Scripture: Luke 17:1-10
The headings added by Bible translators can be very helpful when navigating through scripture, but you know you are in interesting territory when the heading of the text for the day is “Some Sayings of Jesus.” You know – some stuff Jesus said! That’s exactly what this passage feels like – some sayings of Jesus that are strung together for no apparent reason. It’s as if Luke had a few more things he wanted to make sure he wrote down so he used the first part of chapter 17 as a place to dump them. It’s like clean out the fridge day, trying to digest complex sayings of Jesus all at one time, knowing that the outcome will be an upset stomach, particularly when the sayings include a reference to hanging millstones around one’s neck and a problematic metaphor involving slavery. But as New Testament scholar Markus Barth says, “If you can’t find the Word in this text, it isn’t the text’s fault. Go back and try again. Dig deeper.”[i] After digging deeper, it’s clear that these sayings are all indeed connected. They all respond to the larger concern of what Christian discipleship is about – What Would Jesus (Have You) Do? – and how to fulfill these steep expectations.
Jesus is on the last phase of his journey towards the cross. He’s getting down to business. If the disciples haven’t yet figured out what it means to follow Jesus, they have to figure it out now. It is imperative for them to understand what Christian discipleship is about and how hard it is to walk in the way of Jesus. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” We hang our heads with the disciples. We know it’s really easy to mess this up. Do we really need another reminder that we fall short of what Jesus asks of us? Jesus makes it clear in the next few verses that we cause people to stumble when we don’t rebuke those who sin or forgive those who repent. It’s not what we had in mind, is it? Of all the things that could make people stumble, Jesus is worried about how we look when we don’t speak honestly to one another or forgive one another! “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” It’s no wonder why the disciples responded by saying, “Lord, increase our faith!” Jesus’ words about confronting one another here in the gospel of Luke are similar to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, where he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” He then goes on to say that if they do not listen to “take one or two others along with you” to talk to them. And then if they still do not listen to bring the matter before the church!
I don’t know about you, but my momma always told me, “If you can’t say anything nice, keep your mouth shut.” Confronting others over their sins and speaking truth to them about what has gone wrong goes against everything I’ve ever been taught. We don’t like to make waves or have awkward conversation. We’d rather keep things to ourselves and let them fester. We’d rather let resentments eat away at us and kill our community slowly than have a direct and truthful conversation. And while we may have found a way to move on when someone wrongs us, we hold onto what happened with begrudging memories. And someone we have to forgive seven times per day?! There’s no way we can continue being in relationship with that person! But Jesus has a different opinion. He calls us to forgive, whether or not we judge the person to be genuine or sincere. The disciples cry out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy! You can’t be serious! We left everything behind to follow you. Wasn’t that enough? Tell us you are kidding. Increase our faith!”
The disciples understand that in order to live the kind of life Jesus expects them to live, they are going to need more faith than they have! They do not want to cause others to stumble; Jesus has just told them that doing so would be worse than drowning at sea! To their request for more faith, Jesus replies, “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.” It sounds like Jesus is rebuking the disciples, telling them they don’t have enough faith, not even faith the size of a mustard seed. But actually, Jesus is offering a word of grace. With only a little bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, you can do the impossible, like uproot fifty-foot tall mulberry trees and plant them in the sea or confront people we’d rather avoid or forgive people who’ve hurt us over and over again. Jesus asks them for a tiny amount of faith. We are not to rely on our own strength or faith, but to look to Jesus for faith and to trust that God can do the impossible. We are not to try to muster up enough faith of our own to lead the life Jesus wants us to lead; we are to rely on the faith of Christ, faith that is so true and so deep it can help us to be truthful with one another and forgive one another when we don’t feel like we can do it anymore. Our faith in Christ will be carried by Christ’s faith, which is far more vast than our own.
Through the parable of the worthless slave, Jesus makes his point again that living faithfully is not based on one’s own merit or worth. The Greek word “doulos” can mean either servant or slave, though it seems to make most sense to use the word servant. Jesus is using familiar first century imagery as he speaks about the relationship between a master and an indentured servant. He says, “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the servant for doing what was commanded?” The implied answer is – Of course not! It’s kind of like saying – Would you say to a faithful church member who has just finished a long morning of leading choir and teaching Sunday School and attending worship, go home at once and put your feet up and don’t worry about coming to the business meeting? Of course not! After making the disciples see themselves in position of the master, Jesus then turns the metaphor around on them and asks them to see themselves as servants. He says after doing what’s expected of them, they should say, “We are worthless servants, we have done only what we ought to have done!” This does not mean that we are worthless but that our worth is not based on actions of our own doing or our own great faith. We are to do what Jesus calls us to do – live in truthful community and forgive one another – without expectation of reward, and we can find the strength to do so by allowing God to use our tiny bit of faith that is made big by our reliance on Jesus.
These sayings of Jesus remind us that sin is never a private matter, though we desperately long for it to be. What we do or fail to do always has consequences for our community. Church father Gregory the Great said, “If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, it follows that we be angry with their sins just as we are with our own.”[ii] If we fail to confront one another and rebuke one another, we can’t be in true Christian community. And if we fail to forgive when our brothers and sisters who have angered and hurt us repent, we can’t be in true Christian community. This is a hard word for us as we, just like the disciples, live in a culture that believes in retributive justice. We want people who’ve hurt us to suffer. We believe that they should get what they deserve. We believe that they should have to pay for their sins, though deep down we know that any amount of money or punishment could never make up for what we’ve lost.
In an interview following the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, William H. Lamar IV, pastor at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington D.C. called Christians to reject the myth of redemptive violence. He said, “When I look at Dylann Roof, I see him standing in a long line of persons who have believed that violence against black people will bring about the peace and power that they seek. But what it does is it continues to destabilize. You can look at his story in microcosm but you can look at the larger story of the United States – its conquest – and America’s continued reliance on violence to try to bring about peace and security. It never will happen. People may say it’s dreamy foreign policy, but war is not going to bring peace, whether that’s an individual with a gun in a church or whether that’s a nation with this mighty military arsenal. It’s not going to happen, so we’re trapped in that logic, and we’ve got to get out of it.”[iii] The family members of the victims in Charleston modeled forgiveness in a way that many of us cannot fathom is possible. At Roof’s first court appearance, many of the family members spoke words of forgiveness to him while he sat in silence. Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70 year-old Ethel Lance said to him, “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”[iv]
This kind of forgiveness is terribly hard; it’s like uprooting a mulberry tree and planting it in the sea. But if we rely on the faith of Christ, we can obey Jesus’s impossible standards for Christian living, doing what Jesus would have us to do. We can’t muster up the strength to do this on our own; we have to do it together, in community. As Theologian Kimberly Bracken Long says, “Faith is less about personal fortitude and more about mutual forbearance, as we keep on learning that we are all in this together. A community that lives out this sort of faith is not afraid to ask questions or express doubts or show weakness; nor is it afraid to value mercy over fairness, or to forgive one another’s failings even when patience wears thin.” Jesus calls for mercy, not retributive justice. If Nadine can forgive the man who murdered her mother, surely we can learn to forgive those who have wronged us. But the only way we can do this is to do it together and to be willing to be vulnerable with one another along the way. Lord, increase our faith!
It’s not our own faith we have to rely on but the faith of the one who offered his body and his blood and with his last breath prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not know what they are doing.” (23:34) This morning Jesus invites us to come to his table of forgiveness and to eat of his body and drink of his blood. He invites us to rely on his strength to model unthinkable forgiveness, forgiveness extended even to those who would kill you. As we gather at the table, he will teach us how to be faithful by trusting in him. As we eat this sacred meal together, may the Holy Spirit come and give us the courage we need to tell one another the truth and help us to move past our fear and our pain so that we can model Jesus’s forgiveness, seven times a day, if necessary. May the Holy Spirit increase our mustard seed sized faith by teaching us to rely on the faith of Christ, a faith that has the power to accomplish what we never thought possible. Amen.
[i] As quoted by John Buchanan in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol.2
[ii] As quoted by David Lyle Jeffrey in Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible – Luke.