You Want Us To Do What? or: To Dream the Impossible Dream (Luke 17:1-10)

Okay, so just a reminder of the bigger picture that is going on here: Jesus has been training his disciples in Kingdom Management. He had to take a break from the course for a while so he could help the Pharisees understand that they really really have been fired.

At the beginning of Chapter 16, Jesus returned to training his disciples. The central ideas are compassion and forgiveness. God the Father is compassionate and forgiving; and because children always grow up to look like their parents in some way, God’s children will also be compassionate and forgiving people. It is in our spiritual DNA! It will happen: as we grow in our faith that God is actually our Father, we will become compassionate and forgiving people.

But this does not happen in isolation. And that is what this closing section of Jesus’ Kingdom Management Training Course is all about: how much we need each other.

He has been focusing on the proper use of money; how, by being modest and generous with our wealth, and forgiving debts, we can preach the gospel to the world.

Here Jesus focuses on the proper use of God’s Law; how, by being modest and generous with God’s Word, and forgiving sins, we can live the gospel as God’s family.

So Jesus, having just finished his parable about the rich man and the poor man in the afterlife, says this 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 them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. [3] So watch yourselves.

Now, what is Jesus talking about when he says, “things that cause people to stumble”? Is he simply talking about temptation and sin? Is he trying to say, “If you cause your brother or sister to sin in some way, ohhhhh! Better to be drowned mah!”?

Mmmmm…not exactly. First, the bible teaches that no one “causes” us to sin; we do that all by ourselves!

However, it is possible to set up conditions that make it very, very easy for someone to sin. For instance, if you know that your friend is an alcoholic, you probably should not buy them a bottle of whiskey for their birthday. That might be okay for another friend, who has self-control in this area and knows how to drink in moderation; but for an alcoholic? Not wise.

But that is sort of common sense. So, again: is that what Jesus is talking about here? Is he really trying to say, “If you leave your alcoholic friend alone with a bottle of whiskey and he gets really trashed, then woe to you! Better to be drowned than meet God on Judgement Day!”?

That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? That doesn’t sound like the compassionate and forgiving Jesus we have been getting to know here. If we interpret this verse that way, then…we had all better go out and drown ourselves now, because I can guarantee that we are all guilty of causing people to stumble!

So if that is not what this means, what does it mean?

Well, this is where remembering the bigger picture helps. This is Jesus’ Management Training Course, which he began teaching back in Chapter 11. And if we think back over the lessons, we realize that most of Jesus’ examples of what not to do is the Pharisees.

Now, how have the Pharisees been causing the people to stumble? Have they been leading the people into alcoholism or drug abuse? Not as far as we know… They have been leading the people into greed and careless divorce, but Jesus has been pointing out that greed and careless divorce are really symptoms of a deeper sickness.

They are really symptoms of a virus: the virus of the Pharisees.

And then we have to remember what is the virus of the Pharisees? Lack of compassion, lack of forgiveness, which comes from their deliberate distortion of God’s Word. They added to the Law, making it more difficult for the people to find forgiveness. They insisted that God is a harsh judge, not a loving Father. And by doing that they damaged God’s reputation, just like the dishonest manager at the beginning of Chapter 16, who added on to people’s debts.

So how have the Pharisees been causing people to stumble? They have added on to God’s Law. They have put extra steps between the people and God’s forgiveness: between the people and Jesus. The people have stumbled over those extra steps, and they are dying. They are dying under the weight of the “need” to get rich. They are dying under the weight of their “need” for a miracle to prove Jesus’ identity. They are dying under the weight of their sins — and there is no reason for it! If the Pharisees and other shepherds of God’s people had just done their job, and preached God’s forgiveness, and prepared the people to recognize their Messiah! …world history would be very different.

So, really, Jesus is warning his disciples about the same virus he warned them about on his first day teaching of this management course. Very early on he said, “Watch yourselves! Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees.” Here, at the end of his managment training course, he uses the exact same words: “Watch yourselves!”

The disciples are going to be promoted into positions of authority in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus is telling them, “Do not do what the Pharisees have been doing! Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come: this is a world that naturally enslaves people! It is natural for one person to always be trying to trip the person next to them, so that they can win the race to God’s kingdom. It is natural for the people in power to add to the Law. It is natural for those in power to want to stumble others, so they can’t catch up.

“Woe to anyone who does that! It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea tied to a heavy weight first. Better to be drowned while you are weak and powerless, than to grow up, take power, and then do this thing. God will have mercy on the weak and the powerless who drown in the sea; but how can he have mercy on the powerful who deliberately keep people from recognizing Jesus as the only source of compassion and forgiveness?”

“So,” Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Guard yourselves. Don’t do that!”

Instead, do this: “If your 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.”

See the contrast? “Causing little ones to stumble” ultimately means holding them back from God’s forgiveness, making them pay extra for their sins. But the opposite of “causing people to stumble” is opening the gates of God’s forgiveness to everyone who asks.

“Causing little ones to stumble” means giving them the wrong idea about God by making them work for their forgiveness. The opposite of that is showing people that God is their Father, and his forgiveness comes freely to anyone who asks!

And the way the disciples are supposed to preach this gospel is in their daily lives. They have been forgiven by God. “And so you,” Jesus says, “must also forgive those who sin against you. If they are sinning against you, rebuke them — that means: let them know what they are doing wrong, because they might not realize it. So, let them know, gently, how they are hurting you. And if they repent, forgive them. Don’t make them pay you back!”

And, “Even if they sin against you seven times a day, and seven times come back and say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, please forgive me!’ — you must forgive them!”

Now that sounds pretty demanding, doesn’t it?

Let’s conduct a thought experiment, shall we? You’re in the kitchen with your sister or your brother, you’re washing dishes together and your sibling drops a plate. It shatters, cuts your foot. So you say, “Ow! Watch what you’re doing!” — that’s the rebuke part. And your sibling says, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I wasn’t concentrating, I’m so clumsy.”

Okay. Forgive la! No problem. You both clean up, you bandage your foot. You go back to washing…and it happens again. But your sibling is really sorry, so you forgive. But it happens again.

And by the seventh shattered plate…forgiveness is starting to get difficult, isn’t it?

Now, of course, by the seventh plate the whole family has realized that maybe your sibling should not be washing dishes. Maybe they can mop the floor or clean the living room or something else: Jesus is not saying we have to just stand there and take it while someone makes the same mistake again and again and again. Obviously the loving thing to do for both of you is change the situation in some way so that this kind of damage does not keep happening.

Jesus is using a bit of exaggeration to make a point. His disciples need to fix their minds on this attitude: they must not use the sins of another person to gain power over that person. The debt must be forgiven day by day, even moment by moment if necessary!

The good news is we are not the only ones who find this demanding. The disciples also thought, “Whoa! I don’t know if we can do that!” So in verse 5, The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

In other words, “Forgive the same person seven times a day? That sounds impossible!”

Oh, and by the way, we should notice that Luke calls them the apostles here. He hasn’t called them the apostles since Chapter 9, when Jesus sent them out to do ministry on their own for the first time. The reason Luke calls them apostles at this point is to remind us that these twelve men are going to be the first shepherds of God’s new people — well, all except one. Luke is reminding us that these men are in training here for a specific job, which is: preaching forgiveness to the whole world.

He is also showing us that these are ordinary guys just like the rest of us. And when these guys realize that the task they are called to is much more difficult than they anticipated…they ask Jesus for help, just like the rest of us.

So this is a good thing! It is a mark of the disciples’ humility that they are able to say, “Oh, no, Lord, help us out here! We don’t have what it takes!”

But Jesus answers, “Yes, you do! [6] 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.

At that time the mulberry tree was famous for having very deep roots; it was almost impossible to dig up. So people would say things like, “Hey, let me buy you lunch sometime…right after I finish uprooting this mulberry tree.” In our day we might say something like, “Yeah, I’ll get around to it…when hell freezes over.” Or, “when pigs fly.” One of those sayings.

So Jesus is telling the disciples, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed — the tiniest bit of faith! — you’ll be able to make pigs fly, you’ll be able to make hell freeze over.” He is not telling his disciples to go around uprooting trees with their faith. It’s a joke! It’s a proverb. It’s an illustration of how powerful the tiniest bit of faith can be.

“But actually,” Jesus goes on to say, “what I’m asking you to do is not really that extraordinary. Verse 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?

Now, this part sounds pretty stern to us, doesn’t it? It sounds pretty uncompromising.

But actually Jesus is telling a joke here.

In modern terms it would be like, “Hey, boss, I finished those spreadsheets you asked me to do. Can I have a 50% raise?” What’s you’re boss going to say? “Uh: no! You are a great employee, but that is your job! So go back to your desk and do your job!”

Or, “Hey, mom, I just washed the dishes. Can I have 500 ringgit?” “Uh: no! You are my child and I love you, but I am not giving you 500 ringgit for doing the dishes! In fact, you’d better go clean your room now.”

So Jesus’ story is meant to be a funny illustration: “Hey, boss, I finished the plowing like you said. How about you cook me some dinner, or we order pizza or something!”

What’s the boss going to say? “Uh, no. You can cook me dinner. That is what I hired you 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.’

So what is Jesus trying to teach his disciples here?

First, he is telling them that the tiniest seed of faith can accomplish impossible things, like making pigs fly, or uprooting trees — or forgiving the same person seven times a day for the same sin.

But second, he is telling them that forgiving the same person seven times a day is not actually this huge impossible task. It’s actually kind of basic. It’s just…the disciples’ job as his future apostles, as his future shepherds.

Now, to be sure, forgiving the same person seven times a day is an impossible task for ordinary people! But for people with faith forgiveness and compassion becomes an ordinary part of life.

A disciple should not expect to turn to Jesus and say, “Hey, Jesus, did you see how I forgave that guy? Fifty times a’eady! Do I get a bonus now, or what?”

Jesus is going to say, “Uh: no! Fifty times is good…but fifty-one times is better!”

So what we are seeing here is that forgiveness is the chief characteristic of God’s people. God forgave us, and adopted us as his children. He gave us his Holy Spirit, which is a bit like our spiritual DNA. As we grow up our spiritual DNA makes sure that we end up looking and acting like our Father. Our spiritual DNA makes sure that we grow gradually into forgiving people.

That is why Jesus says, “This job I’m asking you to do is not actually that difficult!” He is confident that the spiritual DNA in his disciples will produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

This whole this is a bit like me saying to my son, Judah, at age two, “Son, you know what I want you to do? I want you to grow to be at least 1.93 meters tall.”

My friends would say, “Wow, Ian, don’t you think you’re being a little tough on the kid?”

But I would have said, “Don’t worry, I don’t mean tomorrow! But this is my son; he carries my DNA. As long as he eats good food, drinks good water, takes care of his body, my DNA will take effect and he will grow! And it will happen naturally. Sometimes it will be painful as the bones lengthen. Sometimes he won’t want to eat the right food and we’ll have to argue a bit. I’m not saying it will always be fun — but the results are guaranteed. My son is going to grow up to resemble me.”

And next year, when Judah passes me, he is not going to get to say, “Hey, dad, I’m 1.93 meters tall now! Can I have 20,000 ringgit?” I’m going to say, “Uh: no! You are my son, and I love you, but it was your job to use the DNA I gave you to grow to 1.93 meters tall. Congratulations! but don’t expect a bonus from me for doing what you were supposed to do with the gift I gave you!”

This is what Jesus is promising his disciples. Yes, it sounds like a really impossible demand. And the disciples are right to ask for help. But Jesus is also right to say, “You actually already have everything you need!” Because the truth is anyone who carries the Holy Spirit’s DNA is going to grow into a forgiving and compassionate person.

That is how we can tell that the Pharisees are not the Sons of God: they do not resemble God. They are not forgiving and compassionate. And since they do not have God’s DNA, they are not going to be invited into God’s house, into God’s feast. On Judgement Day they are going to find themselves on the outside looking in through the windows in disbelief, just as Jesus prophesied.

And that is how we are going to be able to tell that the disciples are the Sons of God: over the course of this book and Luke’s next book, we are going to see them grow to resemble God. Little by little they will become forgiving and compassionate men. They will put aside their ambitions for power and money and everything that goes with that. And because they do have their Father’s DNA, they will be invited into God’s feast! — all except one, as Jesus has already prophesied.

All right. So this is the end of Jesus’ Kingdom Management Training Course for his disciples. He will continue to teach them, of course; he will keep coming back to these themes. But as they get closer to Jerusalem Jesus will begin to focus more and more on his immediate and long term plans for the future.

So what does this mean for us? We are not the apostles. Most of us are not shepherds and pastors in God’s kingdom. Jesus commands his disciples to forgive and forgive and forgive again. Is this his command for us ordinary Christians also?

Yes. As we have seen before, these Kingdom Management principles are not just for pastors and teachers and elders; they are also for husbands, for fathers, for mothers, for employers, for any Christian who finds themselves in some position of care and authority over someone or something else.

And we all have power of some kind over someone. This is true even of our friendships. When someone sins against us, we are always faced with a choice:

Option A: we can can make them feel really terrible about it, we can remind them constantly of what they did to us, we can turn our backs on them and refuse to talk to them —

or Option B: we can forgive them. We can deliberately continue the relationship, continue the conversation, and try to figure out how to grow a little closer.

Jesus is telling us that Option B is the Christian option. By consistently forgiving our brothers and sisters we are actually helping to build God’s kingdom. That’s because forgiveness is the foundation building block of God’s kingdom.

Forgiveness is a bit like the basic Lego block. You are all familiar with Legos, right? The basic block has a single bump on the top, a single cavity on the bottom, and takes up one square space. It’s very small, very basic. But combined together with thousands of others just like it amazing structures can be built.

That is the power of forgiveness within a community such as ours. One small personal act of forgiveness feels like nothing — but multiplied by thousands? That is what God’s kingdom is made out of. That is what it has always been made out of! Forgiveness was at the center of God’s Law in the Old Testament. It is at the center of all Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament. And forgiveness is at the absolute center of the Christian life. We are forgiven people; which means we are forgiving people. Every time we forgive a brother or a sister, even of the smallest debt, we are preaching the gospel to them and to everyone who sees it. We are showing off our Father’s DNA. We are showing off our Father’s true compassionate character. With every act of forgiveness we are removing stumbling blocks from before those who long to pass through the gates.

Before we close, I need to point out something that is very important about Jesus’ teaching here.

Over the years some Christians have understood that Jesus is teaching us to always forgive. And this has led to some pretty terrible conditions. For instance, sometimes husbands and wives have abused each other, or abused the children, and well-meaning Christians have said, “Well, Jesus told us to forgive, so you need to return to that abusive situation and keep on forgiving.”

That is not what Jesus is teaching here. We need to pay careful attention to what he says: “If your 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.”

We are not called to forgive people who are not sorry for what they have done. We are not called to forgive people who have no intention of changing their behaviour.

In fact, if we forgive people who are not sorry, we are actually giving them permission to keep on sinning. If someone has not repented, or if they are not even aware that they have sinned against you, then Jesus tells us to rebuke them: tell them what they’ve done, clearly and as kindly as you can. If they refuse to listen, and especially if they refuse to stop…then call for help. Call someone stronger and wiser than you. Call someone who is in authority, whether that’s your mom, or your dad, or your manager, or your big brother or sister. If you are being sinned against and abused in some way by someone in your life, call on us, your family. Okay? Call me or Darlene. Call Franklin or Jessie. Call Phil or Barb, Terence or Charlotte, call Jason or Ruth or any one of your brothers and sisters here. That is what family is for. Together we will work to protect you and to bring the one who is sinning to repentance.

It’s like our thought experiment from earlier, with the siblings in the kitchen washing dishes. Your sibling breaks one plate, they’re sorry, okay: forgiven. They break a second plate, they’re sorry, okaay: forgiven. They break a third plate…maybe it’s time to figure out what they are doing wrong. Of course they’re sorry, of course they’re forgiven, but maybe they need some extra training in how to wash plates without dropping them.

That is, in part, what the church is for: we continue to forgive one another, but we also pay attention to see where each one of us needs to grow. And as we discover those areas, we work together to help strengthen those areas. For instance, a man who abuses his wife is often very sorry afterwards; he swears he is going to change! — but then it happens again…and again. I have spoken to such men before; I have watched them weep with the agony of their guilt; and I believe that their feelings are often genuine. But in those instances I am watching to see the fruit of true repentance: the willingness to take the steps they need to take. Does he love his wife enough to separate from her — for her own safety! —  while he seeks counselling, some path to permanent healing? If he is willing to take those steps, then as a church we work together to forgive, to restore, to make sure everyone is safe, to make sure no one is left behind.

But if that person is not willing to take the steps necessary for repentance…that is a much more difficult situation. If they refuse to repent, then we are forbidden to forgive! — but at the same time, we don’t want to end up carrying around a weight of unresolved bitterness and anger against that person; that will just poison us!

That is why, in another place, Jesus commands us as a church to hand such people over to Satan. What that means is that in a church like ours, eventually the unrepentant sinner will be disciplined and excommunicated — separated from our community — “handed over to Satan”. This accomplishes at least two things: first, it protects our community from that person’s abuse. Second, it protects our community from bitterness. We don’t forgive the unrepentant sinner…but we don’t hold on to our anger, our hurt, our bitterness. We hand it all over to Satan, who ultimately serves God. By handing an unrepentant sinner over to Satan, we are saying to our Father, “Here, you take care of this problem. We can’t.”

This sets us free from the burden of trying to save someone who does not want to be saved.

So to be perfectly clear: Jesus calls us to rebuke brothers and sisters who sin against us. And he calls us to forgive those who repent, those who are willing to take steps to learn how to avoid making that mistake again. Please note: this learning process might take a long time. So we may have to forgive the same repentant person for the same sin seven times a day.

That does get tedious. But just think about how patient our Father is with us! How can we do any less?

But of course we often do much less. Our brothers and sisters are learning, slowly, how to stop sinning against us. We are also learning, slowly, how to forgive the same person again and again and again. We all sin in many ways; and we all fail to forgive in many ways.

So what are we to do with our constant failures?

First, friends: don’t despair. Our Father knows we cannot grow to 1.93 meters tall in one night. He does not expect that perfection from us because his Son Jesus is always there at his right hand saying, “Don’t worry, Father, these are my adopted brothers and sisters. I have given them your DNA. They are going to grow to be what they are supposed to be. I guarantee it!”

So don’t despair.

But what should we do? Friends, let us do this: let us eat and drink. My son was born with my DNA, which made it likely that he would grow to be a tall man. But if he had refused to eat and drink…all the tall DNA in the world would not have worked, right? Fortunately, my son’s DNA not only told his bones to grow, but also told his stomach to rumble. He just did what came naturally. He just did what his DNA told him to do, and he grew. So let us also do what comes naturally to us: let us continue to let Jesus feed us with good things, with the bread and the wine and the Word of God.

This is the faith Jesus is talking about: faith as small as a mustard seed means having the faith to eat and drink. And we will discover that it is true what Jesus says: if we have this kind of faith, something impossible will happen: we will grow to be more like our Father.

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