One recent Sunday evening, I read a passage from the Bible, Luke 17:1-21, at the beginning of our un-programmed, silent meeting. As we quietly waited upon the Lord in worship I continued to meditate on the passage, coming back to it from time to time over the hour and finally commenting on it near the end of our worship time. I was initially puzzled by the series of parables, sayings and incidents related in the passage. Each of the parts of the passage seemed unconnected to the others and I supposed that Luke was merely placing together different bits of sayings and stories of Jesus haphazardly. But slowly I began to see a pattern of relationships between them. It might be good at this point for you to open your Bible to Luke 17:1-21 and follow along as I trace out the connection between the parts of this passage.
We begin with verses 1-2. Here, Jesus warns His disciples against causing "one of these little ones to stumble." Children have no way to guard against the sins of adults against them. They are helpless in the face of verbal, emotional and physical abuse as well as the bad example of the adults around them. Adults both sin against, and lead into sin, the little ones that God has entrusted to their care. I am not referring only to their parents but to all the adults with whom they may come into contact or observe. In fact, this even extends to how our attitudes or actions impact children we will never meet, this side of eternity. In the light of Jesus' warning these are sobering thoughts indeed! God created the earth to be a nursery for heaven and such it would be if adults took care to live so as to place no stumbling block before any child to prevent him or her from believing in God's love and following His will. Instead, adults seem determined to make earth a hatchery for hell. May God grant us grace to repent!
But then, in verses 3-4, Jesus turns to how we adults offend against one another. We, as adults, are not defenseless. But what shall we do? Shall we return evil for evil? Jesus does not tell us to simply suffer in silence. Nor does He tell us to retaliate. Instead, He says, "rebuke him." This is not an act of anger or revenge. It is "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) in order to help someone see their need for a change of heart or conduct. We may choose to overlook many things that people do to us that we don't like but if they truly injured us and they are at fault, then we should seek to bring them to repentance if it is at all possible under the circumstances, for their good, our own good and for the good of all.
When they repent, Jesus tells us we must forgive them even if it is seven times in the same day! In a certain sense, we are to forgive them before they repent or regardless of whether or not they do repent, that is, we are to relinquish all desire to punish them and really desire their highest good. The "rebuke" we offer should not be to vent our ire upon them but to express our sincere desire for their good. After all, if it is a serious sin against us, it means they are, until they repent, in a state of rebellion against God and separation from Him. Let me hasten to add that if their offense is a criminal act, we may need to report them to the proper authorities. We may also need to avoid them until they change their ways. (Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 10:23)
Right after Jesus' command to forgive we find the disciples asking Him to increase their faith. (verse 5) This is no accident. Rather than a case of changing the subject, I believe that the disciples feel greatly challenged by Jesus' charge to so readily forgive those who sin against us. They feel that it would take a great deal of faith, more faith than they presently had, to forgive someone who repeatedly sinned against them. But Jesus tells them that all they need is faith as small as a mustard seed in order to say to a mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and be planted in the sea" in order for it to happen. (verse 6) The mulberry tree represents our natural anger, resentment and desire for revenge. We do not need more faith; we need to use the little faith we have and command that root of bitterness to be gone, "in Jesus' name!"
Jesus immediately follows this up with a comparison drawn from the master/slave relationship, something with which his hearers were all too familiar. (verses 7-10) Why does He do this? He is certainly not condoning slavery or the attitude masters have toward their slaves. Rather, He is seeking to counteract the natural tendency toward pride that immediately follows whenever we successfully obey a command of the Lord, especially the command to do something difficult, like forgiving those who sin against us. The antidote to this pride is to realize that, "We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done."
After this we have the account of Jesus' miraculous healing of ten lepers. (verses 11-19) They are crying out for Jesus to heal them and so He commands them to go and show themselves to the priest. As they are going, they are healed, but only one returns to thank Him. Jesus points out that it is the Samaritan, a "foreigner" who returns to thank Him. Why does He make this remark? When God gives us a great victory over the spiritual leprosy of sin, including the sin of holding a grudge against someone, the other way we must protect against pride besides remembering that we are only doing what we ought to do is to remember that we could not have done it without God's help. By pointing out that it was a Samaritan who returned to give thanks, Jesus was also striking a blow at the racial pride of His disciples. See how Jesus works to deliver us from pride!
And finally, when the Pharisees inquired as to when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus told them that it would not come with "signs to be observed" nor should they go running about after every cry of "Here it is!" or "There it is!" Instead, they should know that "the kingdom of God is within you." (verses 20-21) This rounds out the whole thrust of this passage by pointing out that the kingdom must first be established within us, otherwise, we shall not be prepared for the outward coming of the kingdom (verses 22-37). It was useless for the Pharisees to wonder about when the kingdom of God would come in its outward form, for in their present condition its coming would mean their destruction! As Jesus would later say to them, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also." (Matthew 23:25-26) Let us therefore uproot and cast away the tree of resentment and bitterness in our hearts, guarding against pride, and thus experience the kingdom of God in our hearts to prepare us for the outward coming of His kingdom, whenever that day will be.