The Bare Minimum

Luke 17.1-10

Jason Procopio

In the chapters we’ve been through recently, Jesus has been slowly but surely whittling away at our self-centered worldview, and drawing our eyes inexorably upward. He showed us how God sees the resources he has given us; he showed us how he sees the relationships he has given us. 

What he’s done so far is what he always does. 

I don’t know how Jesus got this reputation as simply a good moral teacher. People say, for example, that they don’t want to be Christians, but that they fully hold to Jesus’s teaching. I think people who say that are almost always people who either haven’t read the Bible at all, or weren’t paying attention when they did.

Often when we read the gospels, one of the most surprising things we find is just how ruthless Jesus is in shaking our worldview, in order to make it line up with God’s. Just when we think we know what Jesus would say about any given subject, he not only says something different; he takes it about ten steps further than we would expect him to.

The picture Christ paints of the Christian life as it should be lived is wildly different from the picture we have in our minds when we imagine what that life must look like. And perhaps the defining characteristic of the Christian life is that it is not lived for us.

Each of us lives our own, individual lives—there is simply no other way to live. I am myself, I can’t be you. We are all sinners; so Jesus came, lived our life and died our death, and was raised so that we could be declared righteous before God. And now he calls us saints: God declares that we are just as righteous as Jesus is. And because of that, he calls us to live righteous lives, for his glory.

That would be somewhat easier if we could live our individual lives in a bubble: if we only had our own sin to deal with. But that’s not the case. Jesus didn’t come merely to save individual sinners; he came to save his people, and to bring them together. Which means that we live our lives of holiness, together. 

Which means that we have a responsibility not only to ourselves and to God, but to others as well.

That’s where Jesus is going to go (sometimes in ways that make us uncomfortable) in today’s text. He’s going to give us four distinct imperatives, and at each point he’s going to tell us why he’s giving us those imperatives—and they all relate to this other-centeredness that defines the Christian life. (And just in case some of you are wondering as we go through this: often in the Bible, the authors will begin with the foundation—the theology—and then get into the practical applications of that theology. Jesus is going to reverse that: he’s going to start with the practical, and then give the foundation for these applications at the end.)

Watch Yourselves: Your Lives May Lead Others to Sin (v. 1-2).

1 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”

Jesus wasn’t naive. He knew perfectly well that being tempted to sin is part of what it means to live in a fallen world. 

It’s important that we define some terms here. “Sin” is the word the Bible uses to talk about any thought, word or act that goes against God’s character and will for his people. The Bible is full of descriptions of who God is, and commandments of what God calls us to do. He calls us to “be holy, as [he is] holy” (Matthew 5.48). Sin is anything in us that is not in line with God’s own holiness.

Temptation to sin is different. Temptation, in itself, is not sin. Jesus himself was tempted: the letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus was “in every respect…tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15). Being tempted means being put in a situation where the opportunity to sin is there, and that opportunity can be taken or passed by. We can be tempted to do something sinful, and say no. We can be tempted to dwell on a sinful thought, and decide to not give into that line of thought.

It’s important that we don’t conflate temptation and sin: they’re not the same thing.

Now, that is something most Christians have learned. But knowing the difference between temptation and sin can make some Christians go to the other extreme, and take temptation too lightly: because temptation is common to all human beings, we think of it as no big deal.

But temptation is not to be taken lightly—neither our temptation, nor the temptation of others.

And that’s what Jesus is getting at here: ultimately, the way Christians live their lives will do one of two things: it will draw people (either other believers or unbelievers) to Christ, or push them away from Christ.

People will always find abundant reasons to run away from Jesus. That’s the sad reality of living in a world corrupted by sin: people are naturally drawn toward sin and away from Christ, because we are all sinners, and everyone naturally acts in conformity to our nature.

But Christians are called to counteract that draw: we are “new creations,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5—we are no longer slaves to sin, but to Christ. As such, we can resist that pull toward sin and run to Jesus; and we are called to act as ambassadors who draw others in that same direction. 

Part of what that looks like is taking into account the unintended effects of the things we say and do.

When we say things that are not true, we dishonor the gospel and drive people from Christ. The so-called “prosperity gospel” promises wealth and happiness if we follow Christ, so people flock to it; and then when they see that become a Christian doesn’t mean that they’ll get rich and have everything they always wanted, they run away, feeling they’ve been lied to (because they have been).

When we act in ways that run counter to God’s character, we dishonor the gospel and drive people from Christ. How disillusioning must it be for unbelievers to see people who call themselves Christians, and yet who show a shocking lack of love and understanding towards, say, people who live with same-sex attraction? 

How disillusioning must it be for believers to see their brothers and sisters—people they trust—encouraging them to watch and do and enjoy things that are sources of temptation for them? Christians who are new to the faith—and I’ve seen this happen—have left the church because their fellow believers have led them into situations where they’ve been exposed to temptation, and they can’t find any help in coping with these temptations, because the people they would turn to for help are doing the things they’re trying to avoid. 

Jesus calls us to think hard about other people’s temptation when we say or do anything—how our words or acts may drive people away from Christ. He says (v. 2): It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.

I freely admit I don’t know exactly what he means by that. But even if it’s only an illustration, it’s a striking one. It would be better, he says, to die a slow and painful death here on earth than to have a lifestyle that leads others away from Christ.

Rebuke and Forgive: Others Will Sin Against You (v. 3-4).

If we thought the first two verses were difficult, it gets much harder still. Let’s take the first half of v. 3 first.

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him...

Few things in the Christian life are more difficult than showing someone their sin in a way that doesn’t tempt them to more sin. It is a very difficult task to call someone on their sin without driving them to anger or prideful defensiveness. 

People have sometimes taken the Bible’s admonitions to call one another on our sins as an excuse to feed their own anger. Someone sins against me; it makes me angry; and because the Bible calls me to rebuke my brother, I feel justified in showing my anger and lashing out at the other person.

But we have to remember that v. 3 comes right after v. 1-2. Jesus absolutely calls me to rebuke my brother if I see sin in him, or if he sins against me; but he calls me to do it in such a way that protects my brother from further temptation. 

The question is, How do we do that?

Jesus has already given us a clue, in a text we’ve already seen (Luke 6.42), which speaks about this exact same subject. Remember what he said there?  

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye. 

Let me put this another way. Every time we have the opportunity to rebuke someone else’s sin, it should come to our minds first to say, “But that’s their sin, not mine.” If we want to see clearly to rebuke sin in someone else, we have to point that magnifying glass to our own sin first.

Why? Because if I am constantly aware of my own sin, I’ll be far less prone to react in anger when I see sin in other people. If I’m aware of my own blind spots (or moments of outright obstinancy), I’ll be much more understanding of the blind spots (or obstinancy) in others. 

And so when I come to confront my brother about his sin, he won’t feel anger from me, or judgment, but rather understanding and love. When I am painfully aware of my own sin, there is simply no other reason to rebuke my brother, besides the fact that I love him and I want his good.

I remember one time Edouard Nelson, the pastor at Eglise des Ternes, called me on something I had said which had inadvertently hurt him. He did call me on it; he didn’t pull any punches about my sin or how it had hurt him. 

But he knows his own sin, so he knows how these things can happen. It was evident that his motivation for rebuking me was not anger towards me, but rather love for me and care for me. And because his motivation was clear to me, I didn’t feel a single urge to defend myself. Rather, I felt sorry. I saw the truth of what he was saying, and I felt sorry for my sin, and I repented of it.

That is the goal; that is how we rebuke one another—not out of anger, but rather with a clear goal to protect our brothers and sisters from temptation, and to help them toward repentance. And that’s why after telling us to rebuke one another, Jesus says (v. 3b):

...and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” 

In Judaism, it was considered honorable to forgive someone three times if they sinned against you. But Jesus’s disciples were called to go beyond that. (And in Matthew 18, he goes even further than he does here: he says that even seven times isn’t enough, but rather “seventy times seven”—an idiomatic way of saying, “Without end.”)

It’s natural (and even considered wise) for us to put a limit to our forgiveness. We say things like, “You say you’re sorry, and you keep doing it. So your ‘sorry’ doesn’t mean much.”

As much sense as that seems to make, it is not the way the followers of Jesus are called to forgive. Jesus took on every sin of his children, and he was punished for our sin, in our place. Because God punished all of our sin in Christ, he forgives us without limit. Every sin we could ever ask forgiveness for has already been punished in the person of Christ.

In the same way, no matter how many times someone sins against you, if that person is in Christ (or if that person comes to know Christ one day), the sin he committed has already been punished in the person of Christ. So just as God forgives us without end, we are to forgive without end.

Now, that’s not to say that we should be stupid. If your brother has manifested a pattern of sinful behavior in the past that has hurt you, it is probably a good idea to keep away from that guy. But it is possible to protect yourself without harboring bitterness or anger toward the person in question. 

Unforgiven sin nearly always hurts the person sinned against far more than it hurts the person who sinned. John sins against me. I hold onto my bitterness because I don’t want to give John the satisfaction of knowing I did something kind for him—because I want to punish him. But ultimately, holding on to bitterness does very little to John, and positively eats away at me. The plan backfires every time. 

And you don’t know what will happen: even if the person who sinned against you is an unbeliever, you don’t know what their future holds. You may be trying to punish someone for whom Christ was already punished by God. 

So we are called to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, to remember his sacrifice for us, and to sacrifice ourselves in the same way. Forgiveness is a painful experience, always; but it is painful like removing a cancerous tumor is painful. Christ suffered our punishment, so we wouldn’t have to; and he suffered our punishment, so that we wouldn’t have to keep punishing.

I think we can agree that these are incredibly difficult things to do. Living in such a way that others are drawn to Christ rather than driven away from him; rebuking our brothers and sisters in such a way that they are protected and cared for rather than driven to defend themselves; forgiving our brothers and sisters without end, should they repent… These are almost unimaginably difficult things Jesus calls us to.

So difficult, in fact, that we cannot do it alone. Such a life requires faith.

Have Faith: This Life Requires It (v. 5-6).

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 

You have to admire the apostles’ clearheadedness here—it’s one of the few times we see them actually understand the full measure of what Jesus is telling them. Upon hearing him give these practically impossible commandments, they don’t ask him to help them forgive, or to give them more love, or to make them holy.

They ask him for more faith.

Their request reveals a couple of things about the disciples at this point.

First of all, it shows that they already had faith. It is by faith that we ask for greater faith. The disciples knew their faith was real, but they recognized that it was weak. 

Secondly, it shows that they realized that they couldn’t produce more faith on their own. Trying to produce faith in yourself is like trying to grow a third arm. Faith is not something we can drum up through sheer effort. 

Interesting side note (at least I find it interesting): In church, we often use the phrase “Place your faith in Christ.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a pastor tell that to unbelievers, when they call them to come to Christ. “Place your faith in Christ, repent of your sins, and trust him.” I’ve said it myself, hundreds of times.

And every time I’ve said it, I’ve said it knowing that some of them won’t be able to do that, because they don’t have any faith. But I say it anyway, because there may well be people here who have faith, but who don’t know it yet. 

God is the one who gives faith to whom he will, and he always does it independently of our own efforts. We have to make the effort to place our faith in Christ, yes—but before we can do that, God must give us this faith that we will place in Christ.

The disciples knew their faith didn’t come from them, but from God; and in the same way, they knew that if their faith was to grow, it would not come from them.

Thirdly, they realized that in order to live the life Jesus was calling them to live—this life of extreme self-examination, to protect others from sin, this life of courageous exhortation and forgiveness—they would need help. They would need something to come from outside that would help them protect their brothers and sisters well, something that would help them rebuke sinners in love, something that would help them forgive when they are sinned against.

They realized that in order to do this, they would need faith. 

Living like this requires faith—it is only by faith that we believe what is true, and act on it. 

It is only by faith that we are able to believe that the well-being and salvation of other people are more important than our own personal pleasure or opinions. 

It is only by faith that we are able to believe that lovingly rebuking someone, calling on their sin, may actually be better for them, more loving to them, than not saying anything at all. 

It is only by faith that we are able to trust that God is perfectly just and does not let sin go unpunished…and so we don’t need to hang on to our anger, and are able to forgive.

Living like this is impossible without faith.

And the good news is that the faith we need to live this life is possible, because, as Jesus says, a little faith goes a very long way. V. 6: 

And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 

For some reason, for a long time I understood the opposite of what Jesus actually says here. For some reason we read this verse, and we see the effect. Like, if someone told a tree to come up out of the ground and launch itself into the sea, that would be impressive. So we imagine that Jesus talking about a kind of superfaith, this immense faith I could never have. 

But he explicitly says that the faith he’s talking about is tiny—like a grain of mustard seed. Just a little faith is required for God to do extraordinary things.

Now, obviously he’s not saying that we should literally go out trying to get trees to launch themselves into the sea; he’s using an image to talk about things that seem impossible to us—like this life he calls us to live. 

He’s encouraging his disciples, who are asking for more faith. He doesn’t tell them it’s a bad thing to ask for more faith; but he does say that God can do incredible things with even the tiny scrap of faith he’s already given you.

What’s the point? The point is that we are called to have faith, because this life requires it. It is only by faith that we can live as Christ called us to live; but God can do a lot with very little, and he gives us the faith we need to do what he calls us to do.

Now, we can look at everything Jesus has said to his disciples so far and focus on the immensity of the task. And we can imagine what it would look like to live like this. We may even know people who have lived like this. We look at their lives, and we admire them; we see them as giants. And we imagine that if ever we managed to live like this, it would be an extremely commendable thing. 

He gives us enough to start believing that this may just be possible, and he knows that our natural instinct is to get ready to clap ourselves on the back for a job well done.

So he’s going to give us a reality check, and show us that when he calls us to live like this, he’s not calling us to something superhuman or extraordinary. What he calls us to here is not varsity-level, Apostle-Paul-level Christianity. 

This is baby Christianity. This is Christianity for dummies. 

It is not commendable; it is not extraordinary. It is the simple duty of every child of God. 

Live Like This: It’s the Bare Minimum (v. 7-10).

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ” 

This is hard for us, because we have grown up to feel entitled.

Be honest now—how many of us read v. 8 (when he tells the servants to come in and prepare supper for him, to come serve him, before getting their own food) and find Jesus kind of mean? 

The disciples lived in a very different, labor-based culture…and they were already susceptible to this kind of entitlement. If what he says here was necessary for them, it is a thousand times more necessary for modern Millenials.

It’s hard to see what he’s saying as anything other than harsh and cold, because we’re so used to being rewarded for dumb things that don’t deserve rewards. We’ve become so entitled that we think we deserve to be rewarded for things our grandparents wouldn’t have thought twice about doing, just because it needed to be done. 

Jesus is exposing in us a “Well, what do I get out of it?” attitude. We imagine that in order to really see the point of doing something, we need to make sure we’re being properly rewarded. 

But there is a minimum amount of work required of us, that is not deserving of anything extra, but that is simply our duty, because we serve a Master who deserves no less.

It’s not that hard to see the point of what Jesus says here; but it’s a lot harder to swallow when we remember the context. 

He has called us to a life which seems incredibly difficult to us. He has called us to pay attention to the way we live, because our lives can push people away from the gospel just as easily as it can draw people to the gospel. He calls us to lovingly and humbly tell other Christians when they are sinning. He calls us to forgive those who sin against us.

This does require faith; Jesus isn’t saying it’s easy.

He’s saying that this is simply the normal Christian life. This is not extraordinary behavior that deserves exorbitant reward. This is basic holiness. It is the bare minimum. It’s not above and beyond the call of duty; it is the call of duty.

Now, I know this can seem harsh on Jesus’s part. But when we see God doing things that seem hard, we must remember everything else he does. God absolutely deserves all of our obedience, and more.

But if we find that too hard, it is likely because we have forgotten who God is, and what he is like. Because if God’s person and character are clearly fixed in our minds, why would we ever not want to obey him? 

Everything he asks us to do, he’s done for us, and much more.

If we only take the commands Jesus gives in today’s text, we see that God doesn’t command us anything he doesn’t do himself.

He tells us to do all we can to protect others from temptation; by his Spirit, he gives us the power to resist temptation, and allows no temptation to come against us which we aren’t able to bear.

He tells us to lovingly and humbly rebuke one another for our sin; but he—like a parent who gently slaps his child’s hand away if the child starts reaching for a flame—lovingly and mercifully disciplines us for our sin, to help us put it to death.

He tells us to forgive others when they sin against us; God pours out all of his wrath on his Son, in our place, and so forgives us without measure, without end.

The easiest way to obey God’s commands is to hold God’s goodness before our eye, for only a perfectly good and loving God would give such commands as these.

Our Life in Christ: Not About Us

Now, I know this can seem harsh on Jesus’s part. But when we see God doing things that seem hard, we must remember everything else he does. God absolutely deserves all of our obedience, and more.

But if we find that too hard, it is likely because we have forgotten who God is, and what he is like. 

We’ve said this a hundred times in this church: duty can never be our primary motivation for obedience. God calls us to obey him because we delight in him, not just because we mindlessly and heartlessly jump when he says jump.

But somehow many of us have gone to the other extreme of imagining that all duty is bad, and the Bible says that simply isn’t the case. There will be times in our lives when we don’t want to do what God calls us to. In those times, we need duty.

Duty is the guarantor of our delight: duty disciplines us, to help us keep pace when we don’t want to walk anymore. Duty is not our primary motivation: but it is the seatbelt that ensures we stay in the car when the brakes are applied.

So how does our duty to protect one another, to call each other on our sins, to forgive, actually produce more joy in us, for God’s glory?

Firstly, it reflects what God does for us.

Everything God asks us to do, he’s done for us, and much more.

If we only take the commands Jesus gives in today’s text, we see that God doesn’t command us anything he doesn’t do himself.

He tells us to do all we can to protect others from temptation; by his Spirit, he gives us the power to resist temptation, and allows no temptation to come against us which we aren’t able to bear.

He tells us to lovingly and humbly rebuke one another for our sin; but he—like a parent who gently slaps his child’s hand away if the child starts reaching for a flame—lovingly and mercifully disciplines us for our sin, to help us put it to death.

He tells us to forgive others when they sin against us; God pours out all of his wrath on his Son, in our place, and so forgives us without measure, without end. Knowing this fills us with gratitude for his goodness, and gratitude is the motor for our joy.

Secondly, our duty ensures for us a safe place to grow in our love for God and joy in him. When the church lives as the church, the church becomes a place…

 ... where everyone is looked after by everyone else...

... where the cancer of sin is quickly sought out and eradicated, and the sinner helped to heal...

... where everyone feels safe to make mistakes, because they know they’ll be forgiven...

... and where no one will be eaten away by bitterness, because they HAVE forgiven.

What Jesus describes here is nothing less than a safe haven for our joy in him to grow.

Jesus calls us to something very difficult, yes, but very simple: to realize that now that you are a Christian, your life is no longer about you; other people must weigh in to our thinking now. I can not be concerned with merely my own salvation and holiness; I must be concerned with the salvation and holiness of others.

And we should take it as a matter of course that we will live this way. If we are his, then we will protect others from temptation; we will humbly help others put their sin to death; we will forgive without end when others sin against us. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. This is how it works now.

And it can work this way, because God can do a lot with very little, and he both gives us faith and causes that faith to grow. I can live this way now, because he’s not calling me to do anything special; he’s simply calling me to do the same thing he has ever expected of every other Christian who has ever lived.

This text calls us to believe this is possible; to pray for the faith we need; and to glorify God in the way we take care of others. We can do it.