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Luke 17:1 -- 10

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The reader will pardon the teacher, I hope, in this. There is a monumental foolishness that must be disposed of; I propose to dispose of it by the words of our Lord himself. If we tread lightly on philosophical grounds, please understand that this is the teacher’s lack, not your own. It really is that simple.

He said to His disciples, "It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! "It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. "And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you. "Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come immediately and sit down to eat'? "But will he not say to him, 'Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink'? "He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? "So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'"

(Luk 17:1-10 NASB)

God and evil

We must first make a distinction between “that which causes suffering” and evil. The matter may, I hope, be resolved by returning to high school biology. Consider, for a moment, the amoeba. If this creature gets into your bloodstream and manages to reproduce, you will soon be suffering from amoebic dysentery. The result of this, I am told, is a great deal of suffering. Does this make the amoeba evil?

It certainly makes it harmful, but I submit to you that we do not maintain spiritual warfare against the amoeba. The amoeba is the amoeba; it is not capable of “right and wrong.” It is a tautology, but not a barren one, to say that only a free moral agent can commit evil; and we therefore know a free moral agent by the evil he perpetrates – or doesn’t.

Such evil may be of two forms. For example, let us suppose that I handed you the glass with the amoeba in it, thinking the glass to be clean. This is the sin of omission; I forgot to wash the glass. But if I had deliberately handed you a glass full of these creatures, so that I might see you suffer, then we have a sin of commission. We rightly judge both of these as sin; but only one can result in murder charges.

Did God create evil?

The stock answer from those who are sure God doesn’t exist is, “Of course. God created everything.” Evil is seen as the natural opponent of good, equal and opposite – something like Lucas’ “dark side of the force.” Other than Zoroastrianism, this concept is rejected by all the major religions of the world.

The reasoning is simple: consider light. We sometimes say that someone is “in the dark” or that “the light dawned on him.” But we do not consider darkness to be the opposite of light, for it really is the absence of light. To create light is not to create darkness, but to create the possibility of darkness. The apostle John tells us that God is light; in him there is no darkness.[1]

But darkness depends upon someone at the light switch; that someone is a free moral agent.

The uses of evil

This is not to say that God does not use evil for his own purposes. Indeed, Augustine held that God would allow no evil except those out of which he could bring a greater good. How?

  • Sometimes it’s chastisement. You had it coming to you; he allowed it to get to you in order to get to you.
  • Often, he is training you for his task – of helping others with the same kind of evil consequences.
  • Perhaps most of all is this: so that you would see evil overcome, and thus see the glory of God.

Ah, the skeptic asks, then why shouldn’t we be as evil as we please, since God is so astute in using it for his own cause?

God forbid

Let me rephrase that argument in modern terms, so that we might see the fraud involved in it.

  • All would agree: for a policeman to catch a thief – is a good thing. It is a blessing on all of us.
  • Therefore, to increase this good thing, let us establish a school to teach inept burglary to people – so we will have more, easily caught, thieves. This would increase the good things our police do.

It’s stupid. But put God in for the policeman and sin in for the burglary, and you have the argument you get at cocktail parties – at least, before the second Martini.

There is a second argument for the Christian. It is simply this: you are “in Christ.” Your spirit is comforted by the Holy Spirit; you, therefore, are to be holy. Is this compatible with willful sin?

More than that, we need to recognize the fact: you are a servant of whomever or whatever you serve. The man who signs my paycheck is the one I call boss; it is equally true that the one I call boss is the one who signs my paycheck.

What should we do?

Stumbling blocks are bound to happen; we live in a fallen world. What should we do about this?

First, as my wife tells me, you know they’re out there – why are you so surprised when they turn up? We need to be on our guard:

  • We need to guard against the normal run of sin – the flesh, the world and the devil.
  • We need to guard ourselves against the grave temptation to make an alliance with the world, doing things God’s way then the world’s way.

We need to be diligent – for at his return he will be looking for the good and faithful servant.

And just what did he put us in charge of?

Watch over your brother

He makes it clear that we are to watch over our Christian brothers and sisters – and be enormously patient and forgiving with them. We are to rebuke them (privately) and forgive them every time they repent.

The thought that they could do this – not must, could – struck the disciples as being absurd. Such a thing, they knew, could only come to one of great faith.

Increase our faith

Why did the disciples ask this?

  • First, because such forgiveness seemed to be impossible. They could not visualize themselves doing it.
  • But they knew by now that faith was key to doing the impossible. So, confronted with the impossible, they asked for faith.
  • Which implies that they both had faith – and new it wasn’t enough faith.

One of the great comforts of such a passage is that even those who saw Jesus in the flesh asked for the same things I ask for.

The parable of the servant

To our eyes this parable might seem strange. But think of it this way: should your company be inclined, they might give you a bonus. But only if you did things which were unexpected of one in your position. What Christ has commanded here is the expectation of normal in the Christian – not something done only by a super saint. But the passage is not without its points:

  • First, and most surprising to modern ears, is that there is no way for us to put God in our debt. No matter how forgiving we are, it is still obedience to command.
  • Second, it implies that we are all servants of God – which is to say that our picture of being equal with Christ is indeed false. By grace you are saved.
  • Third, it tells us that the Master comes first – and then all else will fall into its correct place.

The distinction, you see, is between “as commanded” and “above and beyond.” Medals are given to those who go above and beyond; campaign ribbons are given to everyone who did his duty. Forgiveness of others falls under the latter category.

That, we understand, may take great faith indeed. It seems so contrary to common sense; only those of great faith would attempt it. Indeed, it is a hard question. It’s just not an optional one.

[1] 1 John 1:5

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