Today’s reading starts with an interesting look at ‘forgiveness’. Do you always have to forgive someone? What does that forgiveness look like in practice? What about people who harm you, but then you never meet them again? Does the process work exactly the same between God and us? I think that the answer to my first questions is ‘No’, btw. Even God does not appear to do that. But this could be debated.
We should note that this passage speaks about our fellow believers (‘brother or sister’), rather than just anyone in the world who harms us. The point of forgiveness is reconciliation and restoration of relationship, removing the barriers, resentments and blockages that get in relationship’s way. It also exists to maintain unity among God’s people. Therefore, the proof of genuine forgiveness, both given and received, is a relationship that is genuinely growing stronger, deepening, and increasing in joy and fruitfulness.
Jesus is clear that both parties must want to remove those barriers/blockages. It is possible to care so little about a relationship that neither party bothers to do anything about them. But Jesus himself tells us that this is unacceptable and that both parties are responsible for taking the initiative (see verse 3 and also Matthew 5:23 and Matthew 18:15). The wronged party must rebuke or point out the sin, and the offending party must ask for forgiveness; finally, the wronged party must forgive in both word and heart. In this way relationships can be healed.
If we cross-reference Luke 17 with the end of Matthew 18 it explains that forgiveness must be genuine (‘from the heart’) and permanent. If we fail to forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are not forgiven by God either. A lip-service-only kind of forgiveness is inadequate and unbiblical, and it allows the Devil a foothold in our lives, resulting in a festering relationship with God and with other believers. This un-forgiveness has become a besetting sin in itself and must be confessed and forgiven, just like any other sin.
Hebrews 12:15 refers to a root of bitterness that springs up in us, and 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 shows that unforgiveness lets the devil take advantage of us. It would not be far-fetched to claim that physical and psychosomatic illnesses have a root in our spiritual rebellion. What is the antidote to all this? Confession and forgiveness, of course; it is that simple! (We discuss this important topic also in Matthew’s gospel).
“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it will obey you” (v6). This was the answer given in response to the Apostles asking the Lord to increase their faith. We see in the parallel passage in Matthew (17:20-21) that Jesus himself agreed that their faith was too little and needed boosting! It is unfortunate that the English translation usually has “faith AS SMALL as a mustard seed…” when the capitalised words are not present in the Greek originals. The New American Standard Version is much better here when it simply says: “faith LIKE a mustard seed”. This translation is much more sensible, when compared with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 17; faith AS SMALL as a mustard seed would surely be the smallest faith one could possibly have, and yet it would still move a mountain! That is illogical, since Jesus has just criticised the disciples in Matthew 17:20 for having faith too small to accomplish something. The better translation found in the NASB is a description of the quality of faith, given by God, for the accomplishment of a miraculous task.
Jesus has already explained the principle of the mustard see in Luke 13:19: the tiniest seed of all, growing into the largest garden plant of all. Everything that the final tree needs, except for time and water, it already found in the DNA of that seed. If you already have the seed, effectively you already have the tree. Well, faith is compared to that principle. Hebrews 11:1 teaches us that “Now faith is the assurance (the confirmation, the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality” (Amplified Version). Faith brings future blessings into the present day and makes the invisible visible. If you have the faith, you have the reality – it is just a matter of time!
“In its time, He will do it swiftly” (Isaiah 60:22b). This is a verse that I seem to have used, prayed through, and quoted a lot recently. In parallel with Luke 17:20-37, it is also a very apt statement about the Return of Christ at the end of this age. He will not return slowly, but appear like ‘lightening’ across the sky, calling to him those who have already known, loved, and served him in the present age. To the unschooled observer, it will seem random, but to those who revere his Name, the Sun of Righteousness will arise with healing in its rays! He knows who belongs to him, and deep down, so do we.