Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” 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.
“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.’” (NIV)
Just so you know, the lectionary reading for this week is Luke 17:5-10, but if we don’t read the first four verses, we come in on the middle of the conversation and don’t have any idea why the disciples want Jesus to increase their faith! I think that is kind of an important detail… so, I have no second thoughts about adding verses to the lectionary reading.
A chaplain serving with the Marines was out with his unit on a command hike. The trail was rough, the pack was heavy, and the chaplain was getting tired. He lost his footing on some loose stones and landed hard. A word commonly heard from Marines slipped out of his mouth. He lifted his eyes heavenward and said, “Sorry Lord. I shouldn’t have said that.” He dragged himself back to his feet and started up the trail again. It wasn’t too much further, and he stumbled again. Once again he turned his eyes heavenward and said, “Lord, I said I was sorry. You didn’t have to push!”
There will be plenty of opportunities to stumble in life. Sometimes the way is rough. Sometimes you don’t watch your step and go somewhere you would have been wise to avoid. Some people will push you down. Stumbles happen. There is no shame in stumbling. It happens. You have to get up, dust yourself off, and assess if you could have done something to avoid the fall. On the other hand, if you are the one pushing someone else down? Well, that is a different story. Christ followers are expected to watch over others, lift others when they are down, not to push them down themselves. So Jesus says, “Watch yourselves.”
Watch how you treat your family. Watch how you treat your neighbor. Do not be giving them reasons to compromise their own standards or values. Do not make their life more difficult than it already is. The same goes for the stranger. And the neighbor you don’t like all that much. Maybe especially the neighbor you don’t like all that much. And maybe also especially that brother or sister who is very different from you. It is hard, because we cannot be inside their head. It is impossible to know what kind of thing would challenge them, tempt them or cause them to stumble. It means we have to get to know them. It is easier if we know them well. So part of how we love our neighbor is getting to know them and part is watching our own behavior.
“Watch yourselves.” Jesus said. But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He goes on: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” Fine. I can be willing to forgive someone who apologizes and convinces me they are changing their ways so they don’t hurt me again. But the next thing Jesus says is absolutely outrageous. If someone hurts me SEVEN TIMES, and comes back to me and apologizes, admits where they went wrong, and goes right back out there and hurts me again??? I have to forgive them again? Seven times? And if they are my brother or sister, a fellow believer, they ought to know better! They ought to already know me so they must have known that would hurt me! And I am to forgive them seven times? Impossible. And you know, someone has to be working pretty hard to to hurt the same friend seven times in one day! Who has the patience for that???
No wonder the disciples are shocked and cry, “Increase our faith!” They know they don’t have the patience for that. I know I don’t either.
But Jesus thinks they do! Jesus thinks they have plenty of faith. If they only have a tiny bit of faith they can do that and more. Forgiving someone seven times in one day is no more or less miraculous than moving a tree from here to there by prayer. But if that is what needs to be done, God will give them the will to do it if they are willing and open! So they already have enough faith. Because you see, it isn’t about the amount of faith. Faith isn’t a substance that can be measured. It is about God’s provision, not about the amount of their faith. As Dr Ira Briggers says in the Working Preacher commentary on this passage “He (Jesus) pivots from the question of quantity to the question of sufficiency. Faith “the size of a mustard seed” is sufficient for even the most demanding tasks of discipleship.” Forgiving seven times a day? You can do it. God’s power is sufficient for you. Serving your neighbor? God’s power is sufficient for you. Protecting your neighbor? God’s power is sufficient even for you. Changing your habits? God’s power, not yours.
Our ongoing commitment to the practice of forgiveness, service, living in community is, in other words, a reflection of our own faithfulness to imitating Christ, being the body of Christ in the world.
bliessngs to you,
Ponder the magnitude of God’s sufficiency in your life. How are you aware of it on a day to day basis? Pray for the willingness to follow wherever it leads you. And I invite you to pray for me and the rest of us as the body of Christ too.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Working Preacher commentary on Luke 17:5-10 by Ira Brent Driggers, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Lenoir-Rhyne University, Columbia, S.C. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4200