Based on Luke 17:5-10 within the context of 1-4, delivered on World Communion Sunday, 2016, shared now in order to give context to some of the verses being thrown around this week by the AG.
Luke 17:5-10: The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 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.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would 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’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!’”
From the book that we love, this is the Word of the Lord…
Imagine it’s 9:15 at night. You turn on a tv station specializing in re-runs and there’s Joey with ten shirts and pairs of pants on, lunging in Monica’s apartment saying, “Could I be wearing any more clothes?” That’s what this lectionary passage that’s starts with verse 5 is like to me. The passage makes no sense without vv. 1-4. So here you go:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 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. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 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.”
It is this to which the apostles, Jesus’s inner circle, the twelve reply, “Increase our faith!” Now, to me this sounds an awful lot like, “Get outta here, Jesus. You crazy! The only way we’re going to be able to forgive 7x is if you increase our faith! Otherwise, you’re expecting too much.”
Jesus responds to his apostles, “Psh! You don’t need no extra faith!” “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” he says.
It’s important to note here that the “If” in Greek is a specific kind of “if.” It’s an “if you only had X—and you do…” kind of “if.”
So, Jesus is comparing the amount of faith they need to be able to forgive a sibling 7x to a mustard seed. In other words, he’s taunting them into understanding that they don’t need anything other than what they already have. They aren’t and we aren’t going to get off that easily. Like the servant in the parable Jesus goes on to tell, forgiving when forgiveness is sought, is expected of us. There will be no kudos for performing what’s on your job description, or bonus checks at Christmastime for paying off your Master-Card. No gold stars.
It is simply what we do. As followers of the one who went to the Cross in a cosmos-sized act of forgiveness, it is simply what we do.
But the apostles, who, we must remember had yet to witness the Cross, weren’t so sure. “Why should we keep forgiving, keep forgiving, keep forgiving?” they wondered. Thinking themselves honorary psychologists and sociologists, I can hear them now: “Jesus, Isn’t that ‘enabling’? Shouldn’t we drug test them first, Jesus? Aren’t we just being co-dependent then, Jesus?”
Yet forgiveness, as instituted at the Lord’s Supper, is not just the foundation of Jesus’s ministry. It’s the foundation of the redemption of Creation, the re-gracing of the grace of Creation itself. But that’s a sermon for another day…
I think part of what makes it difficult for the twelve and for us to fathom, what prompts them here and nowhere else to ask for more faith, is that we don’t really understand what we mean by forgiving. This is one of those rare cases in which we don’t actually understand it intellectually even though my guess is that you have already been practicing forgiveness all morning long: when your spouse burnt the toast and you didn’t dump her cereal on the floor in response; when the person cut you off on I-45 and you didn’t accelerate and run them off of the road; when a Facebook friend heartlessly posted that wretched earworm and you didn’t make an issue of it in your sermon; or when some weirdo moved all the furniture around and put a small bakery in the middle of your sanctuary and you didn’t move it back or throw a fit. You’ve been practicing forgiveness all morning and you needed no extra helping of faith.
Forgiveness, then, is a non-action. It’s not taking the eye for the eye; the tooth for the tooth. It is giving up one’s cosmic right to an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, though it’s an inaction, it nonetheless goes against the physical laws of the universe. So, to forgive, you do need some faith that some higher law exists, but not a lot of faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed. A nibble’s worth. A sip. That is all.
We also get hung up when we try to make forgiveness into something it’s not. Forgiveness is not condoning. It’s not agreeing with the offense. It’s not even ignoring it. Absolutely not. In order to forgive, you must first have identified that an offence as an offence has taken place. All you’re doing when you forgive is NOT exacting revenge for the wrong you’ve identified. You are giving forward, for-give-ing, your cosmic right to retaliate.
Forgiving is not, therefore, putting yourself in harm’s way. It’s not staying with an abusive girlfriend or husband. It’s not kowtowing to a dehumanizing boss. But it’s also not taking a bat to their windshield, no matter how fair or just it might be. Forgiveness is based on grace, and grace does not stand for the negation of any creature, including yourself, or for the destruction of God’s creation.
But, regardless of the fact that without forgiveness we’d all need dentures, forgiveness is a grueling process for us. Yet I don’t think it’s the actual forgiveness we struggle with, because, as I’ve said, we’re doing it most of the time. It’s the internal experience of forgiveness that’s hard. It’s admitting to ourselves that we are actually giving up our right to vengeance forever and ever amen. It’s letting go of the hope that eventually God will, on our behalf, show that wrongdoer a thing or two. It’s hoping against karma while simultaneously praying for love and grace to rule not just in the relationship, not just in this community of believers, but the universe. It’s letting go of the soothing quality of revenge fantasies.
And, when we are wronged, we do need soothing.
But our Precious Prince wants us to slow down a minute and reflect on what’s going on before he dispenses with the soothing. I think we will be glad and more grateful if we do.
To better reflect, I need us to go back to vv. 1-6 and notice that there is a striking parallel between what Jesus says about a person who leads astray a little or new one of the faith and what he says about the mulberry tree. He says the former would be better off if he were hurled into the sea, and the latter could be told to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Now, perhaps this section of Luke’s Gospel is just a collection of Jesus sayings, and drawing a connection here would be like drawing some existential meaning from the fact that the letter b follows the letter a in the dictionary.
But, given what we know about Jesus’s overarching message to us about the revolutionary nature of the Gospel, might Jesus be signaling something more with his little quip about mustard seeds and the mulberry tree?
First, there’s the obvious signal that, in the economy of the heavens, the child led astray is the one who has God’s heart. The false teacher’s successful seduction in the world amounts to nothing more and nothing better than his own annihilation. Likewise, but metaphorically, a mere mustard seed’s worth of faith in God has the power to unearth the gnarly network of a mulberry tree’s intricate root system and baptize the tree with a sea’s worth of grace. In God’s economy, in her economy of grace, the power rules of this world are overturned.
But that’s not the part that has me intrigued. While profound and awesome, it’s basic Gospel theology. The curious kicker is this: it isn’t until after Jesus tells all the disciples to forgive a repenting sibling seven times if they sin and repent seven times, it is after this that the apostles say, “Lord, Increase our faith!”
And Jesus says they have enough faith already, but he does so by pulling them back to the same imagery as he used with the false teacher, the one receiving a Mobster’s version of justice. So, it seems to me that Jesus is getting a little sarcastic with them, “More faith?” he says, “You need more faith to be able to forgive? You didn’t need even a mustard seed’s worth of extra faith to throw a sinner into the sea, did ya? You had plenty of faith for that one!”
Perhaps this is why Jesus references the sea again. Perhaps not. But, either way, in the subsequent parable of the servant, Jesus does make it clear that it will not be made easier for the apostles than it will be made for their Master. [Note here that servanthood was essentially working to pay off the MasterCard bill. The Word of God, the Son of Man, incarnate or alive in Jesus, is the master and has already given the apostles a loan and provided them with room and board and now, as followers, they’re are tending the fields, working for their keep. He can’t give them more than everything. At least, not within the economy prior to the New Covenant, he couldn’t.]
And this should not be new material for the apostles: In the economy of the previous covenants between God and Israel, the covenant under which they were living before the Last Supper, Jesus says forgiveness comes after the identification and calling out of a wrong, AND after the sinner apologizes. Jesus says then, after the request for forgiveness, you are to forgive. Even before the Cross, the covenant calls for those rescued from Egypt to forgive a sibling who seeks forgiveness and voices an intent to do better. Give up your right to the eye for an eye. Over and over again, if necessary.
But even so, like any breathing human, the apostles balked …
It’s not the end of the story, though. That’s the middle of the episode.
God, as signaled at the Last Supper in the NewCovenant, and enacted and empowered at the Cross, God goes even further.
At the Cross, before any of us have apologized, the Son of God, Christ Jesus calls out, “Forgive them Lord, they know not what they do.” In other words, at the Cross, the repentance/forgiveness order is reversed. The tables are overturned. The tree uprooted. First, God says, “I forgive you.” And then we respond, “God, forgive us!”
Our almighty God is in charge of the last word… In the New Covenant, God’s forgiveness upends and takes care of both the offender (you and me) AND the offended (you and me), through the broken bread and poured out wine of our Lord and Savior.
In a few short minutes, you will be invited to receive, along with millions of others the world over and around the corner, holy communion, The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist or Thanksgiving Meal. You will receive a nibble’s worth of grace already granted, a sip of cosmic forgiveness. With faith given by the Holy Spirit, you are invited to receive forgiveness in your body, for your soul, but also for your feet, and your lips.
These small gifts are a means of grace for forming the local and universal community of Christ Jesus. They empower us to participate in God’s world-reversing, non-action yet anything but passive act of forgiveness.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…