The Right Combination
Our text in the ESV and NIV is labeled in three separates sections; the NASB has two. The Greek Bible keeps verses 1 through 10 together and labels it "Some Sayings of Jesus." That's closer. This text shows no change of location. It is recorded as a unit. The way to unify this text is by the right combination of duty, faith, and grace.
The text opens with Jesus putting before His disciples the impossibility of fulfilling their duties as a Christian. What? You don't think Jesus speaks of impossibilities? The apostles sure did. Though it says Jesus was speaking to His disciples, it is the apostles who replied after hearing of the duties, "Increase out faith." But first back to the duties.
Jesus says it would be better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and you to be thrown to the bottom of Lake Travis than for you to cause one of these little ones to sin. You do realize that would be cruel and unusual punishment? Yet Jesus says the duty of not causing others to sin is that serious. But remember He prefaces the millstone drowning with, "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come." That's too weak. Jesus actually says, "It's impossible for things that cause people to sin not to come."
This strange way of warning about what is really inevitable leads to the primary duty Jesus gives them, but first there's, "If your brother sins rebuke him." "Actually Jesus says if your brother sins you must rebuke him." If I asked for a show of hands of how many of us have ever rebuked a brother or sister about their sins, few if any would go up. And that's strange since Jesus just got done telling us that things which cause people to sin are sure to come, so there ought to be plenty for rebuking. So does doing those Christian duties still seem possible to you?
I haven't even gotten to the big one. Rebuking sin is God's and the Christian's alien work, foreign work, secondary work. God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world. He came not to rub our faces in our sins but to forgiven them. So our primary duty as Christians is forgiving sins. Remember how I told you that Jesus made the rebuking of a brother's sin an imperative? "You must rebuke him." Jesus puts the forgiving of sins in the future indicative. Not you must forgive him but you will forgive him.
Doesn't that just blow you away? How could such a miracle take place? Someone sins against me 7 times in one day and 7 times he comes back to me saying nothing more than, "I repent" and I will certainly, for sure, without a doubt forgive him? You don't know me very well. I'm a "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me" sort of guy. At best you're going to get 3 strikes and then you'll be out. And Jesus promises, that's what a future indicative is, that I will forgive someone who sins against me 7 times? That's a miracle!
The apostles, in distinction from ordinary disciples, saw this too. They realized the duties of not causing others to sin, of rebuking others who do sin, and forgiving those who sin against them required something beyond them, outside of them; they required faith. So the apostles say, "Increase our faith." Actually this is in the imperative too. The apostles say to the Lord, "You must increase our faith." You should hear this in the same vein as you hear they guy in Jaws who sees the size of the shark and says, "We're gonna need a bigger boat!" And you know what Jesus answer is in our text? "You have more than enough boat."
Isn't that surprising? Don't you feel your faith is inadequate to do any of the Christian duties? Yet Jesus says faith the size of a mustard seed not coconut, not pecan, not even an acorn but faith the size of a pinhead is more than enough to uproot and plant a mulberry tree in the sea. Those of you in the C. S. Lewis school of thought that miracles are not contrary to nature but a speeding up or a multiplying of what is natural have to consider what Jesus says here. This type of mulberry has massive roots. There is as much of the tree underground as above. How difficult it is to uproot and not damage even a small tree. Faith the size of a mustard seed can not only do that but can replant, not just toss it to the bottom of the sea, but replant a full size tree on the sea floor.
The problem before them was doing the unnatural thing of forgiving someone who sins against them 7 times in one day and comes back to them saying, "I repent." The uprooting and replanting of a mulberry tree on the seafloor shows faith can do the unnatural. I know what's bugging you. Now not only don't you see faith in you to forgive, you surely don't see faith capable of moving mulberry trees. Neither do I. That's because we're forgetting the only proper object of faith is God's Word. If God's Word told you to uproot and replant a mulberry tree, Jesus says even a modicum, a pinhead of faith in that Word of God could do it. But God's Word doesn't command or promise anything like that; it does, however, command us to rebuke sin and promises we will forgive it.
A right combination always consists of more than two numbers. There are always at least three. Dial up just two and it doesn't work. Jesus has spoken to us of duty and of faith. There's one more thing needed for the right combination, and that's grace. Faith comes not by you doing your duty but by God's grace.
We've seen how Jesus starts by speaking to all the disciples which would include the apostles. But it's only the apostles who rightly respond to the Law and Gospel by saying, "Increase our faith." To this request Jesus tells a parable about servants who are either plowing or shepherding coming into the house and serving. Later Scripture will use all three of these activities plowing, shepherding, serving - to describe what apostles do.
So this is a pointed parable aimed right at the heart of the apostles who were moved to see they needed more of what only Jesus could give if they were going to do what He commanded and promised. The parable says that by doing their duties of planting the Lord's field or shepherding the Lord's sheep and by serving the Lord at table they would not get the grace that fueled the faith to rebuke sin and forgive sinners.
How do you get that out of this parable? That's exactly what Jesus says. He doesn't say, "Would the Master thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?" The word "thank" is not there; the word "grace" is. This is what Jesus literally asks, "He would not have grace to the slave because he did what he was instructed, would He?" The way Jesus asks the question in Greek we know He expects a "no" answer. No a master doesn't have grace to a slave because he does what he has been instructed to do. You don't get grace by doing. You can't merit, deserve, or earn grace. Grace comes gratis, free, without strings, to the undeserving or it doesn't come at all.
Faith is needed to do one's Christian duties but faith comes from grace, and grace can't be earned. Someone long ago defined grace by making it an acronym. I know you're not supposed to use the word you're defining but grace as an acronym is grace received at Christ's expense. That sums up all the pertinent facts about God's grace to sinners.
Grace is in God's heart not yours. Look for it in your heart, your feelings, your thoughts, your opinions, and you won't find it. Grace can only be received from outside of you. And God's grace can only be received at Christ's expense. You can't merit grace; you can't win grace; you can't deserve grace. At the end of the day even if you have done everything God commanded and promised, you still couldn't say you deserve grace. Grace deserved is no longer grace but payment, earnings, wages.
I preach grace to you who haven't and can't fulfill your Christian duties. I preach grace to ungodly enemies of God the way Paul does in Romans 5. Why? Because of Jesus. Because Scripture says (Ps. 129:3) they ploughed deep, painful furrows on the back of the innocent Jesus, I can say God is gracious to sinners who don't plough God's field as they should. Because Scripture says (Zech. 13:7) God commanded the innocent Good Shepherd be struck down, I can say God is gracious to us sheep who love to wander from our duties. Because the innocent Body of Jesus was given over to death on the cross to pay for our sins and His holy Blood was poured out to cover our sins, I can say God is gracious to us who fail to serve as we should.
We receive the grace of God at Christ's expense in the 3 means of grace Jesus left to us. In Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion the grace of God that Jesus purchased and won by His holy life and His innocent suffering and death come flooding into our lives. And this grace enables us to stand before the holy God and fearlessly confess "We are unworthy servants."
This Greek word for unworthy is only found twice in the New Testament here and at the parable of the talents where the Lord commands that the unworthy servant be cast into the outer darkness where there is endless weeping and gnashing of teeth. People who think they have excuses for their sins or people who think they can do better next time don't confess their sins; they are afraid to admit they are unworthy servants. People who know the grace of God is given to them at Christ's expense, not based on how well they do their duties, confess their unworthiness thereby admitting they stand before God only by His grace and won't be cast out for their sins.
If God's grace in Christ saves the unworthy servant from being thrown into the outer darkness for his failures to do his duty to rebuke and forgive, then faith in that grace, even the tinniest amount, has it all. And grace received changes murdering Saul into forgiving Paul, denying Peter into a confessing rock, and John a son of thunder into the apostle of love. Focus on the grace received at Christ's expense: It germinates the mustard seed of faith which grows into dutiful service, and that is a far greater miracle than a mulberry tree growing at the bottom of a sea. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (20101010); Luke 17: 1-10