder that the response of the disciples seems to be almost a cry of exasperation, “Increase our faith!” Surely we would need super-human faith in order to forgive as Jesus is saying we need to forgive. We’re going to need more faith if we’re going to live this way.
After all, we think of size and quantity as being directly related to strength. More is better because more is stronger. An army of a thousand should easily defeat an army of 10. Goliath should have kicked David’s skinny little rear end. Ask any child and they’ll tell you that a bag of candy is better than a piece of candy. A king-size chocolate bar is better than a “fun-size” chocolate bar. So having more faith should be better than having less, right? We just need an increase if we’re going to be able to forgive like this.
Well, Jesus doesn’t seem to think so. He tells us that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could command a tree to jump in a lake and it would obey you. Now, the unfortunate part of this saying is that most of us have never accomplished this successfully. I mean, who here hasn’t tried to command a tree to go jump in a lake at least once? So, because it didn’t work, we’re left thinking that our faith isn’t even the size of a mustard seed. We don’t even have a big enough faith to do the tree thing, so how can we do anything else in faith?
But again, when we think that way, we’re falling into the same trap of thinking in terms of size. It’s not about size. It’s about putting our faith into action. We don’t need more faith, bigger faith, or any other kind of quantitative description. We just need to use the faith we have.
At this point, Jesus launches into a part of the text that most of us modern people don’t like very much because it uses a Greek word that can be translated as slave, servant, or subject. “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’”
So let’s put it in a more modern context. Let’s say we’re a group of women and men business executives and we’re in a business meeting together. Would you say to your Office Interns who just walked in the door, “Hey! Make yourselves comfortable! Let me get up and get you some coffee and a Danish! Here, one of you take my chair, and someone else get up for the other one!”
Or might you instead ask your Office Interns to serve the coffee and Danishes to you and your fellow executive colleagues? The Office Interns can share the leftover Danishes after the meeting.
Then, after the meeting, do you seek out your Office Interns in order to thank them for serving the coffee and Danishes and tell them what an exquisite job they did placing the Danishes exactly in the center of each plate? What wonderful service! No. They simply did what was expected of them. It’s written in their job descriptions that they serve the coffee and Danishes at Executive-level business meetings. They didn’t do anything special. They simply did their jobs with the excellence that is expected of them. They’ll get a paycheck for the time they put in.
There are similar expectations for those who follow Jesus. We are expected to forgive those who wrong us, not because God wants to lay something difficult on us, but because we have been forgiven for our sins by God through the redemption of Jesus Christ. God forgives us every time we ask to be forgiven, even if it’s the hundredth time for the same sin. Forgiveness is something God does, and so it’s something God expects us to do.
We don’t expect praise for doing what is expected of us. After all, we aren’t doing these things in order to earn God’s love. We can’t earn God’s love, or anything else, because we already have it. From the beginning of time and throughout all of eternity, we already are loved by God. God forgives us because God loves us. And so we, following God’s example to us, do what is right and good—as God expects of us—as an appropriate response to the love and grace already given to us by God. Forgiven people learn to forgive.
The expectations of Jesus were quite simple: We should do no harm, we should do good, and we should attend to the ordinances of God. When we mess up, we ask for forgiveness and we receive forgiveness. And we must forgive because we have been forgiven. Even though forgiving others can be a difficult struggle, when we do forgive we are doing our duty as Christian people by living out the example of love that we have received from God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!