A while back I was speaking to this young man who told me he was agnostic. He said, “My problem with Christianity is that it is too easy.” I asked him what he meant and he said, “If you mess up you just say ‘sorry’ and God forgives you, right?” I said “Yes, that is basically true but if you follow Jesus he asks you to die to yourself and that is not at all easy.” I mean that dying to self bit includes a lot of very difficult things. I encouraged him to read about Jesus in one of the Gospels and try to live the way Jesus tells us to live. I have been at this trying to follow Jesus for many years now, and I find it all very challenging. His life and teachings stretch me. And truth be told, that stretching is beyond my capabilities. It takes a faith that is a constant attempt to live trusting in Jesus and not in my ability. In one sense it is easy, because I am saved by grace. Which is good because I cannot save myself. But in another sense it is the most difficult thing we will do, because accepting God’s grace is a laying down of ourself and trusting in him.
Luke 17:1-6 deals with one of those very difficult things Jesus calls us to. Just like in 16:1, we are told that he was talking to the disciples. That doesn’t mean that others were not present and also receiving a message Jesus wanted them to hear. But there is something here that has specific relevance for those who choose to follow. We begin with a statement: It is impossible that stumbling blocks will not come. In this life there are hindrances; stumbling blocks; traps designed to get people off track in their walk with God. One source claims that it is not necessary to see the stumbling blocks as major sins. According to Kittel’s the word represents an obstacle to coming to faith and a cause of going astray. Well, both of those things seem pretty major. Jesus’ point is that in this world there are things and people who will do anything and everything to disrupt relationship with God. Make sure you are not numbered among them. It would be more advantageous to wear a grinding stone around your neck and find yourself thrown into the sea than to cause a little one to stumble. And if you find yourself in the sea with a grinding stone on your neck you will most definitely find yourself drowned.
Who are the “little ones”? The word used can mean unimportant. In the context of the religious elite getting all unhappy about his spending his time eating with sinners and tax collectors, the little ones will most likely be those considered unimportant – the dismissible – by many in Jewish society. So, if you, in any way keep one of these dismissible ones from finding God, a millstone necklace would be preferable than what is waiting. And that sounds suspiciously like judgment. Probably because Jesus was accused of being too soft on sin, he tells them to be alert and rebuke a brother who sins. Pay attention! I am not telling you to wink at sin. No. Rebuke! But if that brother repents, forgive. This comes from a long running Jewish discussion. But in the Jewish sources the burden is on the person seeking forgiveness to prove his remorse and change. But with Jesus the burden lies with the person forgiving. If your brother wrongs you seven times in one day and comes back to you and repents seven times, you are to forgive. The number seven is most likely meant to represent a large number. There is no need to go to Matthew and Mark and compare the number given to Peter (either seventy-seven or seven times seventy). It is unlikely that Jesus mentioned forgiveness only once in his ministry. And here, we are talking about seven times in one day. That’s a lot of forgiving.
So much so, that the disciples cry out with “Increase our faith!” It is an acknowledgment on their part that they don’t have the kind of faith to be this forgiving. If a person wrongs you seven times in one day can you really trust that they are sincere in their repenting? I mean, right? But Jesus said, “forgive!” Jesus tells them that if they had the faith of a mustard seed they could say to a Mulberry tree “Uproot yourself and be planted in the sea” and it would happen. The comparison is to how small a mustard seed is and how tall the plant grows. But does the seed do anything here? It has to trust in soil, sun, rain and probably all manner of things working together to encourage growth. Why is this important? Forgiveness is not about my ability or even the ability of those who receive my forgiveness. Forgiveness is about trusting God. True change will not happen because I refuse to give people a chance; because I hold onto the hurt; because I dismiss people as unforgiveable. That will only stumble them up. Rebuke and forgive then. Not easy. But with faith like a mustard seed, you can do it. Faith it up.