Forgiveness, Faithfulness, and Faithfulness
Readings: Luke 17:1-10; Luke 17:11-19
The Gospel readings for the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity are a mixture of sayings and stories of and about Jesus. It is worth reminding ourselves that St Luke’s account of the life and teaching of our Lord, as he says in his introduction to the Gospel, is intended to be an ‘orderly’ one. It is not, however, an account that is generally in chronological order.
St Luke when he came to write his account had access to a lot of material. There were, for example, the ‘many’ before him who had already compiled their own account (Luke 1:1-2). There were eyewitnesses he could speak to, and he also had access to sayings and stories from several different sources as well. St Luke drew on all these in writing his Gospel.
It was, however, one thing knowing, for example, that a saying, was spoken by Jesus and another altogether knowing when he spoke it. Stories such as that of Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3), St Luke could locate reasonably accurately chronologically; with others, however, such as Jesus going to dinner with a Pharisee, it was not possible to say when exactly they occurred. This explains why St Luke uses rather general terms when relating sayings and stories from Jesus’ ministry. For example, St Luke uses such phrases as ‘One day while he was teaching …’ (Luke 5:17); ‘On another sabbath …’ (Luke 6:6); ‘On one occasion …’ (Luke 14:1); ‘Once Jesus was asked …’ (Luke 17:20). St Luke knows Jesus said and did these things, just not precisely when! St Luke brings them together, then, to make a logically and theologically ordered account but not necessarily a chronologically ordered one.
In our reading, St Luke has brought several sayings of Jesus together. Jesus begins with a statement of fact. Occasions for sin are bound to come, Jesus tells his disciples, but there will be severe consequences for those are responsible for them coming. It would be better for them, says Jesus, if they were to be thrown into the sea with a weight around their neck rather than for them to cause one of these ‘little ones’ to sin. Jesus, in using the phrase ‘little ones’, isn’t referring to children but to his disciples. Elsewhere, Jesus uses the word ‘children’ itself to refer to his disciples (John 13:33; 21:5), as does St John throughout his letters.
Jesus expresses himself so strongly about the seriousness of sin because he wants to establish how serious sin is, as the basis for what he is about to say. It is because it is so serious, Jesus goes on to warn them, that the disciples need to be on their guard against sin. Just because sin is common doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It does. It is because it matters that if a brother or sister sins, the disciples must, Jesus tells them, rebuke the offender; and then, if the brother or sister repents, they must forgive.
We normally miss out the rebuke part of what Jesus says and move quickly on to what Jesus says about forgiveness. Forgiveness, however, in Jesus’ teaching, follows repentance, and the disciples have a responsibility to help each other find repentance. A person can only repent if they realize they have done something wrong. To pick up a previous metaphor of Jesus: a doctor can only provide treatment if they have convinced the patient they are ill.
If, however, a brother or sister, on being told of their sin, repents, then the offended party must forgive. It doesn’t matter, Jesus says, how many times the person sins; as long as they repent, they must receive forgiveness. Jesus speaks of forgiving ‘seven times a day’ to mean repeated acts of sin, if they are followed by repentance, must receive repeated forgiveness. This may seem a tough ask, but isn’t this how God extends his forgiveness to us?
Jesus, then, establishes a pattern of rebuke, repent, forgive. In the course of my ministry, I have known Christians and churches who are very good at rebuking. These are people and churches that call sin out and stand against it. If, however, you were to do something wrong, of which you were ashamed, you would never go to them in the hope of finding forgiveness. Churches of this kind are often cold and unwelcoming. The irony is that there are often people in these sorts of churches who sin; they are just very good at hiding it. They feel they would be rejected if they didn’t.
In recent years, however, there has been a reaction against this approach, and most churches now seek to be warm and welcoming instead. To an extent, it is a reaction born from necessity. We know people are simply not going to come if all that happens when they do come is that they get judged and condemned. The attempt to be warm and welcoming began with churches trying to be more forgiving. Now in our churches we behave as if there is nothing to forgive. We don’t like talk of sin, at least, not in traditional sense of personal sin. We are happy to rail against societal ills, but when it comes to individual behaviour, we are unwilling to pass comment.
Jesus, however, starts from the premise that sin is serious and needs calling out. Jesus warns against sin, and so should we. Jesus himself rebuked those who were in the wrong, such as the Pharisees, but refused to condemn those who knew themselves to be in the wrong, such as the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). When people knew they were in the wrong, Jesus offered forgiveness instead. Sin leads to people being lost. Jesus rebukes sin because he hopes it will lead to repentance and to the lost being found.
Churches are to be places where sin is taken seriously. It is only when sin is taken seriously that there can be the offer of forgiveness. If there is no sin, there doesn’t need to be forgiveness. People can only find forgiveness when they know they need forgiveness. The path to forgiveness lies in rebuke and repentance. Repentance, however, must always be met with forgiveness.
If someone comes to me and says they have done something that they regret and are sorry for, then, without even knowing what it is, I can assure them of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is never in doubt; the only thing in doubt is whether we are willing to repent. Forgiveness for sin follows sorrow for sin.
In Series 6 of the BBC crime drama, Shetland, there is a storyline about a character called Donna Killick. Donna murdered, Lizzie Kilmuir, the 18 year old twin sister of Kate Kilmuir. The murder took place in quite horrific circumstances. Donna is imprisoned after allowing someone else to be blamed and imprisoned for the crime she has committed. Donna, while in prison, becomes ill with terminal cancer and is released on compassionate grounds and rehomed back into community she came from. There is much protest not least from Kate who is still full of hurt and hate from what Donna did to her sister whom she loved. In a powerful scene, Kate goes to where Donna is living to confront her. But instead of condemning Donna, Kate tells Donna she forgives her. Donna tells Kate to keep her forgiveness (she uses much stronger language!). Donna neither wants nor thinks she needs Kate’s forgiveness.
As followers of Christ, we must always be willing to forgive, but forgiveness must be both wanted and accepted. We mustn’t give the impression that forgiveness is no big deal. Forgiveness is a big deal. There would have been no need for Christ to have died for our sins if it wasn’t. Sometimes the sin that has been committed against us has hurt us so much and the wounds gone so deep that it can be hard to forgive, but we forgive as people who know themselves to be forgiven and who are in need of God’s daily forgiveness.
Jesus has taught us to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ (Luke 11:4). Churches are places for recovering sinners. They are, or at least they should be, places where those who want to find recovery from sin can begin the journey of forgiveness. They are not places for people who think they have no need of forgiveness, whether that’s because they think themselves better than others or because they simply don’t think sin matters.
It is perhaps because forgiveness is not always easy that the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. We live in an age that is very sceptical about faith and, what is more, which encourages scepticism, seeing doubt as a good thing. Doubt is generally seen, even by priests and pastors, as healthy and to be encouraged. It is somewhat ironic given that we fail to adopt the same sceptical approach to what we read and see online. We will ask question after question if someone suggests believing in God and then fall for the first online scam that comes along!
It is now easier not to believe in God and not to have a personal religious faith than it is to believe and have faith. It is worth reminding ourselves that this has not always been the case. In the past, belief was the norm and doubt what made you different. There may have been arguments about what the content of a person’s belief should be, but that there was a spiritual being to believe in was taken for granted.
Today, even when we go against the mainstream and overcome our doubts and believe in God, we still find it difficult to believe that God is active in our world and answers prayer. Belief can be no more that believing theoretically in the existence of God rather than thinking that he is in control of what happens. It is even less the case that our belief makes any real difference in our lives. Our doubts about God’s involvement in our world make it hard for us to think that prayer to God is of any use.
Most Christians don’t pray on a daily basis. The words, ‘I’ll pray for you’ are something we say automatically when someone is in need or trouble, but rarely do we follow up by actually praying, and even more rarely do we think prayer will actually change anything. The only time we take praying remotely seriously is when we have nowhere else to turn. God and prayer, at this point, become the last refuge of the desperate.
Then, of course, when prayer doesn’t seem to work in the way we hoped it would, our personal experience of prayer seeming not to work only reinforces our doubts about its usefulness. Many have had the experience of praying in desperation for someone who was sick and suffering, only for their prayers not to be answered.
Not only is believing in God and in the effectiveness of prayer difficult, it is also not easy having faith in Jesus, given all he asks of those who profess faith in him. It’s not easy forgiving people, loving people, taking up the Cross daily, dying to self, following him and being known as his disciple. It’s not easy being unpopular or laughed at because we believe in Jesus, and it’s even harder still to be prepared to die for him, as he asks.
Yes, we can identify with the disciples in their desperation for Jesus to increase their faith. We desperately need him to increase ours too.
Jesus’ reply is that if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed, we would be able to command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Jesus refers to ‘this mulberry tree’ suggesting there is one in sight! Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ request might at first appear to be something of a put down. Jesus might seem to be suggesting that we don’t even have faith the size of a mustard seed, proverbially the smallest of seeds. It is as if Jesus is saying we don’t have any faith at all, not even to the smallest degree.
I don’t think Jesus words, however, are meant as a put down in this way. Jesus is rather suggesting that we have got our focus all wrong. We are worrying about the size of our faith when we should be worrying more about but its reality and who it is we have faith in. It is not our ability to believe that counts, but the God that we believe in. Our faith may be small, but our God is not. What we need is not great faith but faith in a great God. As long as we are genuinely connected with him, we need not worry about how much faith we have.
Our focus as followers of Jesus needs to be not so much on our faith, but on our faithfulness. Jesus goes on to tell a parable. Jesus asks whether anyone who has a slave, when the slave comes in from working in the field, will ask them to sit down and have their dinner. Won’t the slave owner rather ask the slave to prepare and serve the slave owner their dinner first? The slave can have their dinner later. So too Jesus says his disciples shouldn’t feel pleased with themselves for doing what they were supposed to do. Jesus tells them that when they have done what they are ordered to do, they should say:
‘So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Luke 17:10)
This is another of Jesus’ parables that is not so popular, and which does not get told very often! It calls for a change and reorientation in our thinking. Following Jesus is not about us. We often think that following Jesus is about us finding happiness and fulfilment and that’s how we try to sell the Gospel to people. We promise people that if they join us, God will be there for them. Faith, however, begins with obedience; happiness and fulfilment are something that follow. Faith and its benefits come from faithfulness.
The reading for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity is Luke 18:11-19. In this passage, St Luke writes of how Jesus, while on the way to Jerusalem, is passing through the region of Galilee and Samaria. This is the most direct route to Jerusalem from Galilee, it was, however, often avoided by Jews, as it meant going through Samaria. Jews would often take a longer route to avoid having to pass through Samaria. As will be well-known, there was deep antipathy between the Jews and Samaritans going back many years. As Jesus enters a village, he is greeted by ten people with a skin disease who cry out to him for healing.
Many translations use the word ‘leprosy’ rather than ‘skin disease’. Leprosy, however, refers to a specific type of disease and one that is not in view here. Those with skin disease were required to separate themselves from the general population. This is why St Luke tells us the ten lepers kept their distance, even while approaching Jesus for help. Their disease made them ritually unclean, and their physical isolation led to an inevitable social isolation from families and friends.
The ten cry out to Jesus for mercy. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. This was the procedure laid down in God’s Law (Leviticus 13:2; 14:2) and was necessary for them to be readmitted into society and for them to be able to live a normal life. The ten do as Jesus tells them and as they go, they are made ‘clean’. They are not only healed but have their ritual uncleanness, caused by their disease, removed.
One of them, on seeing he is healed, turns back and praises God with a loud voice, prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet and thanking him. St Luke writes simply, ‘And he was a Samaritan.’ Jesus asks where the other nine are. Was it only this foreigner who returned to give thanks to God? It is a reminder to us that those who respond to Jesus are often those we think the least likely to do so. It is also interesting that Jesus links the man returning to him with giving thanks to God. It is God who is at work in and through Jesus. Jesus says to the man:
‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17:19)
Jesus has said that faith the size of a mustard seed can remove a mulberry tree. Here it has removed a man’s disease.
Jesus asks where the other nine were. Doubtless, they were just in a hurry to get back to their families. This led to them forgetting to say thank you. But what’s our excuse? St Paul writes to believers in the Church at Corinth:
‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7)
We prefer, however, to think and act as if what we have, we have because of our own efforts. We like to think we are free agents who have worked hard and deserve everything we have. We did not receive it. Many who are successful in life refuse to admit that circumstances or luck have played any part in their success. Others are willing to acknowledge that circumstances have played a part. They admit they have been in the right place at the right time but, they insist, they have made the most of their chances. We want at least some of the glory to come to us.
When we say thank you to God, however, we are admitting there is more to what happens to us than chance and circumstance and our ability to make the most of them. We are acknowledging God and our own dependency on him. Humans don’t want to admit to this dependency and so resist saying thank you. Faith and thankfulness go together. We trust God, knowing we cannot trust ourselves; and we thank God, acknowledging our own inadequacy but knowing that he can be trusted.
The Gospel readings for these two weeks contain sayings and parables that are apparently unlinked, and which seem at first to have been brought together by St Luke in a somewhat random manner. They, nevertheless, highlight three essential elements of following Jesus.
We are to be people who take sin seriously and who, because they take sin seriously and know the damage it can do, are prepared to call it out. In calling sin out, we do so as sinners ourselves who know the forgiveness of God and who offer that forgiveness to others. Knowing our own worthlessness, we seek, nevertheless, to be faithful to the One whom we are called to serve. And we thank him, knowing that in serving him, we are serving the One who has made us, healed us, and given us all things.
May forgiveness, faithfulness, and thankfulness characterize our lives as we follow him who has shown us mercy.