Sermon for Luke 17:1-10

October 2, 2022

“I wish I had more faith!” Have you ever said that? I have. I’ve said it when I didn’t know which way to turn. I’ve said it when disease and death have closed every door. I’ve said it standing helpless as another suffers. I’ve said it when I feel inadequate, inept, and ill-equipped to meet the challenges of life.

I wish I had more faith. So, when I hear the apostles in our gospel reading, I know I’m in good company. Following Jesus is hard. Jesus needs me to care for the vulnerable. He wants me to keep other disciples accountable, and vice versa. He expects me to forgive others and to do that as many times as it takes.

The disciples hear this list and panic. “Increase our faith!” We’re not up to it. We need something more. If this is up to me, I need a turbocharger for my faith.

The disciples see faith as fuel. They see faith as stuff that can be measured. We often see faith the same way. Why do people come to church? “I come to get my spiritual batteries recharged,” some say. “I come to get my faith-tank refilled,” others say. We see church as a place to plug in our spiritual cell phones when they’re ready to die. If we don’t do it periodically, we get dead batteries and empty tanks.

That’s a fair description of our weekly experience. But Jesus isn’t crazy about it. If faith is fuel, then it’s really all up to me. Even if I have a smidgeon of that stuff, I should be able to manufacture miracles. I should be able to tell a mulberry tree to take a swim. Hah! I can barely get my dogs to do what I tell them. Moving mulberry trees is way above my paygrade.

Faith isn’t fuel. Faith can’t be measured in gallons or volts or calories. Faith is a relationship. Faith means trusting that someone deserves that trust. Faith means putting yourself in the hands of another and going along for the ride. Christian faith is trusting Jesus in life and in death.

I want to tell you about Charles Blondin. Blondin was a French tightrope walker and acrobat. He was best known for walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Blondin made that trip – not once, not twice, but many times. He crossed blindfolded. He crossed on stilts. He balanced halfway across, sitting on one leg of a chair. He carried a small stove to the middle of the falls. Then he cooked and ate an omelet while the river roared beneath him.

One day, Blondin pushed a wheelbarrow across the falls. When he arrived at the far side, the crowd clapped and cheered and whistled. When the noise died down, Blondin eyed the crowd. “Do you believe I could do that again?” he asked. “Of course, you could!” the crowd replied. “You are the great Charles Blondin!”

“Very well,” Blondin answered. Then he tapped the wheelbarrow. “Who wants the first ride?”

Here’s a deeper understanding of faith. The question isn’t, “How much do I have?” The question is, “Who do I trust?” Christian faith isn’t a tank full of self-confidence. Christian faith isn’t spiritual batteries charged and ready for action. Christian faith is trusting Jesus in life and in death.

If faith is gas in the tank or juice in the battery, it all depends on me. The popular image is the “leap of faith.” You’ll get the idea from this movie clip. It comes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It’s a desperate moment. Without the help of the Holy Grail, Indiana’s father will die in minutes. Indiana has to step out in “blind” faith, trusting that the path will appear. The bridge was there all along, although it was invisible except to “the eyes of faith.” Many of folks understand faith just like this.

It’s a powerful scene. But it’s all about what’s happening inside of Indiana Jones. The question is whether he can prove his own worth. Once he has, his daring is rewarded. It has little to do with whatever person or force provided the sturdy bridge to the future.

At first, this may look just like Charles Blondin’s wheelbarrow. Do you believe I can do that again? Of course, we do! Fine, who wants the first ride? Crawling in Blondin’s wheelbarrow might look like Indiana Jones closing his eyes and stepping into nothingness.

Except, it’s not the same. Someone did crawl into Blondin’s wheelbarrow that day. Harry Colcord, Blondin’s manager, got in and rode across the falls. But this wasn’t Colcord’s first ride. Blondin had carried Colcord on his back across the falls several times before. Colcord trusted Blondin because he knew from experience that Blondin could be trusted.

Faith isn’t fuel. Faith is trust in the character of the one who carries me. I trust Jesus – God in the flesh who comes to rescue the cosmos from sin, death, and the devil. I trust Jesus – the one who brings God’s merciful justice to a broken-down world. I trust Jesus – the one God raised from the dead to give life to us all. I trust Jesus in life and in death. It’s not about me.

Martin Luther puts it this way. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” It’s about God’s faithfulness, not mine.

If I’m Indiana Jones, I have faith in my faith. That’s the problem with faith as fuel, as a personal decision, as a blind leap. What happens when my faith fails? What happens when I lose it? What happens when life just gets too hard? If faith is fuel and I run out of gas, then I’m done for.

“If we are faithless, Jesus Christ remains faithful,” the Bible says in Second Timothy two, verse thirteen, for Jesus cannot deny himself.” I think about the old poem, “Footprints in the Sand.” The poet imagines two sets of footprints on a beach – one set for the poet and one for Jesus. During the hardest parts of the poet’s life, it seemed like there was only one set of footprints.

“Lord,” the poet protested, “I don’t understand why when I needed you the most you would leave me.”

“During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints,” the Lord replied, “it was then that I carried you.”

We trust Jesus because we know Jesus can be trusted. We know we can trust Jesus in life and in death. We know that because not even death could defeat him. In the bread and wine of Holy Communion, Jesus gives his life to you and me. In this meal we remember that God’s grace is a gift to us. We can trust that gift because we trust the Giver.

“Increase our faith!” we cry when things get hard. We come to church to remind one another that Jesus is faithful to us precisely in those hard moments. I’m so glad to come together with the faith community. On those days when I don’t get it, someone else here does. And on those days when you don’t get it, I hope I can remind you that Jesus is carrying you through.

We remind one another of what Jesus has done in us and for us and through us. Then, when Jesus taps the wheelbarrow, we can joyfully jump in. Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 17:1-10 (Part Three)

We haven’t addressed the small parable in Luke 17:7-10. If the reader finds that parable troubling and offensive, I take that to be a good sign. The parable simply assumes the dynamics and language of the Roman enslavement system. It addresses the realities of that system from the perspective of the enslavers. And it assumes that enslavers are members of the Christian communities addressed by the Lukan account.

Were the “apostles” enslavers? While even small landowners in the first-century Roman empire often enslaved one or more enslaved persons, those who followed Jesus were less likely to fit into the category of enslavers. Jennifer Glancy, in Slavery as Moral Problem, argues that in fact our parable assumes that some of the apostles were enslavers. If that is the case, then “Luke’s suggestion that the apostles include slaveholders,” Glancy observes, “is incidental and casual.”

Enslavement, as Mary Ann Beavis notes, was practiced in first-century Palestine by both Jews and non-Jews. The realities and dynamics of the enslavement system and of the lives of the enslaved were known to Jesus’ audience and to the Lukan audience as well. Glancy notes the direct address of the text, “which among you…” As we have noted previously, this indicates a direct address both to Jesus’ audience and to the Lukan audience.

It may be that the apostles included former enslavers. “It gives me pause to consider that Luke, so much closer than I am to the everyday realities of Jesus’ world,” Glancy muses, “sees nothing amiss in an off-the-cuff suggestion that some of Jesus’ followers might have had experience giving orders to slaves” (Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Location 137). It should give us pause as preachers, and perhaps we need to help our listeners feel that discomfort if they don’t already.

Some members of Jesus’ entourage may well have held enslaved persons. That may be the case, for example, with the well-off women described in Luke 8 who underwrote some or all of the mission expenses. On the other hand, as Glancy notes, one of those women might have been the spouse of a slave/steward (Joanna). But most of the crowd, I suspect, did not possess sufficient wealth to purchase and hold enslaved persons.

It’s clear that a different situation unfolds as the Church begins to flower and grow in Acts. At least some early Christians were in fact slaveholders. That was likely even more the case in the communities of faith addressed by the Lukan account. The notable reality is that nowhere in the Lukan gospel or Acts is there any condemnation or questioning of the Roman enslavement system. Nor is there any such condemnation or questioning of the system in the Pauline letters, while we’re at it.

Jennifer Glancy offers a measured evaluation of enslavement metaphors in Jesus’ parables. “To say that Jesus relies on the patterns of slaveholding in his parables does not mean Jesus therefore approves of those patterns of behavior,” she writes. “Nevertheless, he does not explicitly repudiate those behaviors” (Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Locations 218-219). Glancy argues that the values of the Gospel are incompatible with the Roman enslavement system. Yet, I would argue, it takes significant exegetical and homiletical effort to make that clear and credible.

So, what are we to do with this little parable? I think that we preachers must note that this is a troubling passage for us. We are no longer in a place where some of us can blithely slip past it, muttering that it is a poorly chosen metaphor. For any who know the history of enslavement in our society, “an insistence that slavery is a paradigm for discipleship is cringe-worthy” (Glancy, Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Location 241).

“Like land and livestock, slaves were objects to be used to best advantage by their masters,” Beavis writes. “Ancient slavery was intrinsically oppressive and was maintained solely for the benefit of the privileged (slave owners). It is difficult to imagine,” Beavis continues, “a slave owner sincerely wishing to trade places with his/her slave” (page 39). Yet, the Lukan author describes such place-trading in Luke 12. The situation assumed in our current parable reflects the societal and systemic norm, while the parable in Luke 12 subverts that norm.

Beavis notes that the point of the parable is not that the enslaved person is remarkable in any sense. Instead, “this parable is rather conservative in that it casually assumes that the listener is a slave owner who treats his/her slaves without undue consideration” (page 41). If there is a subversive or surprising element to the parable, Beavis argues, it is the suggestion that the enslavers in the audience would align and identify themselves with the enslaved persons (page 42). This idea would have been offensive to at least some listeners, whether in Jesus’ audience or the Lukan audience.

Jennifer Glancy compares the two parables in Luke 12 and 17. She notes that the difference in treatment is not due to the conduct of the enslaved persons, “which in both cases conforms to the behavior demanded of countless menial slaves in the ancient world” (Early Christianity, Kindle Locations 2162-2163). The difference depends on the “whims of the slaveholder.” In both cases, the enslaved persons have no control over how they will be treated.

There is no merit system that guarantees rewards for “better” behavior. “While Luke leaves no doubt that slaveholders would not customarily act as waiters for weary slaves,” Glancy notes, “the structure of these parables rests on the recognition that the welfare of chattel slaves depends on the caprice of the slaveholder and not on the intrinsic merits of the slave” (Early Christianity, Kindle Locations 2167-2168).

The parable begins from the perspective of the slaveholder. It’s true that all of Jesus’ listeners could imagine the situation, whether they were slaveholders, enslaved persons, or persons of some other status. However, the language is directed to those who hold slaves. If the rhetoric in the rest of the Lukan account is any indication, this second-person address usually indicates that the Lukan author is speaking through Jesus directly to people in the audience.

So, Jesus is talking to slaveholders and appealing to their firsthand experience. Of course, they would not tell the enslaved person in question to sit down and have a meal. The grammar of the question indicates clearly that the expected reply to the question is that no slaveholder would behave this way. Verses eight and nine describe the behavior expected from the slaveholder.

Suddenly, in verse ten the position of the listeners is reversed. They are no longer slaveholders. Instead, they are now “useless slaves” (Greek = douloi achreioi). The term, “useless,” is a stereotypical description of all enslaved persons in the Roman enslavement system. Cadwallader notes that even when the enslaved persons in the parable have done everything required, they are still to call themselves “worthless slaves.” Nothing has changed the basic reality for the (parabolic) enslaved person.

When we read the Lukan account and we encounter a status reversal, we should feel a tingle of recognition. The Great Reversal is one of the primary themes in the Gospel of Luke. That theme has just been illustrated at length in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Our text, if we begin at Luke 17:1, is a direct application of that parable in the lives of the disciples. If, even as disciples, we find ourselves in positions of power over others, we should expect such positions of power to be reversed in and for the sake of the Kin(g)dom of God.

This theological reversal apparently did little to facilitate an actual reversal or abolition of the Roman enslavement system. There was no Christian abolition movement in the Church until the nineteenth century. Yet, there was real concern about how Christian enslavers would interact with Christian enslaved persons and vice versa. We can see that concern expressed in the household codes in the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Ancient slavery as an interpretive context for the New Testament servant parables with special reference to the unjust steward (Luke 16: 1-8).” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 1 (1992): 37-54.

Cadwallader, Alan. “Name punning and social stereotyping: Re-inscribing slavery in the Letter to Philemon.” Australian Biblical Review 61 (2013): 44-60.

Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery as Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today. Kindle Edition.

Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 17:1-10 (Part Two)

I have sometimes taken the risk and asked people, “Why do you attend worship.?” One of the top five answers is always something like, “I need to get my spiritual batteries recharged.” The week has taken it out of me, and my onboard supply of faith is running low.

I wonder how much that metaphor has been enhanced by our experience with cell phones. Right now, my phone is telling me that my battery may run out soon. If I don’t plug it back in to the power source in the next half hour or so, my phone will “die.” Fortunately, I’m right next to a recharging cable. I’m letting the phone run down as part of my periodic battery maintenance.

It’s an interesting metaphor in connection with our text. When it comes to my phone or laptop, I can unplug from the power source. I can go off on my own for a while, separate from the thing that provides the energy. I can usually return to that power source when I need to, but in between recharges, I don’t really have to be connected. I don’t have to think about the power source until I really need it.

I’m not sure that’s a helpful image for our relationship with Jesus if we are his disciples. When it comes to my phone or laptop, unplugging from the charger is a source of freedom. One of the prime selling points for many electronic devices is the amount of time I can be free from the tether of that charging cable. But I don’t think that’s the case with “faith,” at least not as Jesus means it in our text.

The “power source” metaphor indicates that I can unplug from Jesus and have life on my own. That makes “faith” a commodity that can be expended and replenished. But what if faith isn’t a commodity? What if the question isn’t about the “amount” of faith I have or don’t have at the present moment? What if “faith” is not about a quantity I possess but rather the quality of a relationship of trust?

In his commentary, Francisco J. Garcia notes that “Jesus’ loaded response to the disciple’s request for more faith—telling them that all they required was the faith of a tiny mustard seed to do the impossible—tells us that they are asking for the wrong thing. But,” Garcia wonders, “what’s wrong with wanting just a little more faith to meet the urgent call of their fearless leader?”

Garcia observes that faith can’t be quantified and plotted on a line graph. Or as Rolf Jacobson puts it in one of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcasts, it’s not that we have a battery icon on our hearts to indicate the amount of faith we have and when we might be running low. “Faith does not increase like magic,” Garcia writes, “It is felt and known through lived experience. This can only come through practice,” he continues, “in those challenging moments when faith is put to the test.”

Garcia notes that this “test” is not like a school exam where we can pass or fail. Rather, the test he describes is the act of trusting in the one in whom we have faith. Faith is experienced and built as we live in a trusting relationship. It’s not a commodity to be stored for future need. He suggests that faith is a “praxis,” a practice that shapes how we live – “an ongoing spiral-like process of reflection, action, and grace that only ‘increases’ as the process itself unfolds and expands in breadth and depth.”

If “faith” is not the juice that recharges, our spiritual batteries, then what is it? Another cultural metaphor that people know is the “leap of faith.” I am betraying my age here, but I can’t help but think of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Joy J. Moore reminded me of this scene during a “Sermon Brainwave” podcast. Here’s a YouTube clip of the scene.

It’s a desperate moment. Without the help of the Holy Grail, Indiana’s father will die in minutes. Yet, it seems that there’s no path forward. Indiana has to step out in “blind” faith, trusting that the path will appear. The bridge was there all along, although it was invisible except to “the eyes of faith.” I think that many of our folks understand faith as of necessity “blind” in this sense.

It’s a compelling scene. But it’s all about what’s happening “inside of” Indiana Jones. The question is whether he can muster up the courage to step out blindly. Once he has done so, his daring is rewarded. It’s really all about Indiana and has little to do with whatever person or force might have actually provided the sturdy bridge to the future. Faith may not be a commodity in this scene. Instead, it’s a personal accomplishment. And because of his heroic effort and risk, no one else has to take the leap like Indiana.

The notion of the “leap” of faith comes most clearly from the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. I would recommend to you the brief article by Olivia Goldhill in this regard on Quartz. She notes that Joe Biden has found solace in the words of Kierkegaard. The words that have sustained him most were given to him by Jill Biden, taped to his mirror. “Faith sees best,” Kierkegaard wrote in Gospel of Sufferings, “in the dark.”

Goldhill provides the larger context for that quote. Since it is Kierkegaard, the thought is far more complex than we might hope. Kierkegaard criticized the easy and “rational” faith of the European Christians of his time. Following Jesus, according to the consensus of that moment, was simple, reasonable, and asked little of decent, middle-class people. But that view of faith, Kierkegaard knew, leaves us in the lurch when we face the real darkness of human existence.

When faith makes perfect sense, Kierkegaard says, we can no longer see God. Kierkegaard calls that perspective human “sagacity.” God is hidden by the bright light of human wisdom. That bright light obscures everything in the false notion that life is good, and faith is simple. It is only, he continues, “when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it, then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark.”

What is the difference between Indiana Jones and Soren Kierkegaard, besides the hat and the bullwhip? For Indiana Jones, it’s about the quantity of his faith. It’s really about Indiana Jones and no one else. The question is whether he will take the necessary step or not. That makes perfect sense in the movie. Jones is the hero, after all. I’d like to be the hero of my own dramatic adventures. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. If this is about the quantity of my faith, then, most of the time, I’m screwed.

For Kierkegaard (and for Martin Luther, and for Jesus), the question isn’t the quantity of my faith. The question is the faithfulness of the One in whom I trust. Indiana Jones had no reason to believe that the stone bridge would appear. He had no previous experience, no tradition, no earlier witnesses that would testify to the existence of that bridge in spite of the evidence of his senses. Jones stepped out in desperation as much as he did in faith.

Jesus followers claim to know something about this Jesus in whom we put our trust. We claim to know that he was faithful to and through death, even death on a cross. We claim to know that God raised him from the tomb and lifted him to lordship over all of Creation. We claim to know that we have the record of Jesus’ character in the gospel accounts. We claim to know that trust in Jesus as our Lord is not “blind” faith. Rather it is rooted in knowing through Jesus what God is like.

God’s character is “grace.” When we know that, then we can stake our lives on that fact. That’s why, in his Commentary on Romans, Martin Luther gives this description of faith. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His (sic) creatures.” My confidence is in God’s character, not in the quantity of my “faith.”

This faith does not see best in the dark because of anything about me or my character. My experience of this faith in the midst of suffering is like seeing the stars come out at night. The stars are always there, but sunlight renders them invisible. It’s only when the sun goes down that the stars appear. I may have to wait for the bright light of my own resources to fade before I can see what has always been there – God’s love for me in Jesus.

Some nights are cloudy, and the stars remain invisible. But I trust that they are still there. After a week of overcast nights, I might begin to wonder if the stars will shine again, but they always do. I don’t think God sends us suffering to make sure we can see God in faith. Instead, suffering and trials come all on their own. Yet, it is in the midst of the darkness that I have most often seen the light of Christ – and seen that light most clearly.

On this basis, we Christians confess that even faith itself is a gift from God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, it is a gift that calls forth action and response. More on that in the next post.

Text Study for Luke 17:1-10 (Part One)

17 Pentecost C; October 2, 2022

Some critical editions of the text label this section simply as “Some Sayings of Jesus.” The thought is that the Lukan author stitched some independent stories together in this section. Similar texts are separated in the Matthean account. Luke 17:1-3 resemble Matthew 18:6-7. The note on forgiving another disciple seven times a day resembles Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:22. The image of something big happening because of faith resembles Jesus’ words in Mark 11:23. The small parable in Luke 17:7-10 is exclusive to the Lukan account.

I rehearse this not because I’m interested in form criticism or tradition history. Instead, I just want to remind myself that the Lukan author makes choices about what to include in the account and where to put those texts. The section heading, “Some Sayings of Jesus,” could be heard as a description of a purported randomness or catch-all nature of this section. I don’t think that’s ever the case in the Lukan account. We may struggle to discern how the Lukan author is connecting all this material to the larger context. But just because we struggle doesn’t mean the Lukan author struggled in the same way.

Photo by nappy on

Unless there is some clear reason to do otherwise, we should assume that a Lukan text is tightly connected to its immediate context. The audience addressed in the second half of Luke 16 is the scoffing Pharisees. We see this in Luke 16:15. In Luke 17:1, we get a clear shift in the addressed audience. We have an adversative de. Jesus speaks to his disciples. They overheard the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Now Jesus unpacks (or complexifies) that parable as it applies to their life together.

I don’t see how it is responsible to read Luke 17:5-10 without reading Luke 17:1-4. I understand that this multiplies the problems in an already issue-laden text. But the urgent plea from the disciples, “Increase our faith!” doesn’t come in a rhetorical vacuum. Jesus calls the disciples to take care of the “little ones” in the community. This includes both accountability and reconciliation – even if the same process needs to happen seven times a day.

In light of verses one through four, I would be asking for additional resources as well. I need to remember that these “disciple” texts in the Lukan account are especially addressed to the Lukan audience. They are even more especially addressed to the leaders of the Lukan faith communities. Therefore, it is no accident that we switch from “disciples” to “apostles” in Luke 17:5. Perhaps the leaders in those communities were being too hard on members who didn’t have the luxury to participate as faithfully and as fully as those leaders would have liked.

It’s important to note that the Lukan author identifies Jesus as “the Lord” in verses four and five. That reinforces the notion that this exchange is really happening in the Lukan community more than it is between Jesus and his disciples on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. It should be clear by this time in the Lukan account that the leaders of the Lukan communities were having some trouble figuring out the nature and scope of their own accountability as leaders.

“It is impossible for stumbling blocks not to come along,” Jesus tells his disciples (Luke 17:1a, my translation). As a parish pastor, I should have read that reminder every day of my ministry. Far too many times I treated everyday human failings as personal bothers and insults. Why couldn’t these people do better so that I could focus on the real stuff of ministry? I learned through hard and halting lessons that normal human failings are the real stuff of ministry. And I learned through those hard and halting lessons that my responses to those normal human failings could have a profound impact on the life and faith of my members.

I think with chagrin about a brief conversation in my first parish. A faithful member asked a question in good faith at a congregational meeting. My response was too snarky by half. On reflection I realized that the question had tapped my insecurities as a leader, and I punished the poor fellow in return. He was publicly embarrassed by my response, but I ignored that outcome.

It was only when he was absent from worship that I realized something was wrong. I asked forgiveness and offered a public apology for my behavior. I created a stumbling block for his participation in the community of faith through my poor leadership and personal limitations. I was the one who sinned and needed forgiveness. I’m grateful that my parishioner was able to offer that undeserved gift and to return to worship and service. But it was a close scrape for me as a leader.

I wonder if one of these little ones mentioned in Luke 17:2 includes a reference to Lazarus in the previous parable. I am sure that my bad behavior led to some dark thoughts on the part of my parishioner, thoughts that did not enhance his life and faith. I can imagine that as Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate day after day, some of his thoughts and imaginings shaded into darkness.

I would have been hard pressed not to wish ill for the rich man if I were in Lazarus’ place. Knowing myself and my reactions, I can imagine that I would have been filled with resentment. I would have externalized my pain with wishes that similar harm might come to the rich man. I would have coveted – not merely desired but coveted – the food on the rich man’s table. I would have cursed even the dogs, who were, after all, just doing what dogs do.

“Pay attention to yourselves!” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 17:3 (my translation). This is one of the primary emotional tasks of leaders – to be attentive to ourselves. As leaders in any community, we need to monitor our own responses and reactions. We need to make sure that we are aware of what motivates and moves us in response to stimuli that come at us from our community.

In this regard, it’s always worth remembering the great Viktor Frankl quote from Man’s Search for Meaning. “Between stimulus and response there is a space.” Frankl writes, “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It’s important to remember that Frankl wrote this as he described his experiences in the Nazi death camps. For Frankl, this kind of self-awareness was part of his path to survival.

I find it interesting that Jesus moves from the second person plural (“yourselves”) to the second person singular (“your”) in verse three. The rebuke, repentance, and reconciliation envisioned in this passage is clearly at a personal level, between two members of the Lukan faith community. “If your sibling sins, you must rebuke that one,” Jesus says, “and if that one repents, you must forgive” (Luke 173b, my translation). That move to the second person singular continues into verse 4.

The most immediate context for the request for increased faith, therefore, is the command to forgive a repentant sibling seven times a day. Of course, that number isn’t an upper limit. It’s a symbol of ongoing and complete forgiveness. The command is to forgive the repentant one as many times as it takes to maintain the relationship.

This will drive some people justifiably crazy. It seems like a sure formula, for example, for perpetuating an abusive relationship. I don’t think for a moment that this is what Jesus intends. We tend to have an over-developed sense of what it means to forgive.

And we have an under-developed of what it means to repent. Repentance is far more than expressing sorrow for a previous action. It is a change of mind that demonstrates evidence that the offender is now a different sort of person. The standard is very high for disciples who have been wronged. The standard is at least as high for the disciple who seeks forgiveness. Repentance is no small or momentary thing.

The connective between verses four and five is a “kai.” It’s an “and.” Rhetorically, the request from the apostles continues the conversation happening in verses one through four. The disciples are portrayed as seeing a continuity between Jesus’ command to forgive and their desire for increased faith. If we’re commanded to engage in that sort of behavior in the faith community, the disciples seem to say, we’re going to need more resources to get the job done.

That’s a response that makes sense to us as readers. But it’s not what Jesus intends. Verse six has a “de,” a “but.” The conversation was headed in one direction, and Jesus needs it to go another direction. The apostles seem to have gotten the wrong end of stick on this one. Jesus needs to reorient the conversation. He does that with some outlandish imagery and a disgusting little parable (disgusting, I hope, from our twenty-first century vantage point).

It’s that rhetorical whipsaw between verses five and six that makes the reading of verses one through four so important for our interpretation. The disciples are headed off in the wrong direction and need a course correction in their thinking. We probably need that course correction as well. We’ll look more closely at how Jesus responds in our next post.