with a Millstone Around your Neck!
Week of Sunday October 6 - Pentecost 20
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.3Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.
7 ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!” ’
Before we read Chapter 17, remember the previous chapters. There has been much turning upside down of the way the world works.
The rich man goes to Hades while the poor man lies in the bosom of Abraham; the lovers of money are told you cannot serve God and money, even though money was seen as a sign of God's blessing; the shrewd, immoral steward exhibits a canniness about the world which we Christians would do well to emulate when it comes to spiritual matters; these are the examples of Chapter 16.
Before this comes the story of the profligate father who forgives the unforgivable son; the woman who searches for the lost coin without which the church is incomplete; the shepherd who leaves the flock in the wilderness to search for the one lost sheep; Chapter 15
In Chapter 14 we find the upending of status; healing on the Sabbath; the invitation of the unworthy, and the exclusion of those invited, to the feast.
Perhaps we should expect more upending in Chapter 17.
Although the set reading is for 17:5-10, the first four verses of the chapter are not independent of the lectionary reading. In fact, they lead up to our reading and we will not make sense of Luke 17:5-10 without them. I will work with verses 1-10.
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Luke 17 begins with Jesus talking to the disciples. The reading ends with the Lord talking to the apostles. Could this be Jesus talking to the church about forgiveness, and then to thechurch leadership who are astonished at the difficulty of what he asks of them? (John Petty planted this thought in my mind.)
He says to the disciples— the church in general, "And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent', you must forgive." (17:4)
And the leaders (the apostles) gasp, Lord increase our faith! How can we do this? It's impossible! (17:5) Note that it is the Lord who replies to them. This is serious, authoritative teaching for the leadership of the church of Luke. Jesus is his name; the Lord is his authority; the word is used twice. (5,6)
Everything is turned upside down again as I consider this reading.
I had thought that stumbling (skandala) was caused by those who sin, and that the sinners were the ones causing the" little ones" to stumble. This is too often true; offensive, unethical, unloving behaviour causes children of the faith to turn away from the church. Gossip, pettiness, intransigence, racism and the like, cause people to give up on the church in disgust, or deeply wounded. Such behaviour should be rebuked.
But these undoubted sins are not what this reading is talking about.
In this reading, another member of the church is sinning against me. I am told "you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive." (3)
I am told to be "on my guard about this." I am the one being sinned against, and yet I am the one at risk; I am being told, "It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble."
The scandal is not their sinning, but my lack of forgiveness of their sinning, and what that may do to them!
And to emphasise this: "...if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says 'I repent,' you must forgive,’ (4) and not write them off, or boot them out of the church.
In other words, "moral rightness" is hereby rejected as a measure for one's place in the community. You can be "right" all day long, and the other fellow can be "wrong" all day long, but that is no longer a standard by which a person's place in the community is measured. "Good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong" are not defining categories in the reign of God. John Petty
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There are indeed times when to continually forgive is like saying a sin is alright, and times when sin and injury and the call to forgiveness form so potent a mix that we cannot manage them within the community. But these should be the exception, not the norm.
I think of the divorced couple in a congregation I once served. They both remained active in the congregation, even after he remarried! That should be the norm.
I was hugely impressed by the leadership in another congregation who laid out rules about which side of the aisle to sit for two families who were in grievous dispute with each other. In the end, one family did leave, but too often, we fail even to try to forgive and keep living together. There is simply a pretence of rebuke which is often, in reality, a blaming and issuing of marching orders. Or, more comfortably, a quiet relief that a mortified sinner has not come back to church. It were better if a millstone were tied around our neck.
If I were more forgiving, and if I were living in a climate of forgiveness, might I not be more disposed to rebuke those who need it, rather than picking my way around the edges of sin, as I too often do now?
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No wonder the apostles— there is a subtle change in the rhetoric to focus especially on the leadership who have to deal with this saying— no wonder the apostles say, "Lord increase our faith! Who can do this!?"
And to the leadership of Luke's church who might be thinking, "Yes... forgiveness... but really that's figurative... there has to be a limit to forgiveness..." the Lord is the one who responds. This is a serious admonition, not a figurative overstatement:
The Lord replied, 'If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.' (6)
The reply is almost a rebuke!
Stoffregen notes that
In Greek there is a "future conditional clause": "If you were to have the faith of a mustard seed ..." -- implying that you don't have that faith now (Matt 17:20). There is also an "according to present reality conditional clause": "If you have the faith of a mustard seed (and you do) ..." (Luke 17:6). [I have added the bold formatting.]
Luke is affirming that they have the faith to do what is expected of them (the theme of vv. 7-10). If they would believe and act on the faith that they already have, then they can rebuke and repent and forgive within the community, it will happen. In essence, he seems to imply that they don't need more faith, but to make use of the faith that they already have.
You can do this with the faith you already have. This is another upending! You don’t need a huge faith; faith as small as a mustard seed will do!
The scandal is not that someone sins and offends me. The scandal is if I do not forgive, and thus cause them in their even weaker faith to stumble. It is not their nicking all the biscuits out of the visitors' cupboard that is the sin. The sin is that even though they have done this several times— constantly perhaps— I have given them such a well deserved roasting for their behaviour that they leave the church. It would be better if a millstone were hung around my neck! And if we had put a lock on the biscuit cupboard.
They were never here because of their good behaviour! They were here, and they are here, because God loves them. If they are not here and accepted because of their good behaviour, then sending them away for their not-good behaviour is not appropriate; instead; forgive. Rebuke, indeed, but forgive.
The scandal of the Gospel itself is that good behaviour is not something to be rewarded. My acceptance by God is not because of worth and not as a reward. It is because of God's love.
And then we turn to another saying of Jesus; one of those apparent changes of subject in the gospels which so often has an intimate connection with what came before. (17:7-10) I have edited the words of Bill Loader.
Everyone knows that slaves are not equals; you don’t thank them. Their role is to serve you. Slaves are slaves, servants are servants. Some listeners [to Jesus may have ... ] added: and if you are nice to them it will give them ideas above their station. You have to keep them in their place! We don’t want them getting illusions about their worth....
The effect of the story on most hearers of the day would have been to win wholehearted agreement, especially among those who had power .... By the time hearers had heard what had been said in verses 7-9 they were well into the comfort zone of finding their own prejudices affirmed and ready to sigh, "How insightful! Good stuff!"
Then comes verse 10. We are so used to hearing it that it is hard to appreciate its effect. It turns the prejudice back on the hearer:
so you, when you have done all you needed to do, don’t make special claims! You have done only what ought to have been expected!
The story works by subverting the self satisfaction of the superiors. It brings everyone down to the same level. ...
It debunks the idea that we achieve value by achieving the good, as though we deserve a bonus for being decent, caring human beings... The passage is probably deliberately offensive in flooring aspirations to human worth based on achievement capital. It is annoying and frustrating, and even seems mean. It gives us no credit.
This saying stands on its own. We deserve no special privilege for our goodness. We are just like slaves... in the sense that the love of God is given to us. All is given; we deserve none of it.
But when we consider the verses before this saying, it becomes potent. Suddenly the Lord is talking to us, the good people of the church who have to put up with and deal with the sinners; the little ones who don't act right
We are slaves just like them. We deserve no more than them. They are accepted by God just like us. If we cause them to stumble and leave the faith because we will not forgive, God help us; better a millstone around our neck.
And if we forgive them, and we should, we have done only what we should.
If we are hospitable, and we should be, we have done only what we should.
If we are generous and giving, and we should be, we have done only what we should.
We do not own the Church. We do not own the buildings; the stewards of the rich were still owned by them.
But when we love— when we do what we should do— it opens our hearts. It lets us discover that we are also friends (John 15:15) because
in the reign of God, the whole program of the world is up-ended. The moral categories which are so important to us are completely set aside. Our whole agenda of worthiness and striving is radically subverted. It is, rather, precisely in the weak, the fragile, the "little ones," that the reality of grace is manifest. (John Petty)
When we reject them, we reject God's grace. Deep down we know that we should be rejected, too. And when we forgive them, which is only what we should do, it removes the millstone hanging like the stone to the tomb between us and God. And we are found, and friends.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
A mulberry tree or a sycamore tree? Some translations say it is a sycamore tree, others say mulberry. The sycamore fig is sometimes called a mulberry or fig-mulberry because the leaves look like mulberry leaves. In the Greek, it is the same tree Zacchaeus will climb in Chapter 19. I do not know if a connection was intended, or if it was simply a common big tree.
Online resources I found helpful for this study include:
Bill Loader: First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Pentecost 20
John Petty: Lectionary blogging: Luke 17:5-10
Brian Stoffregen: Luke 17:5-10 Proper 22 - Year C
I have previously covered this text in Luke 17:5-10 – We Can Do This. Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!