Jesus teaches his disciples to be aware of not causing others to stumble, to use the little faith they have to move obstacles to the growth of the Kingdom and to be humble as servants of God.
Jesus teaches his disciples to be aware of not causing others to stumble, to use the little faith they have to move obstacles to the growth of the Kingdom and to be humble as servants of God.
Hello, and welcome to Series 9 and Episode 8, in which Jesus teaches on ‘Relationships and Faith’ We've been in Luke 16 in the last two episodes, and we are now in Luke 17: 1 - 10.
Introduction and Recap
But the context of Luke 16 is very important, and if you haven't heard those episodes then it's probably worth me summarising some of the themes there, and even if you have, it's worth linking this in your mind very clearly. Luke 16 comprises two parables, the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, with some teaching and comment in between. The main theme throughout the chapter is concerning money, materialism, the search for possessions, security, and status through materialistic gain. This is a theme of both of the parables, and it's also a part of the background discussion that's going on between Jesus and the Pharisees. There's a group of Pharisees travelling with Jesus at this time, and Luke 16: 14 identifies the issue very precisely and quite shockingly, when Luke says, ‘The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus,’ as Jesus taught about the dangers and deceitfulness of money. They loved money. Then comes the second parable, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where the rich man clearly loved his wealth. He accumulated plenty of money, he lived in a secluded estate, and he totally ignored the beggar who situated himself on the street just outside his home and his main gate, and then there was a terrible shock because their eternal destinies were a reversal of their earthly fortunes. The beggar believed in the message of the Kingdom and was saved; the rich man ignored the message of the Kingdom and ended up in Hades, separated from God, and suffering God's judgement for his unbelief. That's where the story ended, rather shockingly and dramatically, at the end of chapter 16. As always, we have to be careful that we don't separate the themes of different chapters simply because of the chapter divisions, because the chapter divisions weren't in the original text; they weren't put there by the writers; they weren't put there by Luke. They're for our convenience, and very often the material is linked between one chapter and another, and this is a good example of that.
Jesus' Further Teaching about the Discipleship Community
Jesus carries on to teach his disciples. Very often, this is what Jesus did, he taught something in public, and then something in private to his disciples. He performed a miracle in public, and then he explained things in private. He taught a parable in public, and sometimes he explained in private what the significance of that parable was. Here he is, talking to his disciples and helping them to interpret the stories and parables that he's been telling, and to interpret the theme of the deceitfulness of money and possessions, which is the underlying theme that he's dealing with at this particular point in his ministry. Let's read Luke 17: 1 - 4,
‘Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2It 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. 3So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”’Luke 17:1-4, NIV
Here we have some important teaching. The starting point is important. Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come. Jesus is thinking of the developing discipleship community, which is going to become the Church. He's begun to teach into that discipleship community as his ministry has gone on. We see a parallel passage in Matthew 18, where Jesus has taught quite extensively around some of the themes that are here. There's a lot of similarity of material. He's repeating some of the things that he's already said.
What are the things that can cause people to stumble in this discipleship community? The first thing that comes to mind is this issue of the deceitfulness of materialism, because that's the context. Materialism can cause people to stumble in their faith. Or, people outside the Church can cause people inside the Church to have problems with their faith, because they draw them away with the attraction of the possibility of becoming wealthy, or financially secure, or perhaps get involved in immoral or illegal activities to make money. Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come. The person who causes Christians to stumble should be warned that there's a danger here. They're going to come under God's judgement. Jesus talks here about ‘these little ones’ in verse 2. This is the similar expression that's used in Matthew 18, and as described in the teaching that I gave there, we described the fact that the ‘little ones’ represent believers, young in faith or new into faith; they shouldn't be caused to stumble by either other people in the Church or people from outside, trying to draw them away from their faith.
There might be other things that cause people to stumble, the deceitfulness of materialism is one obvious topic, but it might be nominal believers, it might be infiltrators coming in the Church, it might be people promoting sexual immorality - there are all sorts of possibilities that could be those things that cause people to stumble. Jesus, in verse 3, says to his disciples, ‘Watch yourselves’, don't allow yourself to be the person who causes someone else to stumble in the faith, and be alert so that you can see those other people, and challenge them, as they come into the Church community. Being self-aware is what Jesus is talking about.
Forgiveness in the Community
He then goes on in verses 3 - 4, to talk about ‘brothers and sisters’ who sin against us. We've had this exact teaching in Matthew 18 in Series 7, where Matthew recounts Jesus saying similar things, but in more detail, and you can refer back to that by looking at Matthew 18, particularly verses 15 - 17,
‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them. And if they repent, forgive them.’Matt 18: 15, NIV
Dealing with relational problems in the discipleship community is something that Jesus is very concerned about. He's already described it in Matthew 18, and here he describes it. If there is something wrong - negative, divisive - in the way that people relate to you, you should challenge them. Go to them and challenge them and, if they see your point, you must forgive them. Even if they are people who make the same mistake many times, we must always forgive the people who offend us.
This issue of forgiveness is very fundamental to the Christian faith, and Jesus teaches about it unambiguously on quite a number of different occasions, and if you've followed through the teaching you will know that it comes up regularly as a theme. Forgiveness is essential in our relationships, especially in the Church. It applies outside the Church as well, but Jesus' focus here is in the discipleship community., Even if they sin against you seven times a day and seven times apologise, you must forgive them. The interesting thing about forgiveness is that the Pharisees taught that forgiving somebody three times was the maximum you ever had to forgive them, whereas Jesus uses the number seven here, which is a symbol of the perfect number - a symbol of a large amount of grace given to that person. Jesus has made it clear that forgiveness of people is a priority for the Christian at all times.
Let's underline this by reminding ourselves of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Going back to Matthew 6 and to the Lord's Prayer, verses 9 - 15, where we see Jesus laying down the principle of the centrality of forgiveness right at the beginning of his ministry. He recounts and gives the Lord's Prayer in these verses, then some comment, which is very interesting and relevant. Verse 9:
‘“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us today our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”’And then Jesus comments, ‘“14For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”’Matthew 6:9-15, NIV
When we ask God's forgiveness, he's asking us at the same time to forgive other people who have offended us. I've spent many years in church leadership, in pastoral leadership, and have discovered time and again that the issue of unforgiveness and bitterness is a real issue for Christians, and is very widespread in any church community and in any culture. It's very easy to justify the position of unforgiveness - I will never forgive this person because of such and such. We can easily explain to others, or explain to ourselves, how offensive and hurtful their behaviour has been, and we'll probably be right in doing so in one sense. But there's a greater reality here, and it's the greater reality that matters most. It's that greater reality that comes out in Matthew 6, ‘“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”’ We're asking God to forgive us our sins, and if we have any self-awareness, we're aware that we sin every single day. There are things we say, think and do that are not in perfect agreement with God's will; they grieve the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, they're blatant and obvious, and sometimes they're secret or small. We're asking God's forgiveness, and it's not possible to continue to do that in any meaningful way, when we hold onto unforgiveness towards other people. His forgiveness to us is much greater always, than our forgiveness of other people. He's forgiven us all of our sins and saved us from eternal separation from him. We're not being asked to do as much when we forgive others, even though we have experienced real and serious damage and pain. God understands that, but forgiveness is a central part of the Christian life, and if you're struggling with that, can I encourage you to go back to these scriptures, go back to the Sermon on the Mount, spend some time in prayer, ask God to help you and he surely will.
The Power of Faith
The second half of our passage is verses 5 - 10, is where we move to different themes,
‘The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6He 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. 7Suppose 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’? 8Won'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’? 9Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”’Luke 17:5-10, NIV
This passage starts with a rather sudden and dramatic statement, ‘The Apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’’ That's a great thing to say, isn't it? The disciples are rarely called ‘Apostles’ in the Gospels. Generally, they're called the disciples. They're the primary disciples, the Twelve. There are many other disciples, male and female, who appear in the story quite frequently, but usually the Apostles are called the disciples. Sometimes, they're actually named as ‘Apostles’. This is one of six occasions only in Luke's Gospel where they're called the Apostles. It seems to me interesting that Luke uses this noun for them at this point, because the Apostles are facing up to the fact that they're going to have tremendous responsibility in the work of the Kingdom of God in the future. They're beginning to see this future opening up, where they're going to be advancing the Kingdom of God themselves. They know that Jesus isn't going to be with them all the time. They've heard him speak of his death and departure, and his resurrection, though they don't fully understand that; they don't know when it's going to happen.
They know that they need to increase their faith, and they need to increase their faith for apostolic work, for building the Church, for preaching the Gospel, for travelling and evangelising in other places that they've never visited before. They cry out to the Lord, a sort of heart cry, ‘Increase our faith’, They feel inadequate to the task. I wonder whether you feel that? I've spent all my Christian life feeling inadequate to the task that I feel God has called me to do. ‘Increase our faith’, and then Jesus describes faith, as he has done on other occasions, ‘as small as a mustard seed’ as being sufficient to do great miracles. Jesus has used this idea elsewhere, for example in Matthew 17: 20. Also in these other passages, not only can a tree be moved; it's a miraculous activity, this is a metaphor, a way of describing faith. But also we notice another expression is often used which is ‘moving mountains’. For example, in that verse I quoted, Matthew 17: 20,
‘“I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it'll move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”’Matthew 17:20, NIV
And Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13: 2, says,
‘If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.’1 Corinthians 13:2, NIV
He uses that similar expression. Here in Luke 17, the faith will cause the mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it will obey you. These are metaphors, these are images to describe the power of faith. Jesus is essentially saying you only need a little true faith to have a huge impact as a Christian. What do these metaphors mean? What does the mulberry tree represent? Or in the other metaphor, the mountains, as used in Matthew 17, 1 Corinthians 13, what does that mean, moving mountains? It's an expression that's got into the language of Christians. We need to think about what it actually refers to. I would suggest to you that a good definition is that the mountains that stand in the way, or the great trees that stand in the way, are major difficulties which stand in the way of the advance of the Kingdom of God, major difficulties which stand in the way of the advance of the Kingdom of God. This is not about personal fulfilment, and living a comfortable life making money. We know this isn't the theme. We've just been through all of Luke 16; we've just heard Jesus teach unambiguously about the deceitfulness of riches. There are major obstacles that stand in the way of the advance of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus is inviting us to exercise faith - if we have not enough money to live on, if we face some dramatic personal crisis, or some health crisis, or if we see a total lack of response to the Gospel, or if we face persecution and opposition. He's asking us to exercise faith, and to believe that God can intervene in those circumstances to change things, so that the Kingdom of God can advance. Maybe you have a close friend or a member of your family who won't believe in Christ, doesn't believe in Christ, resists what you're doing as a disciple of Christ. We need to pray with faith and believe that God can make a fundamental change in that situation one way or another. Jesus is encouraging us to believe that true faith is powerful. Faith Is trusting in him in the complex and difficult circumstances of life.
The Story of the Humble Servant
This passage ends, verses 7 - 10, with a little story, or a parable, the Story of the Humble Servant. Here, the owner of the land, the rich man, has a servant, could be a slave - an actual slave - in the context of the culture of the Middle East in those days in the Roman Empire, or someone who is just working on very minimal wages, has no economic independence and is dependent on this person. This story says that the servant may work all day in the fields, but he will also be working in the evening in the home. The servant's attitude should be one of humility towards his master, and that is an image of our attitude towards our heavenly Father, who is our master, verse 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.’”’Luke 17:10, NIV
This is a very remarkable little story, often neglected, very rarely preached on, or taught; a very powerful little story that tells us about the humble attitude of the Christian disciple. We are not looking for thanks and appreciation and a place of honour in the Church community or in society generally, by following the ways of Jesus Christ. All we're doing is wanting to obey the things that he calls us to do, knowing that our starting point is one of unworthiness. We never deserved to be in his Kingdom in the first place. We've come in as sinners; we've come in on our knees, so to speak, we've come in forgiven; we've come in being given the gift of eternal life; we've come in being given the gift of being born again; we've been baptised; and we've been set free from our old life. We are happy to be servants of our heavenly Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the heart of the Christian disciple, happy to serve; not looking for status, not looking for thanks, not wanting to be appreciated for everything we do, not wanting a position of comfort, but rather like the servant in this story, just doing what he's told, working in the day, working in the evening, serving the food for his master, eating his food later on when all his work has been completed. There's a certain wonderful humility in being a Christian disciple. It's not about status. Churches should never be about status. Leaders should not be seeking status, people should not be wanting positions of status in the Church in order to have a good image or gain respect of other people. We are just God's humble servants, and there's nothing more satisfying, actually, than day by day knowing that you have done what your Father asked you to do, and you gain your appreciation and rewards directly from God.
This is a point that Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, ‘When you give to the poor, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, don't tell it to anyone else, just give it as secretly as you can, and your heavenly Father will see and reward you. Go in your room when you're going to pray, close the door, don't let anyone see you praying but your heavenly Father will hear what you say, he'll reward you. When you fast, try not to allow anyone else to know what you're doing, or as few people as possible. Don't make a big issue of it. Just go about your daily life. Even if other people don't know you're fasting, your Father knows you're fasting. He will reward you.
There's an interesting combination of themes here in this second passage. There's the combination of faith and humility. People often teach about faith in such a way that your faith will make you better, a bigger person, a richer person, and is something to be proud of, that you've got a lot of faith, something to show off to other people. This is not the message we get from Jesus' teaching. The humblest people are those who are most orientated day by day, most focused on asking the question, ‘What does God want me to do today?’ and to quietly get on and do it, without seeking any reward. Those are the people who are likely to exercise the most faith, and see mountains move for the Kingdom of God.
My concluding reflections, then, on these teachings: Jesus emphasises again the central importance of relationships in the Church community. We have to keep working on our relationships, and we should compare this passage with the similar teaching in Matthew 18. Secondly, we need to be self-aware and self-controlled. Jesus says, ‘Watch yourselves!’ So, disciples need to be very self-aware in the faith community, in their Church lives. If we want our practical faith to grow, we need to confront the obstacles in front of us, identify them - the mountains, the mulberry bush, the mulberry tree, whatever it might be. These are just symbols of the obstacles. We need to confront them in prayer and in faith but with an attitude of servanthood. We're not asking anything for ourselves. We only want to see the Kingdom of God advance. These teachings are quite profound, and are best appreciated by taking time to meditate on them, prayerfully, privately, and I'd encourage you to do that as an outcome of hearing me teach them, in this episode.