Sin, Faith, Duty

Luke 17

1Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 3So watch yourselves.
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

7“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

This short section highlights four aspects of discipleship. It is hard to be certain if these four characteristics are simply listed or whether there is some relationship between them. If a relationship exists, a warning about sin and false teaching serves as a contrast to more positive exhortations about showing forgiveness, having faith and serving without demanding a reward. Faith understands forgiveness and leads to duty. In all these exhortations there is awareness of community. Christianity is not a privatized experience of faith.

Christianity is not a private affair, but a family one. Luke 17:1-10 is about our familial responsibilities. In America controversies are often framed in terms of the individual and his or her rights; but that is not the scriptural picture of how we relate to one another. Our text makes it clear that no Christian is an island unto himself or herself. We have responsibilities to each other. Unlike Archie Bunker of All in the Family, we should not see things only in terms of how they impact us. Service is not selfishness.

The first aspect of discipleship here is expressed in a warning not to be a cause of sin (vv. 1-3). It is inevitable that sin will come through false teaching. But woe to that person who brings it. The offense (skandalon) Jesus discusses here is probably serious sin that causes stumbling and a fall from faith. In the LXX this Greek term is used for the Hebrew concept of luring someone into a trap or of causing stumbling (Lev 19:14; Judg 8:27; 1 Sam 25:31; Ps 119:165; Stahlin 1971:344-47). The rhetorical picture of verse 2 indicates that serious sin is in view. Those who fail to come to Christ trip over the “scandal” of the cross (Is 8:14; Lk 20:18; Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:6-8). So the warning addresses teaching that leads to a loss of faith and a life of sin.

God‘s concern for his children is seen in Jesus’ characterization of them as little ones. Caring for God’s children is baby-sitting: the responsibility is great because the children are precious in their parents’ sight. Children need attentive care. And teaching carries special responsibility (Jas 3:1).

In fact, those who lead others into error are at risk before God. So Jesus issues a warning: a Mafia-style death is better for the one who leads others into apostasy. Jesus pictures an execution with a concrete block tied around the necks of the condemned as they are cast into the sea. A millstone was a large, heavy stone used at the top of a grinding mill. It was a millstone that crushed Abimelech’s head in Judges 9:53. The picture is of severe judgment. You are accountable, Jesus says, so watch yourselves. Be careful to avoid sin (Ps 141:8-10).

Family relationships require us to be responsible to be careful about sin and error. Jesus’ stress here is that individuals must guard themselves in such matters. But the possibility of error needs to be balanced with forgiveness. So Jesus calls for rebuke for sin but also a quickness to forgive (vv. 3-4). The assumption behind such mutual accountability is the community’s commitment to pursue righteousness (Gal 6:1). Jesus assumes that we encourage one another and honestly support one another’s relationship with God. But the rebukes are personally directed, as they are personally experienced. Jesus is not suggesting that a kind of underground righteousness squad be appointed to watch for sin. Rather, when people wrong one another in the flow of relationships, they are to sort things out. That is why Jesus speaks of when someone sins against you (Mt 18:15-20; Gal 6:1; 1 Thess 5:14-15; 2 Thess 3:14-15; Tit 3:10-11). Sin should be rebuked, but repentance should be greeted with forgiveness. We should be quick to move on once the wrong is acknowledged. Just as there is a commitment to righteousness, so there is a commitment to restore relationships promptly. In Matthew 18:21, as here, the repetition of sinfulness does not preclude forgiveness. Whether seven times a day or seventy times seven, forgiveness is called for, since the goal is to restore relationships within the community. Such values existed in Judaism as well as in the church (Testament of Gad 6:3-5, 7; Rom 12:16-21).

Deep and honest relationships presuppose a grounding in relationship with God. So verses 5-10 deal with this other level of relationship. Sensitive to this linkage, the disciples ask for an increase in their faith. Jesus is concerned not about faith’s volume but about its presence. God can work with even a little faith. So Jesus says, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” The mustard seed was among the smallest seeds in Palestine (Michel 1965a:810-11; Mt 13:31-33), while the sycamine tree (Greek), probably a black mulberry tree, lived up to six hundred years. It required a vast root network to draw up the ground’s nutrients. Jesus is arguing that a little faith can do surprising things, especially if merely through a spoken word it can pull up a tree with a huge root system and hurl it into the sea. Of course, the remark is a rhetorical picture of faith’s power. It is like Jesus’ remark about a camel’s ability to go through the eye of a needle. It makes the point hyperbolically: do not fret about how great your faith is; only apply what you have and watch it work. The disciple’s main responsibility is to trust God.

Out of such faith should come service. Jesus’ final parable describes a servant (NIV), or more precisely a slave. “Slave” (doulos) was Paul’s favorite self-characterization (Rom 1:1; also Lk 1:38; Jas 1:1). The service of God’s servant is not a matter for negotiation but is a duty. The ancient household servant was responsible for many activities, from working the fields to preparing the meals. A ancient servant’s work never seemed to be done. Such is also the case here. Jesus pictures a servant coming in from a long day of farming or shepherding, only to be asked to prepare the owner’s dinner. The servant will not get a meal until the master is served. Not only that, the servant will not be thanked as if he had done something special. Rather, he will do it because it is his duty: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” This attitude is in sharp contrast with that of the Pharisee in 18:12. There is no selective obedience here, no bargaining to do something for the master if he does a favor in return. Our closest contemporary analogy to this obedience is the discipline of military life. Servants display humility (unworthy servants) and know their position. The servants of God know that God is not obligated to them, as if they were his equal, but they are obligated to him, because he is their Creator and Redeemer.

In the Jewish Mishna, ‘Abot 2:7, a rabbi says, “If you have studied the Torah, do not claim merit for yourself, since you were created for this.” The same is true of service for God. Committed service is a disciple’s privilege.

So the disciple’s life is lived in community with others and God. Be careful not to lead others into sin, Jesus says. When sin occurs, rebuke it, but be quick to forgive when there is repentance. Don’t worry about having great faith; just let the faith you have do its surprising work. Finally, serve God as a matter of duty. If you trust God, you can serve him.

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4 Responses to “Sin, Faith, Duty”
  1. Ruth says:

    There are differences between disciples and professed Christians, very possibly the difference between walking the wide road and breaching the narrow gate in Matthew 7:13,14. These are radical times. Apathetic or lukewarm Christians are in great spiritual danger. The key is Matthew 6:33, seek first His Kingdom…


  2. anointedplace says:

    So very true, plus we live in a time when it is not PC to challenge anyone. No one wants to “make trouble” nor do people (Christians) see the value in discipleship. There is no sense of a need to grow in the faith, as Paul would urge us to progress from milk to meat.


  3. Cindy says:

    Great points! I will be checking back here often!


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