Pentecost 20 – Proper 22/Year C (October 2, 2016)
“Increase Our Faith” (Luke 17:1-10)
“Increase our faith!” the disciples said to the Lord Jesus. I would assume that has been your prayer on numerous occasions. There are times when you simply feel wasted. Exhausted. Tired. Full of doubts. On the verge of despair. It gets so hard to believe sometimes, to trust that God is there, that he loves you, that he forgives what you have done.
“Increase our faith.” Add to our faith. Make it bigger. Make it stronger. Increase it, Lord. That is most definitely our constant prayer. It seems the older we get and the better we know God’s Word, the more we recognize how sinful our hearts really are and how dependent upon God we are.
What prompted this prayer from the disciples? Jesus spoke to them about temptations that are sure to come to those who trust in him. The Greek word translated as “temptation” here is scandalon. From that word we get our English word “scandal.” A scandal is “an occurrence in which people are shocked and upset because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong.” Every once in a while, a scandal involving a prominent public figure is revealed … a politician, a pastor, a teacher. It makes the news. People are shocked. And it’s becoming harder and harder to keep a scandal a secret in this day and age of the internet, social media, and a camera on every phone.
The types of scandals that Jesus means here are those temptations which ultimately cause someone to stumble and fall into sin and unbelief. Some of those temptations he just finished pointing out in the parables and stories previous to this section. Thinking that you are not a sinner and looking down your nose at those you think are, like the Pharisees and scribes who were disgusted that Jesus would “receive sinners and eat with them” (Luke 15:2). Jealously withholding your forgiveness from someone whom God has already forgiven, like the Prodigal Son’s older brother who was upset that his father would throw a party for his younger brother (Luke 15:28-29). Making money your master and not God (Luke 16:13). Partying hardy and ignoring those outside your gates, like the condemned rich man who ignored poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19-21). Refusing to listen to Moses and the Prophets (Luke 16:29) and the Evangelists and the Apostles. And so we pray along with the disciples, “Increase our faith … Keep us from these temptations and keep us from stumbling into sin and unbelief.”
And then, Jesus ups the ante. He further says, “Woe to the one through whom those temptations … those scandals … come.” Jesus says, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” Millstones are huge round stones used to grind grain. One would rest on top of the other, with the top one being rotated to grind the material in between. Obviously, if you had one tied around your neck in the water, you wouldn’t last very long. You’d plummet into the depths and die. That’s exactly the point Jesus is making. You’d be better off dead than to scandalize the little ones, either believing children or possibly adults who are “young” in their faith. Therefore, Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! Take care! Repent of your own sin!” All the more reason to pray right along with the disciples, “Increase our faith! Increase our faith so that we do nothing that might cause our brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble or fall away from faith.”
Jesus also teaches here about the necessity of offering perpetual forgiveness. If someone sins against you seven times in a day and seven times says, “I repent,” you forgive them seven times. Does this mean that the eighth time you’re done? No more forgiveness? Of course not. Remember elsewhere that Jesus said to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22). Another possible translation is “seventy times seven.” That’s 490 times! The number is not what is important here. Jesus simply means to be ready to forgive always. God’s forgiveness for you is without limit. So should yours be for those who sin against you.
Does that mean you have to be best buddies with everyone? No, of course not. We seek to reconcile as often as possible. We seek to reach out and love all people whom God places into our lives. But clearly there may come a time when we have to keep some people at arm’s length, when we have to walk away from certain toxic relationships, people whose behaviors or attitudes may be harmful to our well-being or the well-being of the people around us. Does that mean we cannot forgive them? Certainly not. When they say “I repent,” then we forgive them. Seven times. Seventy-seven times. Seventy times seven. Without limit.
And in order to forgive constantly, we pray constantly, “Increase our faith! Increase our faith so that we can forgive as God forgives us … daily, constantly, perpetually, even for the sins of which we are unaware.”
Now what do we do with this business about faith the size of a mustard seed? The tiniest amount of faith. At first glance, it makes us feel inadequate for the task. I don’t have the faith to tell a tree to be uprooted and be planted in the sea. That’s just not going to happen, I know it! That tree is not going to obey me. And elsewhere Jesus suggests that we can even move mountains with our mustard seed-sized faith (Matt. 17:20). Yeah, right! And we’re back where we started at the beginning of our sermon today. Doubting and despairing.
But this is not meant to discourage us. It’s meant to teach us about the right kind of faith. If we are trying to stir up faith in ourselves by an act of our own will, then we should indeed despair. Instead, our faith, small though it may be, is power-packed because it is a God-given, Word-and-Sacrament-driven, Christ-centered kind of faith. Even a tiny mustard seed has the power of life in it, the power to burst forth and grow into a tree of its own. And even the smallest amount of Spirit-inspired faith in Christ-crucified and risen from the dead has the power to do what seems humanly impossible … like endlessly forgiving others, like trusting that God in Christ has truly forgiven your sins – even the ones that you might think are unforgivable – and does so without limit.
And so, we pray, “Increase our faith. Increase our faith so that we avoid temptation. Increase our faith so that we are never the cause of temptation. Increase our faith so that we can forgive endlessly. Increase our faith so that, when we do those things that faith leads us to do, we never brag or boast or expect a reward, but simply say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Are you concerned whether you may have scandalized someone’s faith? That you are the one who deserves that millstone? Remember what Jesus has done for you. Jesus took a millstone for you in the shape of a cross and was cast into the depths of death and the grave. Your Lord Jesus shed his blood for the ways in which any one of us may have been the source of someone’s temptation. Moreover, remember that, ultimately, the will of God will be done no matter what we do. He will save all those whom he has called and chosen. Jesus promised “No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28), and “All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out … And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (John 6:37, 39).
You can be sure that the prayer “Increase our faith” will be answered. To believe is God’s will for you … he “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). And you pray this more than you realize. Every time you pray “Thy kingdom come,” God hears and answers that prayer, because Jesus taught you to pray this way. His kingdom comes to you when your heavenly Father gives you his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace you believe his Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity. Every time you pray “Thy will be done,” God hears and answers that prayer, because Jesus taught you to pray this way. He will strengthen and keep you firm in his Word and faith until you die. This is his good and gracious will.
Jesus says, “Believe.” We pray, “Increase our faith.” He graciously gives what he demands. His will is done. His kingdom comes to you. And you are saved.