“Just climb up, sit down, let go, and enjoy, honey!” Lainey’s father to said to her. Little Lainey had recently learned how to swim, and was now standing on the ladder of the water slide, frozen in fear. Lainey had just started jumping into the pool, and then would frantically dog paddle back to the ledge. However, this was different. This slide emptied into the deep side of the pool. This isn’t the three foot kiddie section anymore! Her father, noticing her fear and death grip on the ladder, said, “Honey, it’s not that scary. You can do it. Just climb up and go down!” However, her grip tightened and she said, “No way, I’m not doing it! I’m not going down.” Her father chimed back from the pool: “Don’t worry, honey, you’ll enjoy it! Just go down. Don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen. Trust me!” Ever been in that situation? Called to act but frozen in fear? Today, in our Gospel reading, Jesus challenges us to step forward and to go up the ladder. However, too often, we clutch to it, frozen in fear! What Jesus says this morning is hard, very hard. Even the disciples find it so! Despite the difficulty and fear that might arise, Jesus challenges us, He encourages us. He encourages us to trust His promises and voice as He teaches us to take sin seriously, to rebuke, to forgive, and to serve.
Jesus begins His teaching by saying, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” Jesus starts by bringing out an obvious fact: what do sinners do? They sin! Since the church is full of sinners, temptations and opportunities to sin will never be fully eliminated. They will always be present. We will offend others by what we say and do. Our behaviors might encourage others to sin. It could be our careless use of words that encourages someone else’s careless use of them. Our loafing on the job, ignoring the needs of others, you name it!, might encourage them to do the same. While all of this is bad, Jesus wants one thing to be avoided at all costs.
The Greek word for “temptations to sin” is skandalon, and I’m sure that you can guess what English word we might get from it, scandal, right? While the word does mean “temptations to sin,” it also carries with it the idea of apostatizing, or making others fall away from the faith. These are those actions that can offend and damage the faith of others. These are activities that can lead others astray or away from Jesus. This story helps to illuminate what Jesus is talking about here.
In High School, the driver’s education teacher was a ruthless guy. Whenever you made a slight mistake, he would brutally let into you, and just not stop. He almost had me in tears a few times because of what he said, and I dreaded his class every Tuesday and Thursday. He wasn’t just like this to me, though. He made my neighbor sob while driving because of his words, and he told one of my best friends, one of the politest people that I know, that he was the rudest student he ever had. Jeff later became a priest. The teacher’s reputation and actions were well-known. One day, though, while sitting in his classroom, I noticed he had a Christian devotional on his desk, and I found out later that he led the staff Bible Studies at school. I was honestly surprised at these things. His actions gave no indication of his faith, and his behaviors were a complete turn-off. If he ever told me about Jesus, I would be inclined to say, “No thank-you, I’m good. I’m not interested.” This is what Jesus talks about here. We pray that we would not be this others. We pray that our lives and actions wouldn’t turn others away.
Jesus opens our eyes to the seriousness of sin and temptations by saying, “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. Pay attention to yourselves!” The term “little ones” refers to any Christian, not just those who are young or new to the faith. His words highlight the seriousness of temptations, the seriousness of our sin, and the effects that they can have.
While there will always be temptations to sin, our Lord always provides a way out. We are not helpless or alone. We have a great High Priest who knows our weaknesses, who knows our temptations, and sympathizes. Our God is loving and caring, and by His Word exposes our sin that threatens our lives and that of others. Be open to His Spirit’s nudge as He exposes sin and points you to grace. Our faithful God can deliver us from temptation and He desires to keep all members of His family under His love and care. Jesus wants us to take sin seriously, and this ties in nice to His next point: rebuking.
Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke Him, and if he repents, forgive him”. “Rebuke” carries with it the idea of a frank, but gentle admonition. As the saying goes, “It is not what you say, but how you say it!” We are sensitive to that and how we approach our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. However, there is a challenge and fear to this. Is it fun to tell someone they are doing wrong? No. Do people tend to take these conversations well? Not really. Doing this can be terrifying, and scary. On top of it, we might fear losing a friendship, offending someone, or being judged. We might fear they will think that we are a “holier-than-thou” person, or that we might say the wrong thing. But, Jesus wants us, if we see a brother or sister acting destructively, or wandering away, to send a warning.
Imagine if you saw someone pick up an unmarked glass in a laboratory that you knew contained some dangerous chemicals. As the person has the glass in hand and moves it up to their mouth to take a drink, what do you do? Do you remain silent, letting someone drink the contents of that glass to their harm, or do you say, “No! Don’t drink that! It is dangerous!” I think the answer is obvious. Wouldn’t we want to do the same for someone’s faith life? Wouldn’t you want someone to do that for you? Sin is harmful and destructive. It kills. It hurts. It destroys. It separates.
How do we apply this? When do we rebuke? Why do we rebuke? As Luther says, we rebuke when it is needful and profitable. We don’t do it to brow-beat, nit-pick, or to give a hard time. The point of this is to bring about repentance and restoration. Christ’s forgiveness always effects restoration and release. It is what He gives us! We always extend forgiveness with that word of Law and warning. We let that convicting word drive them to Christ and His rescue. We don’t and never leave them hopeless or hanging. The goal is to always bring back to repentance and to guide them back to Jesus. The rebuke is never without the promise and goal of forgiveness. And this leads us to Jesus’ next point, and arguably, his most challenging one.
Jesus says, “Forgive. If your brother sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” No one likes to be wronged, or taken advantage of. When we are wronged, it might be appropriate to forgive once, twice, maybe, three times in a day….but seven times in a day? It seems quite intentional at that time! What is meant by seven? One commentator says that seven suggests any number of times. The Church Father, St. Augustine, writes, “What then is ‘seven times’ Always, as often, as he shall sin and repent!” Forgiving once can be hard, but forgive all the time, and for everything? That is a difficult task. Even the disciples pick up on this by saying, “Increase our faith! Even they grasp the difficulty of Jesus’ words here. Peter makes no big boast here. They know, along with us, that we need help to fulfill what Jesus calls us to do!
So, Jesus gives them and us, a word of encouragement, and not one of rebuke. He says, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Jesus essentially says, “You have enough faith.” His point is that even the smallest of faiths, faith the size of a mustard seed, can do seemingly impossible things, like uprooting a full-grown mulberry tree. It can do a seemingly impossible thing, like forgiving.
Why? How? We don’t look to our faith alone, but to Jesus, the One in Whom we place our trust. We look to Jesus, who forgives us by His death and resurrection. We look to Jesus, Who forgives us when he have hurt or disappointed Him. We look to Jesus, Who forgives us time and time again, whenever we ask, even if we have already done that sin seven times today. This Jesus, Whom we look to, is the author, founder, and perfecter of our faith. This Jesus is the object and power of our faith. Our Savior helps us to forgive, even when it seems impossible. This Jesus creates and fosters love in us to care for the spiritual well-being of others. This Jesus works in us by His Word and Spirit to make us like Him. Jesus is the object and power of our faith, the size of it doesn’t matter.
He ends by giving us a reality check, a reminder of how things really are. He tells us the perspective we are to keep in mind as we live for Him and listen to His teachings. He says, “Suppose that one of you has servant who plows the field. Once he is done and comes back, do you tell him, ‘Come, sit down, and eat?’ Instead, don’t you say, ‘Change your smelly clothes, cook dinner, and serve me while I eat and drink. Once I’m done, then you can eat and drink.’ When they do those things, do you actually thank the servant for doing what he was hired to do? No. Those things are his job.” And then He makes His point by saying, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Simply put, God owes us nothing. He owes us nothing for the good works that He creates and produces in us. Whether it is admonishing a lost sinner or forgiving those who wronged us. Whether it is serving Him or our neighbor, all of these acts flow forth because of Christ’s death and resurrection for us. God owes us nothing for doing what we are supposed to do. A life of rebuking, forgiving, and serving is what we are called to do! All of it His work and doing anyways. All that we do sprouts and springs forth from what He has done for us. Jesus’ parable is a wonderful reminder, that, as Philip Melanchthon put it, “declares that God saves by mercy and because of His promise, not that it is due to us because of the value of our works.” By faith, we are just doing our duty.
Today, in our text, Jesus invites us to hear His Word and promises, believe them by faith, and by faith, boldly venture forward in His name. You are at the top of the slide, your Savior is down below. Let go! Don’t clutch the slide in fear. Don’t worry, go forward, go down, Your Savior will catch and be with you!