Scandals, stumbling stones, tripping points inevitably come. They can’t not come. But woe to those through whom they come. Jesus is not talking about “temptations to sin,” as the translation you heard has it, but stumbling points to faith. Things that make your faith trip on your walk of faith. It’s like you’re walking along and all of a sudden your toe jams into something and you fall flat on your face. That’s what a “scandalon” is. Something you trip over as you are walking along. And walking through the rocky, uneven path of this life in which sin, death, disease, and doubt are strewn all over the place, there are no shortages of stumbling stones.
Jesus itemizes three scandals to faith in our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning. Three stones we routinely trip over that cause our faith to wobble and even fall flat on its face.
The first has to do with forgiveness. Not God’s forgiveness of you but your forgiveness of the brother or sister who sins against you. It’s one thing to say, “I believe that God forgives me, that He justifies me for Jesus’ sake, that He takes away all my sins and does not hold them against me.” All of that is true, and there are plenty of scandal stones to trip over there too. But the problem for us, and the scandal to faith, comes when a brother or sister sins against us, when WE are the ones sinned against. Then things look a bit different.
This is what we pray about in the fifth petition when we pray “forgive us our trespasses, our debts, as we forgive our debtors, those who trespass against us.” In other words, “Father, forgive us all that we do against you in precisely the same way as we forgive those who sin against us.” Imagine a child saying, “Mom, Dad, deal with me in exactly the same way that I deal with my brother.” That’s how Jesus teaches us to pray about forgiveness.
If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. OK, we’re good with that. You hurt me, I rebuke you, you repent, I forgive you. Fair enough. Don’t do it again. But wait! There’s more. Jesus applies the divine multiplier. And if he sins against you seven times in the day, seven times the very same thing, and he says, “I repent,” you must forgive him. Must. It’s not an option. Forgiveness is never an option. You must forgive.
Jesus knows that one of the greatest stumbling blocks to faith, one of the tripping points in the life of the believer, is unforgiveness, refusing to forgive the brother or sister who sins against you. What happens? First, you get angry at that person. You lash out. Maybe you tell others what he or she did to you, you gossip, enlisting others to your side. Then, like all fish stories, the story grows in proportion to your anger and outrage. You amplify their sin and your hurt. You’re the innocent victim; they’re the guilty party. You begin to judge the other person and condemn them and you feel justified in doing so. And there is the trap. That’s the tripping point. You justify yourself in not forgiving someone else. And now you can no longer pray, “Forgive me as I forgive others.” Now you have become the opposite of faith – self-justifying.
Jesus knows the danger here. And He knows that the only antidote to sin is forgiveness. Unforgiveness simply perpetuates and amplifies sin. When you refuse to forgive your brother or sister seven times in a day for the same sin, you aren’t hurting them by your refusal to forgive, you are hurting yourself. You are calling into doubt and question the whole notion that forgiveness is unmerited, undeserved grace.
God in Christ has forgiven you, and continues to forgive you entirely without any merit on worthiness on your part. He forgives you knowing full well you will do the same thing again. He forgives you recognizing that you are a justified sinner, a sinner declared righteous, one who is both sinful and righteous at one and the same time. He forgives you entirely for Jesus’ sake, on account of His blood, His death, His perfect life. Not yours, His. Forgiveness does not originate with you. It flows from the merciful heart of Christ and flows through you to those around you. Jesus breaks the cycle of sin with forgiveness. He reconciles. He makes peace. He brings warring parties together. He reconciles you, a sinner, to the Father, and He reconciles you to the brother or sister who has sinned against you.
Little wonder that when the apostles heard about this outrageous seven-fold forgiveness, they said, “Increase our faith!” Our faith isn’t big enough for this kind of forgiveness. We need bigger faith. Our faith is too small for this kind of task. We aren’t up to this kind of forgiveness.
Well, they got it half right, at least. Faith is something God works, not them, or you. But they also got it wrong in that faith can’t be sized or quantified. It’s not a matter of big faith or little faith. And that’s the second stumbling stone this morning: Faith looking at itself instead of Christ.
Perhaps you’ve heard it. Someone who says, “Oh, he has great faith” or “I have my faith” or “ My faith seems so small.” Faith looking at faith. This is a great distraction to faith. It’s like when you notice those floaty things in your eye. You don’t pay attention to what you are looking at. All you see are the floaters. Faith that is preoccupied with faith takes its “eyes” off of Jesus. Faith isn’t some kind of virtue or quality in us that makes us lovable to God. Faith is a gift of God to us. God grants us faith that we might be “faithful,” full of faith. When you look at your own faith, don’t expect to see much of anything at all because there is nothing to look at. You look to Jesus, the author and perfector of your faith and let God worry about your faith. If you’re going to size faith, think about this. If your faith were as small as a mustard seed, you could move a giant mulberry tree with its vast network of roots by telling it to jump into the Sea. That’s how potent faith is because it is God’s work, not ours.
Now God’s not interested in our moving mulberry trees but in justifying sinners. And He does so by grace through faith all for Christ’s sake. Faith justifies. The righteous shall live by faith. The power of faith is not in faith itself, but in Christ to whom faith clings. It’s just like the power of what we see is not in our eyes but in what our eyes are looking at, the light going into our eyes. The power of God to save you is not something inside you, but something outside of you that comes to you through faith. The power of faith is in the receiving, and even the tiniest glimmer of faith, a little child’s faith, receives the fulness of forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus died to win.
The third stumbling block to faith is merit, this notion that we get what we deserve, and that we must earn God’s favor by our behavior. For this third part, Jesus tells a parable in the form of a question. Does anyone having a servant who plows or tends the sheep say to that servant, “Come up to the house, chill, put up your feet, watch the ball game, and I’ll serve you”? Of course not! He says instead, “Prepare dinner for me, and after that you can eat.” Does he thank the servant for doing what was commanded? Of course not! No master does this.
Jesus addresses the stumbling block of merit. We believe deep down that everything in life is earned. Experience teaches it. Wages are earned. Servants labor, and as any boss will tell you, they rarely do everything required of them. And at the end of the day, they get a paycheck. Maybe if they’re really good, they’ll get a bonus and a pat on the head.
When we start thinking like that about our life before God, we begin to think in terms of merit. This is the stumbling block that tripped the church of Luther’s day. Your merits had to outweigh your sins on the scales of God’s justice. And then you begin to justify yourself before God, boasting of what you’ve done, comparing yourself to others, elevating yourself on the backs of your brothers and sisters. Jesus cuts off all of that at the knees. At the close of the day, at the end of your life, at the end of the world, when you have done what was commanded, you say this: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” And truthfully, we haven’t really even done that. Lord, have mercy.
And here’s where we get to the Gospel kicker. You and I serve a different sort of Master. He’s the One who came not to be served but to serve and to lay His life down to save. He’s the Suffering Servant who bears the sins of the people. He’s the sinless Son who became sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. He actually is the Master who calls His servants from the field at the end of the day and doesn’t interrogate them over what they’ve done or haven’t done. He doesn’t make them wait on Him, He serves them. He invites you to His table. He washes your feet. He feeds you with His food and drink. While you are saying, “We are unworthy servants,” He’s saying to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It’s all by grace, free gift, unearned, unmerited, undeserved.
“By grace through faith for Jesus’ sake,” we say. By God’s undeserved kindness toward miserable sinners, through faith, trust in the promise of a forgiveness so boundless, so sure, that you can forgive a brother seven times, yes seventy times seven, and it won’t run out. That’s the faith that moves mulberry trees. Faith so tiny you don’t really notice it.
In fact, it’s not your faith that forgives, or serves, or moves mulberry trees. It’s your Jesus in whom you trust.
In the Name of Jesus,