As we come to today’s Gospel, we have just finished a series of stories that Jesus told to illustrate His teachings. There was the grand trio of “Lost and Found” parables, “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin,” and “The Prodigal Son.” Then there was the story of “The Dishonest Steward,” and, just last week, we heard the story of “Lazarus and the Rich Man.” Jesus was certainly teaching the crowds with these stories, but He was also showing His apostles how they would also teach someday.
Although the Apostles were not yet ready to proclaim His teachings, Jesus knew that the day would come to send them into all the nations to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His name (Luke 24:47). He would pour out the Holy spirit on them and they would proclaim His teachings. In the Gospel that we heard this morning, Jesus had a warning for the disciples and all who teach in His name. He said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:1–2)
With these words, Jesus warned the disciples to teach carefully. As the Word of God spread, it would bring both old and young into the church. The Holy Spirit can work faith in anyone at any age Thus the little ones in the faith might be young in years, or they may have lived many decades before conversion. In either case, their faith is young and tender … easily bruised. The devil, the world and their own sinful nature will fight to take them back into unbelief. What a tragedy it would be if even the leaders of the church taught in a way that harmed their faith. That is what Jesus is talking about when He speaks of causing one of these little ones to sin.
There are innumerable ways to cause hearts to stumble, but these ways generally fall into two categories. One category of false teaching increases false guilt and causes despair. The other category decreases the strength of the law and so gives a false sense of confidence. Both of these categories teach that keeping the law in some way contributes to salvation.
Examples of weakening the law abound in this world. The world justifies murder when it teaches that a baby can be an inconvenience and it is OK to murder it before it is born in order to avoid that inconvenience. The world now teaches that intimate physical contact between two people is simply a form of recreational activity. If two people want to live together for a while, well a marriage license is just a piece of paper. Right?! Many people who live in this culture of weakened morality think that they are pretty good, decent, and upright people who really have no need for a savior. They think this because false teachers have lied about the severity of the law.
Sadly, we have many in the church who go along with the world’s lies. They rationalize that the teachings of Jesus were for people in the First Century. We now live in more modern times. We are wiser … more sophisticated. Those who wish to get along with the world’s lies even suggest that if Jesus were to make His presence known today, He would agree with the morality of the times. Sadly, they teach this to their congregations and so they cause many to stumble into pagan unbelief. These are the ones who cause the little ones to stumble into sin by nullifying the law.
Those of us who are more faithful in our respect for God’s law certainly disagree with this kind of thinking. We have a healthy respect for the Law of God. The Bible is God’s Word. Therefore, the law that we find in the Bible is God’s law. The problem that we in the conservative church have is that we are sometime so interested in getting the law right that we forget to tell people about Jesus. We get the law right and teach it as powerfully as we can, but then we forget to teach the comforting word of forgiveness. In this way, we lay a burden of guilt on people without showing them how God has removed that guilt in Jesus Christ. The rebellious soul will rightly accuse us of being hypocrites and Pharisees, and ignore our message. On the other hand, the tender soul will collapse into despair under the burden of guilt. In either case, we have still caused them to stumble into sin by proclaiming the sternness of the law without giving the hope of the Gospel. We have still earned a mill stone for our own necks.
Without Jesus, there are only two approaches to salvation. Either we delude ourselves into thinking we have kept the law. Or we recognize our lost and sinful condition and collapse in despair. With Jesus, there is another way … the way that Jesus described in the next couple of verses.
[Jesus] said to his disciples, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4) Here Jesus teaches the proper balance between law and Gospel. When we notice that our brother has sinned, we approach him in love and help him deal with the sin. Then, when he repents, we forgive.
Jesus even instructs us to do this seven times a day if need be. The number seven in this context is a number symbolizing completeness. In this context, it does not mean that when we count seven sins in a day, we stop forgiving. Instead, it teaches us that we are to forgive completely … that is, we never stop forgiving the repentant sinner. Even when we withhold forgiveness because a sinner refuses to repent, we do so in the hope that the sinner will repent and receive forgiveness.
In this process of forgiving others, we follow the example of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15) Here Paul rebukes sin by confessing his own sin and pointing to Jesus as his savior. When we rebuke sin, we can confess that we are fellow sinners who know the one who has forgiveness … Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. When we rebuke sin, we follow the teaching of Jesus when He said, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42) It is when we confess our own sins and our need for forgiveness that we can honestly rebuke the sin of others and proclaim the forgiveness of sins to them in Jesus’ name.
Now, if you are honest, you will readily admit that this rebuking and forgiving is not something we can do on our own. Our self-centered sinful nature seeks to punish instead of forgive. The goal of our rebuke is not loving aid, but conquering pride. We often rebuke someone in order to demonstrate that we are better than they are.
When the disciples heard Jesus’ teaching, they also recognized that they were not up to the task. The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5) Their request suggests that they thought a stronger faith would enable them to obey the Lord’s teachings.
The Lord replied with an answer that indicates it is not the size of the faith, but the object of the faith that is important. The Lord said, “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.” (Luke 17:6) With the image of the tiny mustard seed, Jesus taught that even the smallest faith accomplishes remarkable things. That is because it is not the faith in and of itself that accomplishes these things. It is the almighty power of God in whom even the smallest faith believes that accomplishes these things. It is not the greatness of the faith that uproots and plants the tree. It is the power of God that uproots and plants the tree. Thus, when it is God’s will to replant trees, He can work through even the smallest faith to command the trees to grow in the sea.
The final verses in today’s Gospel deal with the temptation that can come along when God does great things through our tiny little faith. It is very easy to believe that we deserve some sort of special recognition because God has done such great things in our presence. After Jesus ascended into heaven and poured the Holy Spirit out on these Apostles, they healed the sick, they drove out demons, the lame walked, even the dead lived again. The devil would use these great things to tempt the apostles into thinking how great they were.
At the end of today’s Gospel, we heard Jesus say, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10) When God does some great work through us, we should not wait around expecting Him to applaud. Even when our accomplishments are outstanding, we deserve no congratulations. We are merely doing our duty.
Jesus gives this teaching to the apostles and us so that when He does some great work in us or through us, we will not give in to the temptation to take the credit for that work to ourselves. Jesus condemned the hypocrites who do their works so that they may be praised by others. His words are chilling when He proclaimed, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:2, ESV) With these words, He taught that they have all the reward they will get in this life. That means there is no reward for them in the next.
Instead of looking to praise for yourself, look to Jesus Christ on the cross. It is there that you will see that God has already given you everything. Baptized into his death and resurrection, you no longer require recognition based on the successes He places in your life. Instead of coveting praise from others, you rest on Jesus’ service for you as He took your sin, your guilt, your death to Himself. He has prepared the eternal clothing of His righteousness for you. Because the Holy Spirit has placed you in Christ, His humble service is the object of your faith. He gives His body and blood to you at the table He sets for you. In this meal He gives you forgiveness, life, salvation, and the strength to go about doing your Christian duty as God’s humble servant, loving God and loving your neighbor, in the various vocations God gives you.
In Jesus Christ, we already have all things. Forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life are already yours in Him. You receive all this now by faith even if that faith is small. When you leave this world, you will receive it all by sight as you see Your Jesus face-to-face. Amen
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