Scandals, millstones, mustard seeds, unworthy servants. What ties it all together is faith – simple, childlike, drop dead trust in a dead and risen Savior. The righteous, the justified, shall live by his faith.
“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come.” Permit me to work this a bit. The word translated “temptations to sin” is the word skandala. We get the word “scandal” from it; something offensive, scandalous, a stumbling block. Jesus is saying this: It is impossible that scandals of faith not come. They are sure to come. They are as sure as the devil, the world, and our own sinful selves. Where there is faith, there are scandals to faith, trip points, stumbling blocks. Whether false teaching, false preaching, false hearing, false thinking, false religion, whatever. The road of faith is riddled with potholes threatening to twist the ankle and bring you down.
Woe through whom these scandals come. Woe to those who would mislead the little ones who believe in Jesus and turn their eyes away from Him. Woe to those who would rather entertain than exhort, who would give them what they want instead of what they need, who would soft peddle the Law and sugar up the Gospel, who would dilute the 200 proof good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection into a Shirley Temple of religion. Woe to those who would rather preach anything but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. “It would be better for him if a large millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea.” That’s how seriously Jesus takes faith and the little one who trust Him in the childlikeness of faith.
“Watch yourselves,” Jesus warns His disciples soon to become apostles. Watch yourselves. There is death and life at stake here. Don’t get between a little one of faith and Jesus. Don’t hang the burden of religion around his neck or a millstone is going to be hung around yours with a well-deserved “in you go.”
Harsh? You bet it is! Jesus isn’t going to the cross to die for the world only to have a bunch of His disciples turn faith into a work and His church into a commandment factory. The temptation is huge, greater than you can imagine. We’re out there in the world “competing” for the religious dollar, as they say. It’s a consumer driven society. People know what they want, and the wise man supplies it. People want principles, give them principles. People want uplift, give them uplift. People want promises of success, give it to them. But who on earth wants the only thing we need – Jesus Christ, and Him crucified?
Scandals to faith are sure to come, as sure as Jesus risen from the dead is sure. Whether the devil with his doubts and lies, whether the world with its despair and unbelief, whether our own selves, with our guilt and shame and all that stuff in our lives that says, “You can’t possibly be a Christian, a disciples of Jesus. Look at you!” Oh yes, scadals, stumbling blocks to faith are sure to come. The college professor deliberately trying to undermine the faith of his believing students. The pastor preaching his pet theories instead of the Gospel. The brother or sister who causes you to doubt the efficacy of your Baptism or the forgiveness of your sins or the Body and Blood. Jesus has “zero tolerance” when it comes to throwing stumbling blocks of scandal under the feet of his ‘little ones” of faith.
Forgiveness. The Church is to be in the forgiveness of business. In fact, we rebuke sin for the purposes of forgiveness. If your brother sins, rebuke him. Tell him he’s wrong. Show him his fault. Name the sin. Put it under the light. Bring it out into the open. And if he repents, changes his mind, turns in his way, seeks forgiveness, then forgive him. Even if he sins against you with the same sin seven times in a single day, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,” forgive him.
That’s a tall order. Anyone up to it? Once, maybe. Twice. Three times, well that’s the limit. Beyond that, you’re kidding me, right? Wrong. Seven doesn’t come close to what God does in forgiving you. And yet we think we are doing a great and difficult thing when we forgive once or twice or three times. Seven. The same sin seven times in one day. Can you imagine it? I’m sorry. Will you forgive me? Yes, I forgive you. Seven times a day.
No wonder the apostles said, “Increase our faith.” They knew this kind of forgiveness was going to require huge faith, heroic faith. They felt their faith was too small. “Increase our faith. Super-size us.” But Jesus declines to deal with faith in those terms. “If your faith was as small as a mustard seed, you could say to a mulberry tree, “Go jump in the lake,” and it would. Can you do that? I can’t. That means our faith is even smaller than a mustard seed. So much for big faith, little faith.
There are two ways of speaking of faith – the faith the trusts, and the faith we perceive. The faith that trust, only God sees and knows. We don’t get to see that. The faith we feel is our perception of the faith that trusts. Sometimes it appears big, other times little. Sometimes strong, sometimes weak. Sometimes you feel close to God, sometimes not.
Perhaps you know someone of “great faith.” Someone who has experienced pain, trouble, hardship and became even stronger. The kind of people about whom they write books to inspire others. But you say, “I don’t have that kind of faith. They had big faith, but my faith is so little, so insignificant, so weak, so mustard seed-sized.” But you could move mulberry trees with that little mustard seed sized faith, if the Lord needed you to move mulberry trees. The fact is, the more you try to look for faith, the less of faith you’ll see. Self-perceived faith is always the size of a mustard seed or smaller.
Faith is as great as the Jesus it clings to. And even faith the size of a mustard seed clings to Jesus, with all His devil crushing, Death destroying, graven opening, life-restoring crucified and risen power. To God, faith has no volume knob, just an on/off switch. To us faith has a volume knob, big/little, loud/soft, strong/weak. But not to God. And He will reveal as much of your faith to you as you need to carry you through. The righteous shall live by faith.
It’s faith not works that is the basis for life before God. Jesus told his disciple/apostles, “Suppose you have a servant plowing or tending the sheep, and when he’s done with that, do you say, ‘Put up your feet and have something to eat?’ No, he’s your servant, and the work isn’t done until it’s done. There is dinner to cook, a table to set, a meal to serve. There is work to do. And when your work is done, then you may sit down to your own meal and say at the end of your work day, “We are unworthy servants; we’ve only done our jobs, and even that not very well.”
There is a story that circulates in Lutheran circles and is often parodied in Roman Catholic circles, of the Lutheran minister, who on his death bed, confessed, “I am certain I am going to heaven because I cannot remember ever having done a good work in my life.”
Of course, you can see what people will do with this. The dying minister doesn’t say he didn’t do good works in his life, only that he, like the sheep in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, doesn’t recall any of them. We are, in the final tally at the close of the day, unworthy servants just doing what was given us to do.
Make no mistake about it. Faith works. The faithful are busy. Those servants in the parable are busting their bones morning, noon, and well into the evening before they sit down at the table. Faith does not kick in some LazyBoy recliner and say, “I ain’t gotta to nothin’.” Even faith the size of a mustard seed is busy moving those mulberry trees, if that’s what the orders are. Or more likely it’s those mulberry trees of your vocation, your calling, the ways you serve others.
Faith works, yes. But faith is so fixated on Jesus, on His Blood and His righteousness, that it doesn’t see what it is doing, and doesn’t remember what was done, and never would dream of credentialing before God. That’s where the story of the dying Lutheran pastor gets it right. All his good works, all the people he comforted, all the faithful sermons he preached, all his faithful administration of the gifts of Christ, all his struggles with his people, are all taken up in that amazing grace of God in Jesus, that undeserved kindness toward unworthy servants.
Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor now a Roman priest, writes this marvelous paragraph in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon: “When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my won. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of “justification by faith alone,” although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little groth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways – these and all other gifts received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will…look to Christ and Christ alone.” (Richard John Neuhaus. Death on a Friday Afternoon. New York: Basic Books, 2000) p. 70)
The righteous shall live by his faith. We are but unworthy servants; we were only doing what was given us to do. This is how faith, even the size of a mustard seed, talks. This is the faith Jesus is so pressed to protect, even with threats of millstones tied around the necks of those who put stumbling stones in this child-like path. We are unworthy servants.
And from the suffering Servant of all, the One whose Blood cleanses every sin and whose alone is worthy to stand before the Father on our behalf, we will hear from His gracious mouth, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
In the name of Jesus, Amen