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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Forgiveness, Faith and Humility

Luke 17:1-10

Today’s passage is a curious one.  Some scholars have attempted to describe it as a patchwork of quotations (there are similar sayings in the other Gospels) taken from memory.  The context makes it clear, however, that these sayings are connected in this instance.  It is the connection which gives this lesson its power.

(Luke 17:1-10 NIV)  Jesus said to his disciples: "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. {2} It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. {3} So watch yourselves. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. {4} If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." {5} The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" {6} 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. {7} "Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? {8} Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? {9} Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? {10} 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.'"

On Sin and Forgiveness

Almost casually Jesus tells his disciples that things that cause people to sin are bound to come.  Western civilization has long pondered that point:  why is there evil in the world?  After all, God is omnipotent;  He is also righteous.  Therefore He could eliminate evil, right?  And should, right?  So why doesn’t he?

The situation, alas, is a bit more complicated than that.  (For a full discussion of the point, see C. S. Lewis’ classic work, The Problem of Pain).  One particular way in which it is complicated is by God’s decision to grant men and angels a free will.  He could have made us robots – but robots are not human.  To be human means to have a free will – and that implies the possibility of evil.

“Well,” says the sophist, “that means that I’m off the hook!  God is responsible for this mess called evil, right?”  An old heresy (often compounded by saying that it causes grace to abound more), but a heresy nonetheless.  God did not create evil any more than He created darkness when He created light.  Jesus makes it clear here that individual free will means individual responsibility – the existence of evil is no excuse for the sinner. 

The argument might be put this way:  look, traffic accidents are bound to happen.  Why, then, can’t I drive down the street at a hundred miles an hour?  You can’t say for sure that I’m going to have an accident, right?  (The policeman’s response is, “tell it to the judge” – and it is exactly parallel to Christ’s comment here).

Duty to my brother

Christ then outlines very briefly my duty to my fellow man with regard to his sin against me.  This duty is amplified in Romans chapter 14, and the points therein are worth summarizing:

  • ·First (and this point does not appear in this passage directly) I am to accept my brother without judging him.  He thinks there are holy days and saints?  He drinks and I don’t?  Fine, let him.  He stands and falls before his master, as do I.

  • ·Next, I am to place no “stumbling block” (the original in the Greek means a snare) in front of my brother.  If he’s an alcoholic, I’m to offer him no booze.  Indeed, I am to be very strict about this – look at the better alternative!

  • ·If I do see my brother in sin, I am to “rebuke” him – in short, let him know the consequences.  This takes courage, and courage takes motivation.  Here’s some:

(Lev 19:17 NIV)  "'Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.

(James 5:19-20 NIV)  My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, {20} remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

  • I must do it;  otherwise, I hate my brother enough to send him to hell.

  •  I must do it;  otherwise, I share in his guilt – for I saw, and did not speak.

  •  I must do it;  it will save his life and cover a multitude of sins.

  •  And when he repents, I must forgive him – every time, no matter how often it happens. 

The Disciples’ Reaction

The disciples hear this and react:  “Lord, increase our faith.”  I suspect that is not our reaction.  But please remember they have been with Jesus now for almost three years.  The lesson of the power of faith has been place within them, and from their reaction we can look into their thoughts.

They saw a problem with this

Indeed, that part about forgiveness is a difficulty.  I suspect it is what was on the disciples’ minds.

  • ·        There is the rather ordinary objection to forgiveness.  Forgiveness does not feel nearly as good to most of us as revenge.  Even if we are cornered into it, we like to remind the forgiven that they owe us one.  But Jesus has taught frequently on that, and I suspect the disciples were not going to push this topic.

  • ·        There is a more pointed objection.  “Be reasonable, Lord,” they might say, “You just don’t understand how often I’ve had to forgive.  There’s got to be some point at which I stop forgiving.”  But Jesus says no;  as often as he repents, you forgive.

  • ·        Please note that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance (God forgives when we repent;  we should do likewise with our brother.)  We are not talking about forgiveness without repentance.  There is no true cheap grace.

    • ·        We also tend to think of ourselves as responsible for the results.  If he repents, and then sins again, somehow we have failed to turn our brother around.  We are not responsible for that;  we are responsible for our own actions.  Each of us stands or falls before the Master.

    • ·        Our difficulty is in that we want to do things the way the world does them – in our own power, not in his.  But where is the source of your strength?

They saw a solution:  increased faith

After three years of watching and learning from Jesus, the disciples know that this man can do anything.  They also know the power that faith has in their relationship to him.  It is, to them, the solution to the problem.  They know they can’t do this on their own.

  • Remember the man with the demon-possessed son? (Mark 9:24): "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"  The disciples know they are not capable, but they know where to ask fo

  • It is a general principle of the faith that strength is made perfect in weakness.[1]  The problem most of us have with that is that we want our strength and God’s strength.  God never offers us that choice;  he offers us our strength or His strength.  The choice must be made!

They saw a source of the solution:  Jesus Christ

How natural it must have been for them to see not only the problem and solution, but also the source of the solution:  Jesus. 

  • We often fail to recognize it, but Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith.[2]  We so often think that we created and grew our own faith, that we forget where to go to get more.

  • The disciples knew this from personal experience.  The reaction was a gut one.  Would that ours was the same!

  • Again, they had the choice of “whose strength.”  They chose Jesus.

Faith like a mustard seed

The metaphor

Jesus likes to use metaphors;  they so seldom go out of style, in any language.  This is a good one, for faith, like the mustard seed,

  • Is small – but is growing.  Most of us are quite capable of complaining how little is our faith.  Fine – but is it growing?  That’s what he’s looking for.

  • Is alive – not just a specimen on the shelf.  If it is alive, it is doing something, even if it’s planted in one place.

  • Is intended to grow to a great size.  Give it long enough, water it well, and it will.  Remember, as with all seeds, God gives the increase.


Jesus now gives us the key to faith:  humility.  The parable of the servant here seems obscure, and some have suggested that it is out of place.  It is not;  it is the key to the entire passage.  Faith is key to our relationship with God, and this parable talks about our relationship with God.  Often, in his parables, Jesus poses a series of questions to his hearers to provoke them to thought.  Look at the ones he uses here:

Would he say….

Would he tell the servant to fix his own meal first?  He would not, and Jesus’ hearers knew it well, many of them being servants.  We need to remember how our righteousness is viewed compared to our Father:

(Job 22:2-3 NIV)  "Can a man be of benefit to God? Can even a wise man benefit him? {3} What pleasure would it give the Almighty if you were righteous? What would he gain if your ways were blameless?

We need to remember that, compared to God, our righteousness is as nothing.  And we need to act accordingly.

Would he not rather say

No, he would tell the servant to serve, and expect it to be so.  Why?  Because the master provides for the servant, and this is his due service for it.

(Psa 16:2 NIV)  I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing."

Would he thank the servant

No, he would not;  it would be the servant’s “place.”  It would not be a right relationship.  The servant must understand that place.  And if he does?

(1 Pet 5:6 NIV)  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

There it is again;  by humbling ourselves, God lifts us up;  by humbling ourselves, God clothes us with power.  Thomas à Kempis put it this way:

If a man give all his wealth, it is nothing; if he do great penance, it is little; if he gain all knowledge, he is still far afield; if he have great virtue and much ardent devotion, he still lacks a great deal, and especially, the one thing that is most necessary to him. What is this one thing? That leaving all, he forsake himself, completely renounce himself, and give up all private affections. Then, when he has done all that he knows ought to be done, let him consider it as nothing, let him make little of what may be considered great; let him in all honesty call himself an unprofitable servant. For truth itself has said: “When you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: ‘we are unprofitable servants.’“ (Luke 17:10.)

Then he will be truly poor and stripped in spirit, and with the prophet may say: “I am alone and poor.” (Ps. 25:16.) No one, however, is more wealthy than such a man; no one is more powerful, no one freer than he who knows how to leave all things and think of himself as the least of all.

If I am truly humble:

  • I will accept my brother, for how could I presume to judge him?

  • I will place no stumbling block before him, for my Master would look upon that with horror.

  • I will rebuke him in earnest simplicity;  I have no pride to lose, but my brother to gain.

  • I will forgive him every time – for I have no pride left to be wounded in the forgiving.

Lord, increase our faith.


[1] See II Corinthians 12:7-10

[2] Hebrews 12:2

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