Paul’s letter to Timothy says:
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 2 Tim.1:7
I want to frame my reflections to you today with this phrase in our hearts.
Luke’s Gospel 17:1-10 contains four different sayings by Jesus which don’t seem to have any connection to what comes before or after them. They don’t even seem to have much connection between them. However, as we step back to find some perspective, we realise as we listen to Jesus we being taught about love, faith, justice, humility and community in the journey of discipleship.
Jesus tells us how to care for one another, the integrity of our relationships and the love we have for our neighbours. We need to listen to Jesus appreciatively and as always, Jesus’ teaching challenges and changes us.
The first saying is about our behaviour causing someone else to stumble. Humility, love and community taking centre stage. Christian communities have a long history of using the bible in ways tempting us to make the scriptures into a stumbling block. The words provide a key to helping us understand the text.
We are told temptation to sin will certainly occur, but ‘woe to anyone by whom they come!’ (17:1) Jesus uses dramatic imagery to emphasise the consequences and accountability for potential damage caused by those who become stumbling blocks for others. If our behaviour drives someone else to sin, then it is we who are also at fault.
Secondly, Jesus then tells us (17:3-4) to ‘be on our guard’, and aware of our own behaviour. If another disciple sins, we must help the offender to see this is not acceptable; and, we must also forgive, hoping there is self-awareness, repentance and sorrow. Even if that same person sins and repents seven times in a day we must forgive. Forgiveness and justice are not easy in practice.
We also know repeated forgiveness can be twisted to encourage sin if forgiveness is seen to be ‘easy’. Luke 17:4 has been used to encourage battered wives and partners to stay within abusive relationships, even though the intimacy of repentance and forgiveness can become a crucial step escalating a pattern of violence.
Sadly, urging someone to repeatedly forgive in such circumstances could be seen as tempting the victim to stay passive, doing nothing in response, not seeking to protect themselves. Such teaching encourages the battered person to refuse to see herself as a beloved child of God, worthy of respect and love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, repeated forgiveness can become cheap grace, enabling the same behaviour to go unchecked. This is not an easy teaching.
I remember Bishop Allan saying to me as we discussed issues of abuse and violence in our church alongside our Christian teachings of repentance and forgiveness, real forgiveness for all people is critical for a healthy life, whether Christian or not. Genuine forgiveness is life-giving, but there are always consequences for our actions and repentance and forgiveness do not mean old habits can stay the same. The person seeking forgiveness hopefully realises they must accept the consequences of their actions as a sign of repentance and reveal a real commitment and determination to stop repeating the same mistakes.
This is partly why as a priest, I may hear the confession of the abuser, and I will walk with them to the police station as they hand themselves in as part of their confession of repentance and their ability to accept forgiveness.
Luke, like Jesus is presuming failure in the Christian community. Even with the best intentions in the world, given our different temperaments, backgrounds and the way we process information we are going to step on one another’s toes. Two people of enormous goodwill can deeply hurt one another. Its important to recognise this, because good people hurt one another as we all come at reality in different ways. That is why, for Jesus, the only way to achieve union is through forgiveness; not through making sin impossible or excommunicating those who don’t conform. Jesus says the only way to achieve union is through failure, vulnerability and seeking to repair because people are always going to hurt one another.
Thirdly, Luke 17:5-6 emphasises the power of faith and humility. Jesus reminds us, if only we would trust God, the gift of grace will be so significant that even if our faith resembles the size of a mustard seed, it would be able to turn the natural order upside down. Once again Jesus uses strong imagery to convey the simple, extraordinary message of the absolute safety in trusting in God and God’s love always, in all places and in all times.
Like the previous verses, this too has been used for harm. In some teachings, it has been misused and the promise of the ‘power’ of faith has been used to offer miracles, healing and prosperity. If the promises are not realised, it can cause great distress, leaving the person to ask, ‘do I not have enough faith, what have I done wrong, why is God not answering my prayer?’ The kind of exploitation involved in such teaching, leads us in this example, to the sin of pride. Theologically, pride is the attempt to justify our own lives. It is the belief we must do more, be better, be more worthy or have more faith to merit God’s love and grace.
The fourth saying is given in the final 4 verses, Luke 17:7-10 and it is longer and more complex than the previous three sayings. Jesus uses the example of a slave who works in a field, who comes in at the end of the day and is still expected to serve dinner to the master. Jesus challenges those who are listening to imagine saying ‘thank you’ to a slave for doing what is their job. Then Jesus concludes with a complete reversal in the expectations of his disciples:
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!’ (v.10)
This twist brings us all up short as we sort through what we believe, and Jesus reminds us we can never earn, be worthy or merit God’s grace. Humility and vulnerability relying on God’s love.
As with the earlier sayings, these verses have also been used in harmful ways. Those who previously supported slavery in the US pointed to such references as evidence slavery was divinely sanctioned. Yet this is clearly not the case.
The text offers once again, a temptation to sin, particularly the sin of idolatry and specifically to the creation of idols, of allowing something that is not God to stand in God’s place. In this case, idolatry occurs when we imagine human structures, systems and ideologies are absolute and unchanging. Idolatry happens when human understanding and thinking is not changed by God’s love. Slavery on the part of the US was idolatry as white Americans defined enslaved Africans based on ideologies of race and profit, rather than accepting the theological truth, all humans are created in the image of God.
In this short collection of verses in Luke (17:1-10), these sayings about how to live as followers of Christ invites us to understand there is no single rule, only imperfect people who make mistakes and sin, and a perfect God who loves and forgives. The kingdom of God is already among us. It is scattered about like mustard seeds. The kingdom is always quietly at work, growing now and in the future, it is powerful and transformational. It is never going to be neat, orderly, subject to human conditions, systems and judgements.
As Paul wrote to Timothy:
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline’. (2 Tim.1:7)
Our work, our lives, our beings are dedicated to loving God and our neighbour in ways that are life-giving, generous and loving, forgiving and being forgiving. Jesus is inviting us to walk into this way of living with God and one another in God’s kingdom.
Sisters and Brothers, you are invited to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Ed’s]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Luke Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Johnson, L.T. [Harrington, D.J., S.J., Ed.] 1991. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.3. The Gospel of Luke. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Rohr, R. 1997. The Good News According to Luke. A Crossroad Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York.