By Dr. Mark Scott
Jesus’ teachings often overwhelmed the disciples. When he taught that he was the bread of life, his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching” (John 6:60). When he taught about what truly defiles a person, his disciples asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (Matthew 15:12). When he taught about not causing others to stumble and the need for forgiveness, his disciples said, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).
How much faith do we need to do God’s work? Buckets—more than we think. Faith begins with the acceptance of eyewitness testimony. But it never ends there. It proceeds to trust and leaning one’s whole weight on God. In the travel narrative of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 9:51–19:28), Jesus taught much about faith. In our text Jesus gave three keys to an ever-increasing faith.
If we are to grow in our faith then the first key is self-awareness. We keep our eyes on God, but we watch (“hold toward”) ourselves. This is not a moral or doctrinal watching of self (as in 1 Timothy 4:16). This is a caution about how our conduct might negatively influence someone else. In the previous context (Luke 16:19-31) the rich man watched himself but neglected to perceive how stingy he was being to others.
Jesus seemed to admit that in a fallen world things do trip people up (literally “cause to be entrapped”). But to cause others to trip is failing to perceive how one’s behavior is negatively affecting others and is not walking by faith. Jesus has one word for such behavior: woe (“alas” or something like “pity with tears”). Jesus gave an illustration of how serious he is about such things. He said, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” If an ancient millstone is tied around your neck, you won’t be as fortunate as Jonah.
A second key to an ever-increasing faith is forgiving others. If someone comes to grips with the reality that he has made others stumble in their faith, that person will probably desire forgiveness. If that person repents, then those with increasing faith will forgive that person, even if it is hard. When believers are caught in sin, others must rebuke them. This rebuke could be harsh. (It is the same word that is used of Jesus rebuking demons.) But it is actually loving. This may be Luke’s version of Matthew’s church discipline passage (Matthew 8:15-20).
If the repentance is genuine, the only response in the Christian community is forgiveness (“the sending away or canceling of sin”). Jesus might be speaking in hyperbole when suggesting that a person could repent seven times in a day, but perhaps not. Forgiveness offered seven times makes one doubt the sincerity of the repentance, but all of us have addictive personalities in some areas. Seven is God’s complete number. This is a tall order (Matthew 6:14, 15; 18:21-35). No wonder the disciples were overwhelmed and said, “Increase our faith!”
Be a Servant
Is faith a gift from God or is it a person’s response to God? Both. God infuses us with the capacity to respond to him, but we also cast a vote in our response to him. So the third key to an ever-increasing faith is to assume the posture of a servant (literally and consistently in this passage, “a slave”). Servants are dependent on their masters, and they also have to do the serving.
Jesus gave two illustrations of faithful servants. The first is that faithful servants might have a small amount of faith as a mustard seed, but even a small amount of faith can make a huge difference. The exaggerated illustration speaks of a mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea. Chris Seidman said, “Tiny beginnings are our business; magnificent endings are God’s business.”
The longer illustration is that of a master and a slave. While Jesus did come among us as a servant (Luke 22:27; Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:5-11), the point of this analogy is that servants serve the master—not the other way around. It is a transcultural issue—masters eat before servants.
At the end of the day disciples who have an ever-increasing faith realize that they are unworthy servants. They have only done their duty. Their duty is to help others, not hinder them. Their duty is forgive others, not hold grudges against them. Their duty is to serve, not maintain an entitlement mentality.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.