Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus seems to address various odds and ends of the Christian life: temptation, forgiveness, faith, and duty. Yet one thread ties them all together: the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Every one [sic.] says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive…”
We know that we are supposed to forgive. But our sinful flesh tends only towards selfishness and away from love and mercy. In his corollary to the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15, ESV). So we try to forgive, if for no other reason than our fear of losing our own salvation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
But that doesn’t let us off the hook. “Pay attention to yourselves!” Jesus says. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, 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” (Luke 17:3-4).
Sin is serious business. Deadly serious. God takes sin so seriously that he sent his son Jesus to die on the cross in order to forgive our sins. Sin cost God the life of his only begotten Son. So pay attention! “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). The consequences of unrepentant sin are damning. So stay away from the people and places that tempt you. Avoid your “triggers,” as they say. And when all else fails, run away!
Sin is so deadly serious that Jesus also calls us to warn our Christian brothers and sisters of the dangers of their sins. “If your brother sins, rebuke him…” Here in Luke 17 Jesus doesn’t add the caveat of Matthew 18 that you only speak to your brother or sister if he or she sins “against you” (cp. Matt. 18:15). As Christians, we speak the truth in love, even when the truth hurts (Eph. 4:15). And as uncomfortable as it may be to confront someone over their sin, it is better to risk our own comfort than that they remain comfortable on the road to hell. Elsewhere, St. Paul writes, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
Gentleness is the key. You don’t accost your brother when you confront him. You don’t try to shame your sister. You plainly put forward the error of their behavior and the impact it has on you or others. And you call them to repent, that is, to turn away from their sin and return to God for mercy and grace. God loves to forgive sinners. He doesn’t delight in their death but wills rather that they should turn and live.
So if your brother or sister’s conscience is shaken by the reality of their wickedness, you don’t need to pile it on to make them feel even more badly about themselves. “…If he repents, forgive him.” Christians should never withhold forgiveness from one who is sincerely sorry for their sins.
Often when we are the victims of another’s sin, we pridefully put ourselves in a place of superiority over them. We want to become their judge and jury. We demand penance—some proof of their repentance. [Discuss the lapsi here?] We want proof that they’re really sorry. We want to see them grovel in their guilt. And if we sense any insincerity whatsoever, we withhold forgiveness. “They don’t deserve my forgiveness,” we say. Or “I’ll forgive them, but I won’t forget.”
It is true that some offenses cut more deeply than others. And some people are harder to forgive than others—no doubt about it! If you were abused by a parent or spouse, if your spouse committed adultery, or if somebody murdered your child, you may have a much bigger hurdle to get over in terms of forgiveness. But Jesus’ injunction means: “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” (17:3b-4).
The rabbis of Jesus’ day said that you only had to forgive somebody three times. The fourth time, you didn’t have to forgive them, and you could write them off as a dirty, rotten scoundrel. But Jesus says her to forgive seven times, which far exceeds the rabbis’ number. Does that mean that the eighth time somebody sins against you, you don’t have to forgive them, and you can write them off as a dirty, rotten scoundrel. No, of course not! Seven is a symbolic number—the Hebrew number of perfection or completion. Thus seven represents complete and perfect forgiveness. (In Matthew 18, Jesus says that we must be willing to forgive seven times seventy, or 490 times!).
Our forgiveness should have no limit. The Bible says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). And when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. That little word “as” means “in the exact, same way.” God wants us to forgive others in the same way that Jesus forgave us. And how did Jesus forgive us? Freely, fully, and unconditionally. Christ’s forgiveness even preempts our sin. He died on the cross for our sins thousands of years before we lived. And when the Roman soldiers gambled for his clothes, Jesus prayed in that very moment, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). If Christ forgave us before we apologized, then why do we think it’s okay for us to chain ourselves to our offenders by bitterness and self-pity?
God raises the bar high. Jesus demands no less than the impossible when it comes to forgiving others. And so it is in response to Christ’s command to forgive that the apostles cry out in alarm and pray, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). Their request is not a general petition for stronger faith for daily Christian living. Their need is for a stronger faith that is willing to let bygones be bygones. They need faith to forgive. So do we.
It takes an incredible amount of faith to forgive those who harm us, especially the repeat offenders and those closest to us, whose wounds cut the deepest. Jesus says, “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” (Luke 17:6). A mustard seed is one of the tiniest seeds known in the Middle East, but the mustard tree is one of the largest garden shrubs. Jesus suggests that big things come from small beginnings. And if we had even the tiniest amount of faith, we’d be able to plant trees and throw mountains into the sea (17:6; cf. Matt. 17:20; 21:21; 1 Cor. 13:2).
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t moved any mountains or uprooted any mulberry trees lately. My faith isn’t big enough to do that. If I need to move a mountain, I will call the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Good News is that it is not the size or strength of our faith that saves us. The Bible teaches over and over again that we are saved by faith—and no measure is mentioned. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). As we hear in today’s Old Testament reading: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). All we need to be saved is faith. The most infinitesimal amount of faith is enough to believe in Jesus to be saved. Yet even this faith “is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
So if we ask for faith to forgive others, God will grant it. The best way to do that is to pray for them. Jesus says, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). The more we pray for others, the more we learn to love them, and the less we hold against them. We begin to forgive them. Ultimately, forgiveness (like love) is an action, not a feeling. Forgiveness means that we’re not going to drudge up again what they did in the past; nor will we use it against them. That is an active choice of the will—aided by the Holy Spirit. Eventually the feelings may follow. But even if they do not, we can still live at peace with one another. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).
Even in forgiveness, though, there remains a strange temptation: the kind of spiritual boasting that comes from those who take too much of a shine to their own good works. In the end, we may try to boast of our forgiveness, implying or outright declaring, “Look at me! What a wonderful Christian I am that I have forgiven so-and-so for such-and-such thing that they did against me! Isn’t that great?! Aren’t I wonderful?” And with such words we may expect a pat on the back or an attaboy from God.
But remember: it is God’s expectation, his requirement, that we forgive others—not merely a nice, lofty idea or bonus. Thus, when all is said and done, we have nothing to boast about—not even about our own benevolence. There is nothing magnanimous about us forgiving others. We are all of us unworthy servants. We have only done our duty. None of us deserves God’s forgiveness. If he were to give us what we deserve, we would all burn in hell and suffer torment for eternity. No, we are unworthy of God’s forgiveness. Yet he gives us grace as a gift.
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). If anyone has reason to boast, let him not boast in himself, but let him boast only of the cross of Christ.
Lord Jesus, increase our faith. Give us faith to forgive others. And give us faith to receive your forgiveness as a free gift—and not as a reward. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.