Readings: Luke 17:1-10; True Christian Religion 574 & 276
Luke 17:1-10 Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! (2) It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. (3) Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. (4) And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” (5) And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” (6) So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (7) And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? (8) But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? (9) Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. (10) So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ “
TCR 574. All reason plainly shows that man needs to be regenerated. For he acquires by birth from his parents evils of all kinds, and these are lodged in his natural man, which is of itself diametrically opposed to the spiritual man. Yet he is by birth destined for heaven, and he cannot reach heaven, unless he becomes spiritual; and the only way this can happen is by being regenerated. The necessary consequence is that the natural man with his longings must be tamed, subdued and turned upside down; otherwise a person cannot advance a step nearer heaven, but more and more he drags himself down to hell. Everyone can see this, if he believes that he has acquired by birth evils of all kinds, and if he acknowledges the existence of good and evil, one opposed to the other; and if he believes in life after death, in hell and in heaven, and that evils make hell, good makes heaven. The natural man regarded in himself is as concerns his nature not in the slightest different from an animal. He is equally untamed, but this as regards his will. In respect of the understanding, however, he differs from the animals, for the understanding can be raised above the cravings of the will, and can not only see them, but also control them.
TCR 276. Those who believe that their own intelligence can enable them to acquire knowledge about God, heaven and hell, and the spiritual ideas relating to the church, are unaware that the natural man considered in himself is opposed to the spiritual man; and consequently he wants to root out or entangle in fallacies the spiritual ideas which enter his mind.
This morning we come to this teaching of the Lord’s in the gospel of Luke concerning “offences” or if you like of being offended. In some ways it’s a hard saying, certainly there is something here of a dire warning for “those” who are the perpetrators of whatever these offences are, for we read that rather than cause offence it would be better for them to have had a millstone hung around their neck and be cast into the sea. Then we have in verse 5 the apostles asking the Lord to “Increase our faith” where upon He responds with the teaching we are all familiar with on having faith as a mustard seed, followed by the short parable of the servant and a question centered around the expectation of reward for having performed one’s duty. What we shall look at today is how these elements are related and form a single teaching that has to do with living a spiritual life.
But just before we get into an exposition of the scripture I want to draw your attention to the question the apostles asked of the Lord to “increase their faith” because it is the pivotal point in the passage for us today. We may think it’s a legitimate or even admirable request, indeed we may have made it ourselves… “Lord, increase our faith…” We may even think that having more faith would be a good thing, right? But in fact what is not so often seen here, and may well shock us, is that the context reveals that the request is actually from the proprium and, as we shall see, has evil rather than good as its underlying intent. So let’s now move on and see how this is so.
The Word teaches that we can’t avoid the arising of offences. This is because the external man or natural mind is utterly opposed to the internal man or spiritual mind. This word “offences” in the Greek relates to the idea of a trigger that sets off ‘a trap’ or ‘snare’. The loves of self and the world are constantly at work within our natural thoughts and affections looking to trap or render ineffective the Lord’s teaching. There are many triggers that set off attitudes of self justification and self righteous patterns of thinking and most of these can be traced back to our sense of being offended when we don’t get what we feel we deserve. This is just how it is with the natural man. So offences will come, as the scripture declares. We will, if we are genuinely looking to live a spiritual life, be confronted with those attitudes we harbour that stand opposed to the things of heaven, it is as the Lord said unavoidable. In fact these offences must come because our salvation depends upon our being able to see them so that we can repent of them. This is what is taught in verses 1 to 4.
Perhaps now we can begin to see what it is to which the “woe” is directed…
“…but woe to him through whom they (offences) come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”
This is directed towards the external man in its states of opposition to the heavenly life. There is a period in the spiritual life where it almost seems as though it would have been better not to know what the Word teaches as to what is good and true. This is because such knowledge reveals the very things that have us bound up and brings into stark relief just how far short we fall from the life of heaven. Truths make us aware that these offences are rooted in something we actually have a strong affection for; that sense of ourselves that has been built up over the course of our life with the loves of self and the world as its foundation. What is described here as “the little ones” or what “is little” are the things of heaven, which are little when compared to the things of self in this state of the external man or natural mind. The imagery here is wonderful in that it shows us that we need to come to see that all that the external or natural man holds dear is a millstone around our neck so far as the spiritual life is concerned. It is a snare to our being able to receive even a little of the life of heaven.
Now the very next verse is the counter to falling into despair due to our increased awareness of the state of our external man and it begins with the words…
“Take heed to yourselves…”
That is ‘give attention to your self’… Don’t retreat from what is revealed by the Word, if you see evils and falsities within your self don’t deny them, shrug them off, or bury your head in the sand. Give them your full attention. Remember, “It is impossible that no offences should come…” It is the nature of the spiritual life that they do come, how we respond will determine whether we become more deeply bound up in them or are ultimately freed from them so…
“If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him”
When this statement is seen in terms of the inner life its spiritual meaning is somewhat different from the literal meaning of the words. Who is this “brother” that “sins against you”? Spiritually a brother corresponds to the good of charity. Now as far as the inner life is concerned charity is the operation of the Lord as goodness working through truths to bring about our salvation. Now it may seem odd to us to suggest that the brother that sins against us is actually goodness from the Lord, after all we would generally regard ourselves as open to, and affirmative of the things of heaven. But without exception everyone’s natural man is opposed to what is of heaven and what is from the Lord in us seeks to make us aware of the things we are attached to that stand opposed to the things of heaven.
The things of heaven that inflow into our minds from the spiritual communities we are associated with make up what is called ‘our brother’ here. They are said to sin against us because they offend the natural loves we are attached to and find delight in. They don’t agree with the things of the natural mind and so bring us face to face with the evils and falsities that we cherish and have regarded as “good and true”. The uncomfortable state that arises when things are exposed for what they are triggers a natural response to reject what the Word reveals concerning our state. But to cherish what is natural above what is spiritual is what evil is. The truths of the Word expose this and if we don’t reflect on it we will unconsciously run with the natural because it is what seems best to us. No one gives up what they love easily but the Word teaches that unless we are willing to die to self we will die in our sins. So when we are challenged by the Word and it touches on some love we seek to hold onto we are experiencing our “brother sinning against us” which is the Word exposing our unwillingness to submit to its leading in our life. What are we to do in such a situation? The phrase used is to describe our response is…
“…rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”
This word, rebuke, is an interesting word in the Greek. The term rebuke in English means to chastise. It’s a term that involves the idea of correction and in the Greek it has the added emphasis in meaning on the idea, weighing something up or assessing its value, so as to attribute honour to something in accordance with its true value. So spiritually the meaning of rebuking doesn’t mean to tell someone off but to give careful consideration to a thing before acting. We need to be aware that our natural state in terms of our first response to something from the Word where it challenges our established natural states of life is to reject it, and we do this without even thinking about it simply because it doesn’t fit in with how we think things should be. What this is saying here is that when we are challenged, rather than running with our natural response we need to hold off and take stock. The question we need to ask is, “Is this prompt that I find offensive to what I want, or to how I see things from a heavenly source?” If in our reassessment we find that it is and attribute to it the value its worth demands then repentance has occurred. Repentance means to turn around ones thinking. What would have normally been rejected is now accepted, repentance has occurred, and something of heaven is released into our life. The offence it prompted in our natural man to begin with no longer has a hold on us, it’s forgiven or remitted, because we are able to see from the truths that are with us that the prompt is of heaven and seeks only our good, despite the challenges it might make to our established natural mind sets or patterns of behaviour.
Verse 4 teaches that this process occurs many times over before a real lasting shift can occur in us. It has to do with having to forgive our brother as many times as he asks us to do so. The strongholds of our minds don’t take kindly to being challenged but we are to persevere and as many times as we are offended and come to see that our offence is misplaced, that it is in fact the Lord who works in us for our salvation, so we forgive or release the apparent trespass against our sensibilities. “It is impossible for offences not to come…” Here we are instructed in how to respond when they do come, and we are to do what the Word instructs us is our duty.
This brings us to the apostles’ request of the Lord to increase their faith. This seems such a “good” thing to ask for. But by faith here is meant knowledge. And this is the crux of the issue. What is effectively being said here is “give us more knowledge, we don’t need this challenge to forgive our brother over and over”. Getting more knowledge about spiritual things is preferable to the challenging task of examining our life through applying truths to the life of our thoughts and affections as our spiritual practise. This is the atypical response of the natural man to the Word. The apostles in asking the Lord to increase their faith are seeking to avoid the need to do what the Lord is teaching them. They haven’t heard what is being said and as such reflect our own tendency to substitute doing what the Word teaches with getting more knowledge about it and then convincing ourselves that this is what is important and that knowledge by itself confers some spiritual benefit.
That this is the teaching here is clear from what follows…
“If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to the black mulberry tree, ‘Be rooted out and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
The obvious meaning here is that you don’t need a lot of knowledge to see the power of the Lord operating in your life. The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, tiny in size, a little thing of heaven, and the black mulberry or sycamine is a substantial tree with an incredibly deep and robust root structure and corresponds to the falsities rooted in the loves of self and the world. The contrast is clear, the little ones of heaven can uproot the deep seated evils of the natural man if we don’t allow our initial response to the offence they cause our natural man to ensnare them through self justifications and reasonings that support evil loves and so render the “little of heaven” powerless in our life. The order set down by the Lord to have evils removed from our life is to act on what we know for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.
But the natural man only acts for reward or recompense and if it can’t see any benefit for itself it will not act. Yet the natural is created to serve the spiritual, this is its purpose, something which the Lord makes clear in the following terms…
“And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’?”
The whole of the spiritual life is contained in these two verses. The servant or natural mind when in the proper order of its life serves the spiritual mind through plowing and tending sheep. Plowing is the process of preparing the ground for the reception of seed, spiritually it is the process of self examination by which evils can be removed and truths can be implanted. Tending sheep is taking care of tender spiritually orientated affections through nurturing good from the Lord or Word in one’s life.
When things are onerous or difficult the natural man wants to receive something for its effort in return. And if our sense of self is bound up in that level of life then we will be looking for some reward or benefit and if it doesn’t come will be inclined to give up due to there being no perceivable benefit to our selves. Engaging with the Word with a view to applying it to the life of our mind is something the natural man will not do unless compelled to do so. In fact the natural man will do everything it can to avoid any form of self examination because there is no natural reward for this life activity. It wants its natural appetites fed with food and supplied with drink but a spiritually focused life can’t provide what the natural man craves. It wants to be lord when its true role is that of a servant and the Lord points out that in the proper order of things a servant is not entitled to any recompense for doing its duty or performing its proper function.
This passage teaches us that it is incumbent on all to do what the Word asks of them, which is simply to live from their understanding of truth without looking to any personal benefit or a desired outcome, to simply do what’s required because the Lord or Word commands it. For the spiritually minded spiritual work is its own reward.
When we have done all those things we are commanded, our attitude should be…
“We are unprofitable servants. We have done what it was our duty to do.”