Sin, Faith, Duty
1 Jesus said to his disciples: "Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2 It would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 So watch yourselves.
"If a brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 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."
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 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'? 8 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'? 9 Will 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.' "
My college education was full of classes about . . . well, education. I was a secondary social studies major in my undergraduate studies and I was going to school to be a history teacher. We were required to take a certain amount of history classes, of course, but I was surprised to find out that we had to take many more classes about education and educational theory than we took classes in our actual area of study. That was all well and fine and I threw myself into my studies and tried to learn the theories and philosophies behind the different aspects of education, planning, classroom management, and even discipline and motivation. But there was a certain point where, as good as the theories and teaching might have been, I had to learn how those things would work out in the real world of teaching. To simply sit in a laboratory, so to speak, and learn about what I should do when certain things happen, or to hear stories about what other teachers have done in certain situations, would only get me so far. In order for all of the teaching and theory to do any good I had to be able to take that information and put it to work in real situations that I would find myself. I would have to learn to apply it to my world and my teaching experiences.
The last two major parables described by Luke, that of the lost son and that of the rich man and Lazrus, were so powerful and so many-layered that they have continued to challenge, encourage, and inspire disciples for thousands of years. Yet, there is a reality that is true of every written or spoken lesson. It only goes so far. When Jesus told those parables, he was simply passing along information. Granted, it was powerful and timeless information, but information nonetheless. Those stories were pointed and sharp and intended to challenge the hearers with information that would move them to action. But information has to be applied. It has to be be able to be put into practice in the real lives and situations of those that receive the information. That’s what this little section seems to be all about; taking the teaching out of the world of parable and putting it into the real-world lives that the disciples would face as they formed the kind of communities and family to which Jesus was calling his people.
Directly on the heels of the charge against the Pharisees that they were like the brothers of the rich man in the parable who had so rejected the word of God that they wouldn’t listen or change their minds even if they saw someone raised from the dead, Jesus continued to teach his disciples. The focus of this teaching, as a whole, is simple, it is a call to not be like the Pharisees. As a way to put his teachings in real-world terms, Jesus expounded on the meaning of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in verses 1-2. “Things that cause people to stumble” was a phrase that meant to literally “put up an impediment” in someone’s way. In a sense it referred to something that served like a shut door. The reality was that obstacles would come. That’s the way life is and Jesus never promised that it would be any different for his people.
Lazarus, from the parable, had many obstacles in his path, and the rich man was, in some ways, responsible for many of them. Following Jesus would not remove those kind of obstacles. His people still needed to be obedient to the life that Jesus has called his family. That is life. But that does not remove the responsibility from those who, like the rich man, think only of themselves with no regard to the needs of others. Jesus here was primarily focusing on those that would walk in such a way that they would put up obstacles to the faith of others. It would be better to have an extremely heavy and large millstone tied around your neck and thrown into the sea. In other words, instant death would be better for someone whose actions would drive someone away from their faith, than it would be to face God’s judgment for such an offense.
They should be a family and a community that takes sin and commitment to the truth seriously. They should watch out for such things and be committed to holiness but if a sinner were to repent then that should invoke the family’s forgiveness. The fact is that many grievances, which may or may not be as large as they seem in the moment, but are moments nonetheless that can cause people to stumble, would take place within the community of believers. They should take sin seriously but the heart of the community would be their forgiveness. They would be a people who worked out the kind of grace, love, and forgiveness that had been shown to them by God. They would be a people that embraced the parable of the lost son as their own community-creating and value-forming story.
In fact, if one of their brothers and sisters in the family formed in Christ sinned against them, they should deal with it and not ignore it but when they repent, it should be forgiven. Forgiveness, in the fullest sense, does hinge on the repentance of the offender but Jesus’ people should be a people that get rid of anger and bitterness even before the repentance of the other party so that they are able to forgive (see Eph. 4:31). They should be a community that forgives just as God forgave them (Eph. 4:32). There could be significance to the fact that Jesus seemed to have often tied forgiveness of his family to the number 7 (cf. Matt. 18:21). In Jewish thought seven was a number that was generally related to the days of creation and thus, became a symbol for the formation or creation of something. Similarly, in passages like Leviticus 26:21-28 described the curses of breaking the Covenant in terms of seven-fold curses that signaled de-creation. In connecting their forgiveness to the concepts of seven in Jewish thought, if that is indeed what Jesus was doing, then Jesus was sending the message that in becoming a community of forgiveness, Jesus’ people would be creating the new genuine humanity created in Christ to be what God intended for human communities to be.
In response to being this kind of people, a community that ran on the fuel of forgiveness, the disciples realized how impossible this seemed. The only response that they could muster was a call for increased faith. If they were going to be a people that were faithful to this kind of model, then they realized that they were going to need help to realize that and to even believe that it could be accomplished. Jesus affirms for them, however, that with even a small measure of faith they could realize this. It’s not the size of faith that disciples have but the size of the God in whom our faith rests. In my living room, I have a large picture window and a row of small windows above that that look out into the front yard and the neighborhood. As long as I am up close to those windows, it doesn’t matter how big the window is. I can see the same thing looking out the large window as I can looking out the small windows. The view is the same regardless of the window. It’s similar with faith and God. As long as we’re close to God, we will see and experience the same God even if our faith starts out very small. With just a little faith, even faith that is as small as a mustard seed, the large mulberry tree could be uprooted (The mulberry tree was a type of sycamore tree that held figs and fig trees were an occasional OT symbol for Israel. This means that it’s possible that Jesus was hinting that the kingdom kind of faith would eventually supplant and send the old nation of Israel to the symbolic place of destruction, the sea. Matthew uses a similar saying from Jesus in Matt. 21:21 and, in the overall context, much more focuses on the destruction of the Old Covenant system angle).
The last small parable in verses 7-10 seem to also draw from one of the teaching points of the parable of the lost son. It hinges on the understanding that in this culture to “thank” a servant did not refer to a verbal expression of appreciation but rather meant that the master would be in the servant’s debt as though he had done something special for the master. A slave might go plow the fields, and tend the sheep but wouldn’t that just be his job? Wouldn’t he only be doing what he was supposed to do? In a society where doing something for someone would put them in your debt, it would be absurd to put such a situation in that category. A slave who engaged in such work and then began to think that the master somehow was in his debt or owed him one would be a slave who was in for severe disappointment. It would be simply ridiculous to even imagine such a thing. The master would be under no obligation to reward his slave in some way for such normal and expected behavior. It was not above and beyond the call of duty.
The older son in the parable of the lost son had acted just like the Pharisees were acting. They had begun to think that they were owed something by the master. The eldest son seems to have thought that his obedience somehow earned him honor and gave him the right to a reward. Disciples should not ever think like that. Yes, they would become a community that held to a level of obedience that was challenging and could be impressive by some standards. They would be communities that took sin seriously and held to the truth, while at the same time had radical forgiveness at the heart and soul of their existence. They would be the new humanity of the new creation as the family of God. They would have faith that would, through the power of God, accomplish great things, but at the end of the day, they were nothing more than slaves doing what they were called to do. That was all basic level discipleship and their response should be continuous joy and appreciation, and a commitment to never take on the entitlement attitude of the oldest son, the one that became so entitled that he turned his back on the father.
How are you doing in the area of forgiving others? Do you quickly deal with hurts and disappointments and then quickly forgive your spouse, co-workers, fellow Christian brothers and sisters? Do you have faith that you really can be part of a Christian community that breathes on the air of forgiveness or do you, like the disciples, need to go to Jesus and request an increase in your faith. If you do, you will realize, just like they did, that the issue is not how much faith you have but in the realization that you have faith in a big God.