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Pentecost 17, October 2 – Luke 17:1–10
Other Lessons: Habakkuk 1:1–4 2:1–4 Psalm 62 2 Timothy 1:1–14

Our Gospel text for today once again seems to be a collage of some random sayings from Jesus. This is why if you look at the English bible (at least the ESV), these 10 verses are divided into 3 separate sections under these headings: “Temptation to Sin”, “Increase Our Faith”, and “Unworthy Servants.” But these verses belong to the same discourse. Nevertheless, in this one section there are 5 seemingly unrelated items: not causing little ones to sin (v1-2), forgiving a brother seven times (v3–4), increasing faith (v5), mustard seed dynamics (v6), and the unworthy servants who only do their duty (v7–10). How are these things related to one another. And more importantly, what is Jesus trying to teach his disciples?

First, Jesus begins here with a warning against sin and temptation to sin. It must be noted that the word for “sin” here is actually “skandalon” in Greek, from which we get the English word “scandal”. It means a stumbling block, which trips a person and causes him to fall. And the idea here is not merely about temptation into sinning, but temptation in such a way and to such a degree that causes someone to fall from the faith. Such a person falls so hard or so often, that he is no longer able to get up. It is not a problem when you walk or run and you fall to the ground, so long as you are able to get back up and walk again. We do this often, especially when we were young. We fall all the time, we scratch our knees, we bleed, we cry, but then we get back up. So also with our spiritual walk in the faith. As Jesus says, the temptations to sin and to fall are sure to come. These things are unavoidable, so long as we are still in this world and in this flesh.

But the greatest danger that Jesus warns against is the one through whom such temptations come. It’s worse for such a person because he himself presumable has already lost the faith and he is in such despair or bitterness or indifference that he desires everyone else to fall and remain fallen like him. Therefore we must know the word of God so that we may distinguish right and wrong, and so also be able to recognize a false teacher who misleads us with his own words.

Now, false teachers and false doctrine will surely come, and indeed is all around us, but it is not as though this we are in a completely hopeless situation because we still have the word of God. The word will remain forever. It is powerful and effective, so that, as Jesus says, we may rebuke a brother who sins (v3), so that there may be repentance, that is to say, remorse for his sins and faith in the forgiveness of sins. And when someone comes to us with repentance, we are to forgive, as many times as this is necessary, for us as each individuals dealing with our neighbors, and as a church when we deal with repentant sinners.

Indeed as Jesus has taught in his prayer, we are to forgive one another as God has forgiven us. And as Luther explains, those who hold a grudge in their hearts should not expect to receive forgiveness from God because by their vengeful attitude and actions, they thereby prove that they themselves do not understand and believe in God’s forgiveness. For if you truly understand your own sins and the punishment you have racked up for yourself, and when you see the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy toward you, what is your injury from a neighbor compare to what you have done to God and your neighbor? How is it so great in your mind that you think it’s unforgivable? Besides, a child born of mercy, lives in mercy, is filled with mercy, and therefore readily shows mercy. But how difficult is this for us self indulgent, self-important people! We think so highly of ourselves that we cannot be offended, and if we are, then it is unforgivable.

Therefore, rightly understanding this, the disciples asked Jesus, almost desperately, “Increase our faith!” The disciples, too, understood the difficulty, or perhaps the impossibility even, of this demand from their lord. Forgiveness, then, is not just a sentiment that merely occurs inside of you. Nor is it, as many people suppose, the forgetting of the wrong, which does not actually deal with the issue of the wrong, the guilt, nor the broken relationship. Forgiveness is always done out of love, for the other people. It is for the sake of the offender’s guilty conscience. Sure, there is benefit for the one forgiving, since being angry is not good for the self, but that’s not the chief purpose. Forgiveness is always for the other people, not for the self. Therefore, we understand it to be first derived from God himself. Just as life is from God, so also forgiveness, for in it there is life. The ultimate goal of our love for the neighbor is so that they would also know the forgiveness from God. Therefore we also forgive, and this requires faith.

So then Jesus tells them: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.” And here, we often get so distracted by this extraordinary example, that we overlook the greater promise in these words. The point is not that if we have enough faith, we can do all sorts of great and outward miraculous signs and wonders, but that if we have the faith, then we have this great treasure and work and sign, namely, the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, we hear this word so much, especially in the Lutheran church, that we easily despise this seemingly insignificant gift. We would rather have riches, fame, power, and all the things that this world values, but not forgiveness. But look at the whole context here! Jesus is not just talking about faith that moves mountains, he’s answer the disciples plea for faith with regard to forgiving one another. Indeed, is there something greater than moving a mulberry tree? (a similar passage about faith moving mountains is found in Matthew 17, which suggests that casting out demons and the preaching of the forgiveness of sins are related) What if you can move mountains into the sea? So what? I guess that would be helpful in urban planning? But here, with God’s word and command, we can say to one another, “You are forgiven. You are saved from the kingdom of darkness and is now uprooted and transferred and planted in the kingdom of his beloved son (Col1:13).” We can say these words and it does happen! This is an amazing thing that God gives us such power and authority over sin and death and the devil.

How is it that we have such power and authority? How is it that God would give us such power in the first place? How is it that such words can be effective? Certainly this is not by our merit or power or anything in us. As Jesus tells us in the parable at the end of this section, we are after all just a bunch of servants. BUT we are not just any kind of servant, we are the servant of the servant-king. We follow what the chief of servant, Jesus, who came to serve us by his life, death, and resurrection. For that is what he came to do, that in perfect living, in his innocent death, and in his victorious resurrection, he might conquer sin, death, and the devil on our behalf. Certainly, he didn’t die on the cross so that you can command trees or even mountains to be thrown into the sea, but that he did everything so that you may have the forgiveness of sins, that you may have life and salvation.

So therefore, coming back to the beginning of our text. Sin and temptation to sin and apostacy are sure to come. We are constantly being bombarded by the world, by the devil, and by our own sinful flesh to succumb to sin and to fall away from the faith. The ultimate goal is to make us believe that there is no hope, no turning back, no cure for us. Yet here, we have the powerful word of God, which first speaks to us of our sins and also of our savior, so that we too may speak to one another of their sins and of their savior. So that finally, we may truly say, “We are unworthy servants we have only done what was our duty.’”