The NIV supplies its own heading of “Sin, Faith, Duty” for this section, and that’s as good a summation as any. The gospel for each Sunday often contains two ideas or themes that seem difficult to harmonize or resolve into a unified idea. It’s the preacher’s task to discern the links between the various ideas and pull them together into a coherent whole. Sometimes it requires more groundwork than others, for a variety of reasons. This gospel was one of those times. If you look at it, Jesus covers a lot of ground in His conversation with His disciples. I’m sure that at the time, it was a very natural, free-flowing conversation, but for us who are at such a far remove from them and who are trained by the pace of modern life to discard anything that isn’t immediately obvious, digesting and understanding Jesus’ words can be challenging, to say the least — but the blessings well repay the effort.
This was my first attempt at a homily on a text like this. A homily, for those unfamiliar with the term, can be used simply as a term for a sermon, or it can be used more specifically for a sermon that walks through a text verse by verse and comments on each verse as it comes (as opposed to other types of sermons which have a more defined or upfront structure to them.) Our homiletics (=preaching) textbook issues stern warnings against the less skilled or experienced preacher attempting homilies, but this was the way that made the most sense to me, so I went for it. I figured that that’s the only way I’m going to learn and grow — sometimes your reach has to exceed your grasp before you can do something really great. If you shoot for the moon and fall short, blah blah blah, that whole thing. We’ll see.
Verses 9 & 10 have served as a welcome corrective for me in the past. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one in the whole world who’re doing what he’s supposed to — that everybody else is a pack of wastrels who skates by while you’re slaving away dutifully and wishing you could goof off, but knowing that you can’t. At those times, verse 9 & 10 are good medicine. They may sting a little at first, but the sting is bracing and it’s healing. It truly is not about us, because our salvation is not from ourselves, nor is our faith. The Latin phrase theologians throw out at cocktail parties (after their second Shirley Temple) is extra nos. Outside us. God’s righteousness, His working, His grace, the peace He gives — they all come from outside us. They only come by the means of grace. Everything else, everything you find in your natural heart, will not help you one bit. It’s got to be extra nos because of what we’re like. May God bless you as you ponder His Word.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 3So watch yourselves.
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
5The 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.
7“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would 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 17:1-10 niv)
People have this incredible ability to be self-centered. Child psychologists tell us we all start out thinking that we’re the only ones in the world, and frankly there are people in the world who never make it past that stage. If you talk to them, it’s always about them – what they’re doing, what they’re thinking (if they’re thinking at all.) If you’re not talking about them, they get bored and wander away. It’s all them, all the time. Some of you may be smiling as you picture the face of someone you know in your mind. What you don’t know is that someone else is smiling as they picture you, and somewhere someone is picturing me. We all are prone to this behavior at times. We each think it’s all about us. Today Jesus teaches us about a variety of topics in our gospel, but they all have one common thread. They each help us see that it’s not about us. Jesus’ words have much to say to us, but his focus is very different than the self-centered one we adopt at times. Let’s each of us gladly bow our hearts before the Lord’s Word and find out exactly how It’s not about you.
Jesus begins with a dire warning: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.” There’s a multitude of different things that cause people to sin, all devised by wicked people for wicked ends. If we started listing them, we’d be here all day. Maybe the words Jesus uses can give us some insight. The word Jesus uses for things that cause people to sin has the picture of a deadly snare or a trap. The animal walks into the snare, trips it, and pow! They’re caught. They can’t get away. That’s it for the animal. These things that cause people to sin are literally deathtraps. They’re spiritual deathtraps. Anything that ensnares or traps the child of God into soul-destroying sin is meant here. Jesus is warning about any sinful behavior or activity a Christian can fall into that will harm his or her faith.
Those who perish in such snares are precious to Jesus. Jesus cares for every last one of his believers, even the newest or most callow and naïve. That’s who Jesus means by “these little ones” – his baby Christians, those who are weak or new in faith. We probably think first of children when we hear little ones, and they’re certainly included in that group, but it’s more than just children. It’s all who are still getting started in their faith, who are young and immature yet toward God. When it comes to helping your fellow Christians, it’s not about you – it’s about what’s best for them. God prevent each of us from giving offense to our fellow believers or leading someone else to stumble in their faith, just because I’ve decided what I want to do. It’s not about you – it’s about the good of others.
Jesus goes on to give an especially pertinent example of a situation that can turn into a spiritual deathtrap. One Christian sins against another; now what? Jesus’ teaching is short and to the point: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, Jesus adds: “If someone sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent’, forgive him.”
There’s nothing particularly hard to understand in those words, but we don’t always follow them. If a Christian brother or sister sins and we find out about it, many times we’d rather complain about it to someone else. We prefer to gossip or bellyache about it rather than address it with the person. We may even find it funny or laugh at it – laugh at sin – instead of talking to that person. None of those are what Jesus has told us to do. The situation can really become nasty when we’re the one sinned against. Sometimes we don’t want to forgive. By nature we’re inclined to hold grudges. We want to get mad, act righteously indignant or better than the other person, because they did something against me. I have the right to be angry. It almost seems like we crave the moral high ground that comes from being the injured party, and we’ll hold that high ground no matter what, even if the person who hurt us has repented and has asked us to forgive them. We forget our Savior’s words in Matthew 6:15 : “If you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins.” Or we forgive, but we put limits on it: I’ll forgive you this time, but there won’t be a next time. One way or another, we make it about us.
When we refuse to forgive in that way, we’re forgetting one absolutely critical fact: God has already forgiven us of far greater sins than whatever that person did to us! Christ has taken the sinfulness of your heart that you were born with, the eternal offense that you carried with you into the world, and he took it away, nailing it to the cross. The damnability of your wicked thoughts, your hurtful words, your haughty attitudes, which really offended against God first, not your neighbor, have all been washed away and cleared off the record by Christ’s suffering and death. Christ has overcome the hateful resistance of your old Adam with the tidal wave of his love that washed over you when you were baptized and that now buoys you up every day. He gives you new life and strength to your soul as you approach his altar and receive Jesus himself – not just bread and wine, but the living, eternal Son of God in your hand and on your tongue, just as he has promised, to forgive the sins of the past week and to drive home yet again that he will never leave you. Christ has forgiven you everything wrong you’ve ever done! When someone sins against you, forgiving them means it’s not all about you, because Christ has forgiven you of far more than they’ve done to you.
The apostles sit there, absorbing this teaching of Jesus about forgiveness, and then one of them speaks up: “Lord, increase our faith!” The other probably nodded along. They were thinking, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to need a lot more faith. This is a tall order. We want to do what Jesus says, but as we are right now, we’re not capable of this. So Lord, increase our faith. Make us able to handle what you tell us to do.
Jesus replies with another saying that sounds convicting at first, but it’s actually really comforting. “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.” Now the mustard seed was one of the very smallest of all seeds. It was about half the size of a sesame seed on a hamburger bun. That’s not very big. Jesus says that even if our faith is smaller than that, we can in faith order a twenty-foot tall tree to move itself out to sea and be planted and grow there, and it will happen.
Jesus isn’t belittling us here because our faith isn’t even mustard seed sized. No, Jesus knows what our hearts are like. He knows that we can feel inadequate when confronted with big problems or challenges – with people we should forgive but we feel like we can’t. He knows that too often our faith feels like it’s just about mustard seed sized – tiny tiny, not worth much. Jesus says even your tiny faith is still powerful, if it truly is faith. The size of your faith isn’t what’s important; it’s what you have faith in, the object of your faith, that’s the important thing. As long as your faith is in Christ – even if it’s tiny faith – it can still accomplish wonders. Jesus tells you, in effect, that it’s not about you.
Think about it this way: picture a huge piece of machinery, like a front end loader or some other gigantic piece of earth-moving machinery that they use to make roads. A machine like that can move far more than any person can. The machine can do things that are impossible for one man with a shovel. It can pick up tons of earth with a single scoop. But that gigantic machine can be controlled with one finger. Just one finger – and yet when that finger moves the right lever, the machine will move mountains. Our faith is the finger that moves the lever. When we trust that Christ is our Savior and he has done everything we need to be saved, and that he can do whatever he pleases, whatever he knows is best for the situation we find ourselves in, then our faith can accomplish miracles. Even your faith, as weak and pitiful as it seems at times, can do the impossible, because it’s not about you – it’s about Jesus. St. John tells us in his first epistle, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (5:4-5).
He can even give you the faith to humble yourself and forgive someone you never thought you’d be able to forgive. He can give you the faith to reconcile with that person that seemed estranged or divided and separated from you forever, because it’s not about you and it’s not about them and it’s not about what they did to you – it’s about Christ and his forgiveness and living together in that forgiveness.
When our faith does accomplish such amazing things – and it will – Jesus doesn’t want us to think that we made it happen on our own. He doesn’t want us to think it’s all about us. So he’s ready with some steadying words to keep us on the right path, in the form of the parable he tells about a servant who does his duty. By faith we understand it’s not about us. God is the one who works in us to will and to do, and as we try to live by his law we see ever more clearly that what has been done through us has been done by God. God may use us to rebuke a brother or encourage someone or to convey his forgiveness to a repentant sinner, but none of that is about us. We don’t want to take the credit for those things because we understand that they’re God’s work, and he’s the one who has brought it all to pass. We’re content to let God have all the credit. We’re like servants standing around the master’s table, each waiting for our turn to serve, knowing that whatever we accomplish will be for God’s glory, just thankful to have been a part of it all – even as one day we will all stand around his throne in heaven with palm branches in our hands, singing his praises forever. Then, even more than now, we will see that it’s truly not about us. Amen.