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Increase Our Faith (Some observations on Luke 17:1-10)

Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith (Lk. 17:1-5).

One of the more difficult facts of life is that “offences will come.” Being on the receiving end of an offense and mulling over the injustice suffered from another’s selfish or wicked act, one is likely to find that one’s equanimity and focus have been lost. This loss of orientation is recognized and conveyed in a more literal translation of the first verse of this passage:

It is impossible that there should come no causes to make man go astray (The New Testament, Lattimore).

This literal rendering foregrounds the danger to the soul that results from having undergone an offense: the wounded soul may “go astray.” Having suffered injury, the soul is tempted to covet and use power to restore its broken equanimity in what seems like just retribution. Brandishing power over others in order to restore sense of self perpetuates the offense. And this dynamic repeated indefinitely becomes a de facto principle undergirding human interaction, and results in a world of fear, anger, and misuse of power. “The whole world lieth in wickedness”(1 Jn. 5:19), thereby ensuring that, as Jesus said, “offenses will come.”

In this passage, Jesus walks his disciples through this problem and into the solution. He begins by addressing the issue of justice: the offender has trespassed a boundary; violated an understood agreement, spoken or not; and caused misery to another who is innocent. Though accountable, he himself seems not to have suffered at all. Not so, says Jesus; there is justice within, and the offender can expect great misery:

woe unto him, through whom [offenses] come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones (1, 2).

Being sunk into the darkness and chaos of the sea (with a millstone necklace!) with no  firm ground nor hope of life is the justice meted out to the offender’s soul. The victim’s sense that the miscreant should suffer for his misdeed as much or more than he himself has suffered is satisfied by Jesus’s pronouncement; in the soul, justice is served. Not only does this vivid image of punishment reassure the victim that an equal or greater suffering will come to the wrongdoer, but it also warns him to stand guard against the temptation to likewise become an offender and undergo such a punishment himself. Jesus would put a stop to the chain reaction of victim becoming offender.

Assuring the disciples that inward justice will always be in force, Jesus stills the impulse to take retribution, to pay back. As an alternative to this natural destructive impulse, he then sets out a rightly ordered procedure for handling offenses:

Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him (3 and 4).

The soul speaking truth to power disencumbers itself of the burden of injustice and puts it in the open. Should the offense have been unintended, the misunderstanding is brought to light and can be explained. If the wrongdoer recognizes that he’s overstepped the boundary, behaved unjustly, and in the future is willing to abide by agreed limits–signaled by his repentance–then forgiving is in order. Conversely, if there’s a refusal to recognize acceptable limits and no repentance forthcoming, the relationship is not to be restored.

These are all principles that can be practiced using the powers available to our nature: reason and conscience can get us this far. Beyond the restoration of relationship by truth-telling and re-affirming social boundaries, however, is a call to handle offenses in a way that requires more than human ability. Jesus calls us and the disciples to this new way: to reframe the event and see it differently; to see it through the perspective of faith, rather than perspective of our limited worldly nature. Doing so will enable us to see that we can lose nothing that can truly affect our well-being.

When the events of life are seen through the eye of faith, one cannot be deprived of anything necessary for one’s happiness. If one’s treasure is in heaven, can anyone break in and steal? No. It is only when there is a failure to see that one’s treasure is in heaven that one can be rattled or devitalized by worldly loss. Living in faith, no power or principalities,

nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-9).

Living in a world where offenses inevitably come, the disciples feel their well-being to be under threat. They also intuit that faith is the sole guarantee of their inward peace…if they just had enough of it. So sensibly, they ask of Jesus: “Increase our faith” (Lk. 17:5). Jesus responds:

If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you (6).

Implied in the apostles’ request for increased faith is the assumption they already have a certain degree of faith, and they just need more. Jesus corrects them: If they had even a tiny amount of faith (even as “a grain of mustard seed”) they could do a mighty act of power: they could command a tree to uproot itself and be “planted in the sea; and it should obey.” (Note the echoing imagery: the offender who sinks in the sea [2] and the tree, which, through faith, can thrive there [6].)  Man’s lack of faith entails a lack of power over nature: his own human nature. Without faith, Man has no power to avoid disorder and weakness, and he sinks into the chaos of external threats, the offences that are bound to come, and into the ocean of darkness.

Having faith, he can thrive even when planted in the chaos of the world that lies in wickedness, even as a sycamine tree could be planted in a hostile environment of the sea. Having faith, the hearing/obeying relationship with his Creator, Man is restored, strengthened, and empowered to withstand and rise above such assaults upon his soul. He is given the power of God to rule over his human nature and to thrive regardless of the circumstances.

Though the disciples think they already have faith and simply need more, Jesus knows faith to be something other than what the disciples understand by the word. Likewise, the seventeenth-century Friends carefully distinguished the difference between what was commonly thought to be faith and the meaning given to the word by Jesus. Penington asserts (emphasis his):

That the true faith (the faith of the gospel, the faith of the elect, the faith which saves the sinner from sin, and makes him more than a conqueror over sin and the powers of darkness) is a belief in the nature of God; which belief giveth entrance into, fixeth in and causeth an abiding in that nature….And nothing can believe in the nature, but what is one with the nature. So then faith is not a believing the history of the scripture…or a believing that Christ died for sinners in general, or for me in particular…but a uniting to the nature of God in Christ (Works, I: 239-40).

Faith is “a belief in the nature of God”…which causes “an abiding in that nature.” It is “a uniting to the nature of God in Christ” that is the true faith which keeps us in peace, empowered to withstand all the assaults that will come. In the final verses of this passage, Jesus instructs the disciples in the way to receive faith.

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do (Lk. 17:5-10).

Jesus is telling his disciples to attend to the work that is set before them and not to get ahead of themselves. As is often the case, Jesus uses rhetoric to make his point. Notice the shift in point of view in this passage indicated by the use of different pronouns: first, Jesus puts the disciples in the position of master (“But which of you, having a servant”); second, the pronoun shifts from the second to the third person, and the master is referred as “he,” no longer as “you” (“Doth he thank that servant”); and third, Jesus moves to the first person pronoun “we,” thus putting the disciples in the position not of the master, nor the onlooker, but of the servant (“say, We are unprofitable servants”).  Jesus has gently moved the disciples to seeing themselves as servants rather than seeing themselves as masters, the latter being their natural inclination. Faith is the hearing/obeying relationship with our Creator, and we are not our own masters, though we have claimed to be so since the Fall.

We are to serve righteousness, whether instructed by the conscience or later by the law of faith to serve the Lord our Righteousness (Jer. 23:6); that is our duty. That duty will vary from person to person, but the rigorous standard of adhering to what is true and right does not vary from person to person. That standard is righteousness, and the soul must hunger and thirst after it, that it may be filled with faith. It is the sincerity of pursuit that is judged by Christ. We cannot obtain righteousness ourselves, any more than we can judge ourselves; we are subject to judgment. We, however, can and must do, like the servants in this parable, “all those things which are commanded” to us, laboring inoffensively and honestly that we may in faith come to cease from our own works.

For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:10-13).

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