[October 6, 2013] On Friday we remembered the day that Francis of Assisi (in 1226) and Theresa of Avila (in 1582) died. I also recall that October 4 was the day I was confirmed forty-seven years ago (in 1970) with the laying on of hands by Bishop Martin.
Background (Luke 14—16)
Today’s short text concludes community instructions that Jesus gave to His disciples in Luke 17:1-4. In conversation, and some confrontation, with the Pharisees, Jesus justifies His apostolate (meaning mission, that which He was sent to do) by describing His taking the lowest place and inviting to repentance and thus to the feast of the kingdom of God “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” and those on “the highways and along the hedges,” and even “the tax collectors and the sinners” (Luke 14:1-24; 15:1). After spelling out to such as these (who are now “large crowds”) the terms of following Him (and the repentance He leads them to; Luke 14:25-35), He condemns the Pharisees for not rejoicing over the repentance of the least of these (Luke 15), and for their avaricious and short-sighted, self-serving and self-satisfied mentality (Luke 16) that allows them to ignore the poor.
This Vulnerable New Community (17:1-3a)
Now—in Luke 17:1—Jesus turns to His disciples and speaks about these people who have chosen to follow Him, and the community that they constitute. They have chosen to follow Jesus, though it was by His call and the working of God’s grace operative in that calling that enabled and impelled them to make that choice. Every one of them are in this community by His choice even more than their own. We are speaking of ourselves, of course. We are the poor, crippled, blind, and lame, the street people and the people afar off, and the lost and the sinful. Jesus calls us “these little ones” (17:2) in contrast to the already “righteous” Pharisees and the society which wins their approval and which mutually approves of them. We are an eclectic group, but He says also that we are “siblings” of each other.
In 17:1-2 He warns all of us (His disciples) not to cause each other—not even the least among us—to stumble. Who is the least among us? Who is most invisible? Who do we “just happen” to overlook? Who embarrasses us by their being among us? Who do we chase away because of their poor hygiene or poor, uncouth, vulgar or rude manners? Who might we even despise, whom Christ has chosen to be among us? Considering who we actually are—“not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble,” but rather “the foolish of the world,” “the weak of the world,” “the base of the world and the despised,” and even “the ones who are nothing”!—the ease with which we all can offend one another is great.
Yet Jesus says, “it would be better for [us] if a millstone were hung around [our] neck and [we] were thrown into the sea, that that [we] would cause one of these little ones to stumble.” A millstone is pretty heavy, and we would literally sink like a stone once we were tossed off the side of the ship. “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come,” Jesus says, “but woe to him [or her] through whom they come!” The woe awaits us at the judgment seat of Christ, before which all believers will appear to give an accounting of themselves (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10-12). I cannot imagine that any one of us has not caused another to stumble at one time or another. Certainly I have, and many have caused me to stumble. So Jesus says to each of us, “Be on your guard!” (17:3a).
The Necessity of Mutual Honesty and Forgiveness (17:3b-4)
In such a community where we are so vulnerable to offending one another and being offended by each other—Jesus says “it is inevitable”—how can we keep peace with each other? How can we repair the damage that we constantly inflict? How can we continue to be a loving community instead of one torn by irritation and mutual animosity? How can we resist our desire to stomp off and be by ourselves?
“If your sibling sins, rebuke him [or her].” Rebuke is a strong word in English. The Greek word (epitimaō) that Luke uses has the sense of objecting, pointing out the fault of someone, and accessing the damage. It can mean criticizing, censuring, even castigating, and even punishing, but not always. In this context it must mean that when my sibling offends me or causes me to stumble (and thus “sins”), that I have a duty to point this out to them. That is all.
I do not have to watch my siblings to see when they err and censure them as if I were in a better position than themselves. “Rebuking” is, the way I imagine it, done from a higher position to a lower one, and assumes a disparity between the two people. Rather, what Jesus means, I think, is that when I am offended, I should not be silent about it. I do not have to create a scene, but I should go to the one who has offended me (caused me to stumble) and let them know. I speak to them as someone who often offends others, so there is a sense of mutuality about it—we are fellow sinners helping each other.
We may look at this as Jesus asking us to be open and honest and transparent with each other.
“If he [or she] repents, forgive him [or her].” The one who has caused the offense must regret having done so, and thus is apologetic. Whatever takes place when I confront him or her, the outcome should be greater clarity—for it may also be that I have misunderstood and taken offense when I should not have, in which case, we clear the air between us. Or it may be that what caused my offense was an unintended oversight on the part of the other.
When I have brought things out into the open between the two of us and the other repents of having offended me (if in fact they have), then I am to forgive them. I am to harbor no ill feelings towards them. I am to release them from anything they may have owed me in terms of the damage they have done to me. This is what forgive (aphiēmi) means: it means to let it go, to cancel the debt, as if it never existed. Notice that this is between me and my sibling, not between my sibling and God. About their having to answer to God for what they have done to me, that is between them and God and is not my business. My business is to clear things up between the two of us.
Now the damage may still be there. They may have caused me to stumble and I may still be laying on my face. The fact that they have discovered what they have done and are deeply regretful of having done it, does not mean the damage has been taken care of. I am to forgive them, but it does not mean that the hurt has thereby been healed. There may have been more damage done to me than simply hurt feelings between the two of us. My relationship to God, for example, may have suffered damage; I may have sinned. To release my sibling means that I no longer hold them accountable to me; I let them go in the matter; I no longer blame or judge them; I put that in God’s hands and leave it there. My internal affairs now become my responsibility, and mine alone (though I may seek help as appropriate, which is a way of acting responsibly).
I have been offended and made to stumble. I clear things up with my sister or brother who offended me. Now I must take it up with God and deal with it, however I must do so. But if I forgive my sibling, I do not make them responsible for me anymore. I no longer blame them or bear a grudge, but become responsible for myself.
This is very difficult.
But what if this sibling offends me seven times in a single day, and returns to me seven times, saying, “I repent”? What if I have to go to them seven times and seven times they express their regret and their intention not to offend me? Obviously, this sibling is very difficult as far as I am concerned. Still, I am to forgive them, no matter how difficult they are, and no matter how difficult it is for me to release them. Considering who we are and where we have all come from before Jesus came into our lives, this situation is not unimaginable!
“Increase our faith!” (17:5-6)
At this point the apostles say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” How can we possibly have that much mastery over our emotional attachments (which is what a grudge is)? Obviously Jesus means that we are to forgive our sibling an unlimited number of times, no matter how many times they offend me. Here I am all broken up and in pieces because they have offended me time and time again and, even though they are honestly sorry and do not intend to do it again, sure enough, they trip me up again. I am to let them go, refuse to judge them, and take up the issue of my condition—bruised and battered with my face in the gravel—with God. How can I do it?
When imploring, “Increase our faith!” the apostles are right that what they need is faith. Luke says that they addressed this to “the Lord,” and not simply to “Jesus,” and it was “the Lord” who answered them. This title says something about Who Jesus is, in what capacity they sought Him and in what capacity He answered. As the Lord, Jesus is the One who gives faith and can increase it. What the apostles are asking is not for more instruction, but for an act of power. They want Him to give them faith, or rather to give them more faith. He gives and increases our faith through the word of the Gospel operating in us who hear it—in our spirits and in our hearts—by the Holy Spirit.
The larger group of disciples may not have realized the difficulty of what Jesus was asking. It is the smaller group of apostles among the disciples, those who presumably have been with Jesus the longest and who were exemplars among the disciples, who realize their neediness.
Why faith though? Because to shift from the perspective where I see my sibling as the one at fault and I blame them to where I can release them and see my damage solely (in terms of emotions) as an issue between myself and God, requires faith. It requires that I appreciate the reality of God in the situation, and not see only the “obvious” situation between my sibling and me.
For example, let’s say I am sick. I can see only how I feel and what the doctors can or cannot do for me, and I worry about my being a burden on any else. Or I can see this in terms of God’s providence and that the whole situation with others around me, with the doctors and with how I feel physically and mentally has to do with my relationship to God. I can let my attachments go and just be there with it. This does not mean that I do not take appropriate actions (or non-actions), or that I am not paying full attention to things, but that I do not attach emotionally to how I am feeling and to what the outcomes may be. It is this attachment that gets us into trouble, and in this case may even make me sicker. It is the same when it comes to someone causing me to stumble. I do “attach” to my sibling, but I let them go (after bringing the issue to their attention and clearing up the issue between us)—they no longer owe me anything—and I be with the issue before God. If I can appreciate the reality of God enough, I can forgive my sibling any number of times, even if it is seven times a day.
To “appreciate the reality of God” is faith. It is a point of view that requires that our spirit be awake to God’s presence. Faith is not some sort of effort by force of willpower to make our minds think a certain way—to be positive, for example. Training the mind to have better and healthier habits is fine, but it is another thing. Faith, though, is a certain kind of awareness.
We have spoken of faith as fidelity to the Person of our Lord, as commitment and loyalty and allegiance and fealty to Him. This is our response to His calling us. When He calls us we realize we are addressed by Him, and are overcome by an intuition of Who it is Who is addressing us (the Lord), and respond by turning to Him and giving ourselves to Him. When He speaks to us (in those days, personally, but for us it is through the Gospel), something stirs deep inside of us—our spirit awakens and the Holy Spirit is enlivening it—and we are (literally) overcome. Our turning to Him is what we mean by faith, but this turning is in the context of this awareness that has overtaken us. In Christ we are aware of God. And God, with an irresistible beauty, as the Father of Jesus, becomes our Father with the same regard that Jesus knows. It is in this presence that we always stand.
So when the disciples say, “Increase our faith!” they are asking that they may see this more clearly and thus appreciate it more existentially.
Jesus says, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.”
He does not say that they need more faith. When He speaks of the mustard seed He is referring to its tiny size. A mustard seed is infinitesimally small compared to a mulberry tree. So what Jesus is saying is that it is not a question of more or less but simply of whether you have the genuine article. You do not need a lot of faith; you just need to have faith—the real thing.
Faith that is not the real thing is something we have merely constructed in our minds, summoned up with our willpower, or churned up with our emotions. It is something the soul has generated rather than something that permeates the soul from the spirit. Real faith begins in the spirit, converts the heart, and begins to take hold of the soul. The spirit is the life that animates our bodies, that makes us alive and conscious. From an external point of view, our spirit is life; from an internal point of view it is our awareness itself. The heart is our center, that which orients us. Our soul is our thoughts, memories, associations, images, emotions, volition and all the subconscious terrain that underlies them. Real faith comes from God working within us by the Holy Spirit. It is a gift over which we do not have control, but that frees up our will to receive it.
The mulberry tree of course is a metaphor. It is not Jesus’ intention for us to act like magicians and be moving mulberry trees by our command any more than He Himself did this sort of thing. The mulberry tree is a good size tree with deep and wide-spreading roots. For this reason, it could not be planted near cisterns. It represents these emotions of ours that make it so difficult for us to forgive—to release—our sibling. The hurt that I harbor against another is big (like a tree) and it has long and tenacious roots inside me with a grip that is hard to loosen. If I were to try to uproot this tree by my own effort, it would seem impossible.
But if I have real faith, I can command that tree to let go, to be uprooted, and to go plant itself somewhere else—somewhere far away, like the middle of the sea. The image is ridiculous, because trees do not plant themselves in the middle of the sea, but that is probably the point. This mulberry tree does not need to plant itself anywhere. It can simply go away, far away.
The implication is that if we have genuine faith, it will be easy to forgive our sibling, no matter how many times a day we must do it.
By Faith, Not By Our Hard Work (17:7-10)
The following parable is easily misunderstood when it is not understood in context. We need to see that it follows directly on what Jesus just said about faith (17:5-6), that it is about the humility that is necessary for us to have to co-exist in community (17:1-6), and that Jesus said it (and Luke relates it) with the attitude of the Pharisees in mind (chapters 14—16).
I can imagine Jesus saying this to the Pharisees, even though He did not (He said it to His disciples). The Pharisees were convinced that they had earned righteousness with God, that God looked favorably on how exacting they were in keeping all the laws of the Halakah. They thought, in fact—speaking within the metaphor that Jesus has set up—that after plowing and tending the sheep their master (God) is going to say to them, “Come immediately and sit down to eat.” They imagine that when they go the extra length and prepare something for the master and properly clothe themselves and serve him while he eats and drinks (even though these are things he commands them to do), that the master is going to thank them. They treat God as a task master who demands this-and-that from them, but then they imagine that when they have done the things He has commanded that He will reward them. They imagine that their subservience earns them credit with God and He is going to be so happy with them.
No, Jesus says. When you do all the things that are commanded you, you ought to say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” If God is a task master, then you are slaves, and if you are slaves, you have no claim to a reward when you have only done what you were command to do. If you are a slave, you are not entitled to anything.
Now, Jesus obviously does not endorse the slave economy. He often uses illustrations from everyday life to make His points, without intending to express approval of the social structures of His day. In the language of the New Testament, one the one hand we not Christ’s slaves but His friends; on the other hand it says expressly that we are slaves of God. Nevertheless, for us, neither the Son nor the Father is not a stern taskmaster.
Within the context of the preceding verses, the works that Jesus is referring to have to do with remaining in community. The disciples must not cause each other to stumble; if someone causes you to stumble, you must bring this to their attention and if that one expresses regret and apologizes, you are to forgive him or her—no matter how many times it happens. This is what Jesus commands us.
If we do it, should we expect our Master to reward us? Should we expect Him to be impressed and to have us sit down immediately to eat? Will He thank us because we have done what He has commanded? The answer is no. We have merely done what was commanded of us. If we do it with the idea of merit or reward, we have to admit that we are still “unworthy slaves.”
If I forgive another, I am one sinner forgiving another sinner. What is the big deal? How dare I not forgive my fellow sinner when I am such a sinner myself? There is no reward in this. We are merely doing what we obviously must do, what, in fact, we owe.
But put this in the context of verses 5 and 6: that we can only forgive our sibling if we have real faith (and if we do, we will find it easy). Jesus did not say that He would increase the apostle’s faith nor did He say that there was something they must do to obtain the mustard-seed quantity of faith that was all that was needed. Faith is something Christ gives through His calling of us; the result of the Holy Spirit’s autonomous operation in our spirit.
The meaning of the parable seems to be that when we accomplish anything that we are commanded to do, we ought not to credit ourselves with it. The only reason we would not do what is commanded is sin. (Sin being here our emotional attachment to the other person’s wrong, and our blindness of our real situation with respect to ourselves and God.) To love our siblings, even when they offend us, is the most natural response—especially since we are on a par, having often offended others, and in view of how much more we have been forgiven by God—and only seems hard because of sin. Faith puts us right again. So rather than thinking that God should reward us for having done that which we ought to have done (and which should have been our natural response in any case), we ought to recognize that we are unworthy slaves. God does not owe us; we owe God. We certainly are never in a position where our debt has been paid and our “good” works are in excess of what we owe.
All is grace. Moreover, in the context of God’s grace, there is such a thing as reward. In another context Jesus says that the master will indeed, “gird himself to serve, and have [his slaves] recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them” (Luke 12:37). This is the opposite of what He says in 17:7-8. The difference has to do with the context.