Connections 10.06.2019: The Least We Can Do

Luke 17:1-10

My Good Wife likes yellow roses, so every now and then I buy some for her.

One time, I posted a picture on Facebook of some roses I had given her. I don’t remember the occasion, but it was probably Valentine’s Day and her birthday, which fall on consecutive days.

Double-duty yellow roses are the best kind.

Along with the picture of the yellow roses, I posted a comment: “It’s the least I can do.”

A friend of mine responded, “Never let it be said that you didn’t do the least you could do.”

I chuckled, because it was funny.

A serious point lay behind my friend’s humorous barb, though: in my relationship with my Good Wife, hopefully I do more than the least I can do. Hopefully, I always try to keep moving toward doing the most I can do.

On the other hand, a dozen yellow roses isn’t a bad “the least I can do.” But I don’t want to settle for doing my least.

I don’t want to be a beginning-level husband. I want to be an advanced-level husband. Hopefully, forty-one years into our marriage, I’ve made some progress.

But sometimes I wonder if I’m even a beginning-level follower of Jesus, and I’ve been following him for a dozen years longer than I’ve been married.

This question might occur to all of us if we read this week’s lesson text as one continuous narrative.

Jesus tells his disciples that they must practice unlimited forgiveness. Hearing this, the disciples respond, “Increase our faith!” Jesus tells them that if they had just a tiny bit of faith, they could command a tree to uproot itself and plop itself down in the sea. Then he tells them a little story about a master who, rather than praising a servant for working hard, just expects the servant to do what he is supposed to do.

The disciples thought they needed a lot of faith to forgive as Jesus told them to forgive. But Jesus tells them that with just a teensy bit of faith, they could uproot a tree and send it flying. I think he means that with just a little bit of faith, they could practice radical forgiveness.

After all, practicing unlimited forgiveness is a lot harder than tossing trees around with mind power.

We think of unlimited forgiveness as Advanced Discipleship, but Jesus says it is Discipleship 101. It doesn’t require graduate-level faith. Freshman-level faith will do.

The closing story about the servant and his master seems to mean that, if and when we do have a little faith so we can practice radical forgiveness, we shouldn’t think of it as a huge accomplishment for which we deserve great credit. It’s the least we should do.

Maybe what we think of as the most we can do is actually the least we should do.

Maybe what we think requires a huge amount of faith actually requires just a smidgen.

Here’s the thing, though: it has to be real, legitimate, life-altering faith.

It’s not hard to imagine how my Good Wife would evaluate the quality of my love if I gave her fake yellow roses.

Discussion

  1. What might be the connection between Jesus’ teaching about not causing someone to stumble and his teaching about practicing forgiveness? What might the two actions have to do with each other?
  2. What does Jesus mean by “faith”?
  3. We know that slavery was prevalent in the first-century world. Still, we appropriately find slavery repugnant and master/slave language offensive. How could we rewrite the story in verses 7-10 using another setting and different terms?
  4. Where can we get the genuine faith that enables us to practice the kind of forgiveness Jesus tells us to?

Reference Shelf

Let’s review. It is inevitable that you cause people to stumble— that you will make it hard for someone to have faith—but that’s no excuse for doing it. When others hurt you, you must forgive them every time, even if it happens repeatedly. If you had only a grain of faith, you could do small-scale miracles, so your failures can be attributed to your lack of faith. And even if you did everything perfectly, you would still be doing only what was expected of you. Being a forgiving, hospitable, diligent slave is nothing extraordinary. What did you expect, gratitude? Fame? Respect? Sympathy? Nah—you’ve done what you were supposed to do. You’re a slave. You’re not going to build up some sort of treasury of merit with God or with Jesus that suddenly results in bonus points, like your frequent flyer miles that give you a first-class seat every so often. Being forgiving 99 percent of the time does not give us the right to hold out against that one stinker who really hurt us. That’s hard, but it’s harder still to realize that we’ll never be able to do it all. So if scoring a hundred on the test makes us only a worthless slave, what does failing the test make us?

This is a section full of hard sayings. Yet Luke leaves us hints that things are not hopeless. As noted earlier, v. 2 is Luke’s only use of “little ones”…, but at 12:32, he writes, “Fear not, little…flock, because your father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” We, too, are little ones whom Jesus does not wish to cause to stumble; he does not want us to goof off or expect holidays from the way of the cross, but he also does not want us to lose heart. We must forgive the offenders, sure enough; but we also know that we, too, are constantly being forgiven by God and by our brothers and sisters in the faith. We need a speck of faith, and often it must seem to us that we have none. But faith is mostly about being faithful—being found reliably working at our posts. The faithful slave, whose Master finds him or her alert and busy, will indeed be invited to sit down to table and be served (12:35-38).

Which one of you would say to your slave . . . . Does that remind you of another story? Jesus says, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one?” None of you; nobody would do that, but God does. “Which of you, after your slave came in from a hard day’s work, would tell him to sit down while you served him?” None of you; but Jesus does. Yes, we are only slaves, but our master is Jesus; we don’t deserve to be served, but in fact that’s what he does for us.

This passage is two-sided, I think. The first side is a good strong dose of reality. You are the servants of God, the disciples of Jesus Christ. Did you think that somehow doing what you were sup- posed to do would add up to special perks from God? Did you think that because you’ve done so much good, God would look the other way while you did your secret sin; or that because you’ve been so faithful, God would make your life smooth and pleasant? Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

But the parable’s other side is grace, reaching us in the dark places where failure and despair push us. Yes, we inevitably hurt others, even when we don’t mean to, and we feel awful about it. But God loves us anyway; God loves the prodigal son and the elder brother, the penitent sinner and the unrepentant Pharisee. Yes, it is hard to be both properly confrontational and forgiving, and we are unlikely to get it right all the time. But the Lord who demands that we forgive each other seven times a day for the same offense is even more merciful than we are, and will forgive us when we are too eager to condemn or too slow to forgive. And faith? Well, my experience is that I never have the faith it takes to do miracles, but that miracles do happen. All I can figure is that somehow, between all of us, there must be at least a speck of faith; somehow God is satisfied with however much faith we have. And when I find myself pushed into that dark place in my heart by my own failures of faith, by my own unforgiving spirit, by my own careless words, when I’m ready to say “I’m worthless,” then Jesus, fresh in from the fields where he has been hunting down yet another lost sheep, ties up his robe and asks me to sit down at his table, and feeds me. He does the same for all of us.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 541-543

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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