Luke 17: 1 – 10 Sin, faith, duty
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 round 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 ploughing 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 supposed 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.” ’
* * *
This passage starts with the words, “Jesus said to his disciples.” This is a change. The previous teaching had all been addressed to the crowd, with special and pointed reference to the Pharisees present. Now we’re hearing Jesus speaking privately to his disciples.
I wonder what they had said or done that was sufficiently mistaken to make this criticism necessary?
First, we have a violent image of a disciple being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck; this would be better for them, Jesus is recorded as saying, than causing someone to stumble in their faith. There is no doubt about who needs to take the message to heart, because verse 3 says, “So watch yourselves.”
Secondly, we have teaching about forgiving someone’s sin against us, even if they keep on doing the same thing. Had there been hardness of heart by one of the disciples? Had they split into factions? There was a need for forgiveness in the group, perhaps.
The teaching is plainly in accordance with the whole of Jesus’ life, to the very end, when he forgave those who crucified him. It’s hard to do, though, as we see from the disciples apparent failure.
Thirdly, we have the reply to the apostles’ request to Jesus for more faith. This seems to me almost to mock them. It’s as though Jesus is telling them they don’t even have the smallest amount of the faith required to work miracles. And, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the apostles wanted the spectacular. They had healed the sick and cast out demons (Luke 10: 17 – 18), but they’d seen Jesus carry out dramatic acts – feeding the five thousand; walking on water; calming the storm. Were they asking for ‘more faith’ so they could do the same?
Fourthly, we have a parable about the demands on servants. Jesus says, seemingly, that the master will make great demands of his servants. Had the disciples been grumbling about how hard they were working?
The situation Jesus uses for his parable is still prevalent in many parts of the world, although in the prosperous West we would possibly think the demands were unreasonable, breaching working hours legislation, for example.
Or would we? Those on minimum wage may work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. Those who want to climb the corporate ladder often put in many hours’ effort every week. Perhaps we can after all understand the demands Jesus makes.
So this whole passage reads to me like a response to mistakes and discontent among the disciples.
As such, it is relevant today. We still need to be warned to be careful how we speak and how we live our lives so that we won’t cause others to stumble. We still need to practise forgiveness. We still need faith, in just the amount that God chooses to give each of us. And we certainly need encouragement to work hard to serve God. After all, what could be more rewarding than serving God?
Thank you for calling us to love and serve you. Help us all to carry out our tasks with joy.
In Jesus’ name, Amen