May 1 lesson: Increased Faith
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Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 3: The Fullness of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 1, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Luke 17: 1-10
Our lesson scripture today, Luke 17:1-10, contains four parts, and each part concerns some aspect of discipleship. As you know, discipleship is a topic Jesus highlights as he draws closer to Jerusalem.
The four parts of the passage can be listed as follows:
Verses 1-3a concern a warning about causing others to sin,
Verses 3b-4 speaks of the necessity of correction and forgiveness in Christian life,
Verses 5-6 remind us that faith is the greatest force in the world,
Verses 7-10 relate to the issue of service and the impossibility of putting God in our debt.
Scholars inform us that each of the four major parts in this text check with fundamental relational aspects of our walk with God and each other. The passage calls Jesus’ followers to refrain from causing others to stumble, to rebuke, to forgive, to strengthen the faith of others, and to be respectful of the needs of others. And these instructions come with a stern warning. It would be better to be killed than to violate them. Whoever thinks the Christian life is a cake walk has not read this difficult passage.
While leaders reason to be the focus of verses 5-10, they are not the subject of verses 1-4. These instructions are for all believers, all disciples. Hear me now! All disciples of Christ are to care for fellow disciples in these difficult ways.
Jesus warns his disciples not to cause others to stumble, that is, to lose their faith or to turn away from developing faith. This demand that we are not to cause others to stumble means that we are not to say or do things that cause others to lose interest in or violate their faith. Further, it means that the good of the other person’s faith is more important than our “right” to do what we want. There, this saying of Jesus makes us responsible for one another. We must not cause people to be unfaithful to what they believe to be right.
As scholars make clear, this warning about being the cause of sin in the body is a serious remark about the responsibility church members share. Jesus knows that sin will come, however, we should not be the cause of anyone stumbling in the body. Why? Because God takes the source of sin in the body seriously. The remark here is like the warning in 1 Corinthians 3:17: “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
This statement of Jesus also directs our attention to the weak and the outcast. In Luke, the “little ones” are those who are disadvantaged physically, economically, and/or socially. We are told that after the parable in chapter 16 about the danger of wealth, this statement also includes a call to use our financial resources wisely – to use them in ways that bring people to faith rather than in ways that hinder the development of faith. And here we are specifically talking about faith development among the disadvantaged. Stating it differently, we are to conduct our lives so that we are examples to everyone of how to be faithful.
If anyone sins
Verse 3 begins with an exhortation to “Be on your Guard!” Scholars inform us that it’s difficult to tell whether this warning goes with the preceding instructions about not causing the “little ones” to stumble or with the following instructions about rebuking and forgiving. The way out is to see it applying to both.
After pointing out that stumbling in faith is inevitable (17:1) and warning against being the cause of it, Jesus gives instructions about what to do when it happens.
Thus, this second topic also deals with corporate relationships. It concerns mutual accountability in the body. Sin has to be rebuked and forgiven and both parts of the equation are crucial. The rebuking of sin shows how seriously the community takes the pursuit of righteousness, while forgiveness points to how genuinely the community honors the avenue of restored relationships. The goal of these twin responsibilities is to produce a community where the destructive effects of sin are not allowed to eat at the body.
So Jesus calls his disciples to be willing to call one another to account. Wait a minute! These are difficult instructions for us. As scholars remind us, we do not like to have others notice our sins, and we do not like to confront others about theirs. We would prefer a relationship with God that involves just God and me. But, as far as Jesus is concerned, that is not the way of discipleship. The Christian life is always a community matter. It is always about how we live in relationship with one another.
Now, according to Jesus, the meat of this relationship with others demands that a part of it must include loving others enough to let them know that their behavior is not pleasing to God and harmful to us and those around us.
“Rebuke” (verse 3) is not a favorite word and seems harsh. There is something about it that sounds judgmental and arrogant and turns us off. However, Jesus does not call us to be abusive to those in whom we find fault. Any rebuking must be done in a way that inspires people toward faithfulness and not away from it.
Consequently, this means that any rebuking must be done in love and kindness and gentleness. The rebuked person must be able to understand that we have only the good of the person and the church in view.
It is difficult for us to see how rebuking someone can be done in this way. For sure, this kind of interaction requires that we have relationships within the church that are built on love, trust and mutual commitments. We are not talking here about correcting strangers but brothers and sisters in our church family. Of course, as we know, this task requires humility and love. And the model for this is the ministry and death of Jesus. He always put the good of others above his own. And that will also have to be our pattern and way of life.
Sins against you
While verse 3 mentions sin generally, the focus is soon very personal. The person here is not just sinning in general but “sinning against you.” The person does you wrong.
At this point, Jesus does not want you to correct; he wants you to forgive. Somehow, this person harms you, and you are called to the responsibility of making things right. This is not a situation where both parties are mutually at fault. Therefore, you, as a disciple, rebuke the one who has done the wrong to you.
But when the offender acknowledges the wrong and promises to change, the ball is back in your court. You, as the aggrieved one, must forgive.
Jesus demands that people forgive those who sin against them an extraordinary number of times. Scholars point out that in the parallel in Matthew, the number is “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22); here in Luke it is “seven times a day.” Both texts imply that we are to forgive more than is reasonable. The call is for the disciple to forgive constantly.
Now, if forgiveness is not offered there is no way to restoration after someone turns from sin. And the absence of restoration can be as deadly to the life of the community as sin itself. The reason is that it is only through restoration that we can grow beyond our past failures.
Faith as a mustard seed
Jesus’ call to correct and forgive is a heavy matter. When the apostles hear this instruction, they ask Jesus to give them the faith it takes to do it. Jesus responds with an exaggeration that stresses the power of just a little faith. If they have just the smallest bit of faith, they can do extraordinary things.
This is a most comforting passage. How many of us have felt the necessity of more and more faith? I know I have, and it is probably true of many of you. While we will continue working, praying and hoping for an increase of faith, this passage emphasizes that only a little faith is necessary to do extraordinary things. In this passage, Jesus is primarily concerned that faith is present; he is not concerned about its size.
At any rate, the mustard seed is proverbially small and the mulberry tree is known as deeply-rooted. Therefore, the smallest bit of faith can move the most deeply-rooted thing. In the same way, their faith can empower them to rebuke and forgive.
The remaining verses 7-10 use imagery that causes us concern. They speak of how people treat slaves. Scholars remind us that while slavery was not raced-based in the ancient world, slaves were still considered property. Slaves were found everywhere across the ancient world as they were considered essential to its economy. Actually, in some cities there were more slaves than free people. So, this is imagery that all ancients would clearly understand, whether they owned slaves or not.
Scholars continue pointing out that Jesus’ instructions here neither accept nor reject the institution of slavery. He simply uses an illustration that everyone understands.
We are all aware that slaves must wait on their masters and postpone meeting their own needs until they have done what the master wants. And when they do this, they are not doing anything extraordinary but just their job.
Jesus seems to be making the same point about forgiving your fellow Christian offender “seven times a day.” Forgiveness is not exceptional; it is just your job.
Note here that in verse 5 the audience changes to the “apostles,” not the disciples.” This suggest that Jesus’ conversation shifts to those who will be the leaders in the church. Specifically, leaders are to behave as slaves among their fellow church members. Leaders are to put the needs and good of the others in the church ahead of their own good. Thus, giving priority to the good of others is not exceptional behavior for Christian leaders. They are to see it as their duty.
As always, Jesus is the model in that he put the good of others above his own good.
- Discuss the tasks to which Jesus calls all believers.
- Name things that believers do that might cause others to stumble.
- What are Jesus’ expectations when one believer sins against another believer and how is that possible?