It is the Duty of our faith to rebuke and forgive our brothers. Luke 17:1-10 is not a grouping of disconnected proverbs from Jesus. Rather, there is a logic that holds them all together and makes sense of their placement here in Luke’s Gospel.
This is the end of the scene that began in chapter 15, when tax collectors and sinners drew near to Jesus and he received them. The Pharisees did not approve of opening the doors of grace so wide, and that disapproval set off a series of addresses from Jesus. He has gone back and forth, warning the Pharisees and instructing his disciples. And these ten verses form Jesus’ last words on the context.
The first command he gives is to “beware yourselves”. This is not the first time Jesus has cautioned the disciples this way. And the previous warning sheds light on this one. In Luke 12:1, he warned his disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” We’ve been told that the Pharisees and scribes burden the people with human regulations passed off as divine, yet they themselves do not bear these burdens (Luke 11:46-47). These leaders of Israel were hindering people from fellowship with God. They were putting stumbling blocks in their paths.
That’s the meaning of the words behind the ESV’s unfortunate rendering, “temptations to sin.” Occasions or causes for stumbling are inevitable. We cannot prevent them entirely, but we are warned in the strongest terms to be sure that we are not the ones causing our brothers to stumble. A stumbling block is anything which hinders someone from receiving the grace of God and serving faithfully in his kingdom. In the 2012 Summer Olympics, Morgan Uceny was in the middle of the pack, about to make her move in the 1,500 meter race when suddenly she tripped. She had been in position to challenge for a medal, but her performance went down in the record books as “DNF” – did not finish. There will be always be tripping hazards for those who follow Christ. Every one of us faces them every single day. The world, the flesh, the devil, — our enemies would love to see us fall. They would love to place “DNF” on the record-books of our lives. And that danger makes sense of the words that follow. You are your brother’s keeper, and you have the ability and responsibility to assist your brother in his race.
On the other hand, sometimes it is because we recognize our flaws that we are slow to point out the sin in others. When we see ourselves clearly in the mirror, we feel hypocritical pointing out the failures of others. Nevertheless, we are commanded to point them out, however uncomfortable it may be. We have the words to remove the stumbling blocks. The words of the gospel overcome the world, crucify the flesh and put the devil to flight. We must use them to save our brothers (James 5:19-20). But we must do so with humility and gentleness.
This is precisely where the connection to faith is found. The apostles saw it. They recognized the difficulty in these commands, rebuking and freely forgiving. They saw that faith alone would keep them from causing their brothers to stumble, whether by inaction or by consigning them to some sort of temporal purgatory or putting them on probation, withholding grace until they pull themselves up by their bootstraps to warrant our forgiveness. And so they request a boost to their faith.
But Jesus explains that quantity of faith is not the issue. Clarity is. The object of faith is what matters. Through faith, God does the ‘impossible’, the absurdly unexpected. Faith is the instrument of the seemingly impossible.
If we are slow to rebuke or slow to forgive it is because we do not believe the gospel. If we believe that God is sovereign and that God is good, then there is no relationship that is beyond His power to heal. And if we believe that we are created in His image and therefore are responsible to reflect his character, and if we believe that we’ve fallen short … that we fall short continuously, and if we believe that our failures are all forgiven through the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we believe that we offered nothing to gain that forgiveness or favor, then we cannot withhold offering that forgiveness to others (Matt. 6:14-15). And if we believe that we are united, we cannot sit idly by while one of our number risks “DNF” being entered by his name. We are a body. If one member withers, all members suffer.
But we are always wont to become Pharisees. Even our humble, careful and thoughtful rebukes can become points of pride. Similarly, we can begin to pat ourselves on the back for how gracious we’ve become. We begin, like the Pharisees, to expect God’s favor because of the care with which we’ve guarded the purity of our community, or because of how quickly we forgive others. But no matter how quickly you forgive, no matter how regularly you forgive, no matter how gently or thoroughly you guard your brothers from stumbling, you have done nothing to earn God’s favor. You’ve done nothing beyond your duty. You forgive because you’ve been forgiven. You love because you’ve been loved. You protect because you are protected.
Remember that, in this very context, we’ve been told that we will serve one master. But slavery to Christ is the only slavery that is free. In Christ, we are free to be what we were created to be and have been declared to be. All of our lives are in service of the king. He didn’t merely give us a boost. He gave us life from the dead. And when we came to him, we did not come to him with demanding terms. He would not have accepted them. We came to him with an unconditional surrender. We willingly enslaved ourselves to his loving care and protection, and to his service.
So when we rebuke our erring brother, and when we forgive him for the 100th time, we have done nothing above and beyond the call of duty toward our King. We live for Him and die for Him (Rom 14:7-8; 2 Cor 5:14-15; 1Cor 6:19-20; Gal 2:19-20).
So look carefully in the mirror. Take hold of the cross with its limitless store of grace. Stand in awe of the God who loved such a worm. And from that place of awe and worship, bring gentle correction to the wayward brother. And remember that God does not wait for change before offering you forgiveness. Change comes through and because of forgiveness. When you take hold of the gospel truly yourself, you will do your duty. And it will be a joy.