Sunday Church School Lesson
Sunday, May 1, 2016
“He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they 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 would cause one of these little ones to stumble.  “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”  The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.  “Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’?  “But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’?  “He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?  “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done'” (Luke 17:1-10, NASB).
In Luke 17, Jesus was on His final journey to Jerusalem and the cross that awaited Him there. The trip narrative begins in Luke 9:51 and ends with the triumphal entry in chapter 19. Many teaching opportunities are recorded in this section of 10-plus chapters. Sometimes Jesus was teaching the crowds, sometimes just His 12 disciples. Today’s lesson falls in the second category. This lesson focuses on the topics of forgiveness and faith. Forgiveness in particular was a much studied and discussed issue for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Their Scriptures taught them about the necessity of asking and receiving God’s forgiveness. The Scriptures also spoke to forgiveness between people, seen as both necessary and wise. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was a national holy day that addressed the forgiveness of the people for another year as the high priest offered the specified sacrifices (Leviticus 16). Yet just as the relationship of the people to the Lord had been complicated by many rituals and regulations, so too had the process of forgiving others. Rather than letting forgiveness occur naturally as a loving act between people, some wanted to define its terms and limit its frequency. Thus, the act of grace that forgiveness was to represent had become something much less gracious: a response to certain criteria (conditions). In short, forgiveness for the Jews of Jesus’ day had to be earned. Jesus taught that a world without forgiveness was a cruel and cold place. By the time of today’s lesson, He had taught His disciples to pray for forgiveness from God as they forgave others (Matthew 6:12, 14, 15). But there was more yet for them to learn on this topic.
- Protecting and Forgiving, 1-4.
Jesus begins His teaching by saying offences will come. The word offences translates a Greek word from which we derive our word scandal. It can refer to a stumblingblock, something one trips over. This word is also used to refer to a trap, a snare set for animals in order to catch them. In the realm of relationships, the word refers to something that breaks fellowship. As depicted here, these offences are therefore bad, sinful obstacles. Jesus pronounces a warning, a woe, regarding the sources of such sinful obstacles. It is bad enough to fail to resist a temptation and thereby commit sin. It is even more grievous to be the cause of the sin of others. This is sin compounded: (1) guilt for setting a trap that should not have been set in the first place, and (2) some responsibility for the other person who falls. Millstones are essential for grinding wheat or barley into flour. This is a normal task of village life. Although grain can be roasted and eaten whole, flour is required for the much preferred bread. Millstones for this purpose range in size from those used in the hand mills of a household (weighing perhaps 30 to 50 pounds) to large village versions that might be powered by a donkey. Every millstone has a hole carved in the center so it can be rotated on a stationary stone underneath. This allows grain between the stones to be crushed and ground. The millstone imagery immediately resonates with the life experiences of Jesus’ disciples. What is new to the disciples, however, is the imagery of a deadly millstone necklace. If a millstone’s center hole were to be threaded with a strong rope and then secured around a person’s neck, drowning would quickly result should that person be cast into the sea. It would be better for a person to die such a death than to be the cause of sin for one of these little ones. We traditionally understand little ones to refer to children (see Matthew 18:2-6), but the application is broader here: they are the naïve ones in our world, whether children or adults, who should be protected from sin rather than enticed into it. People who are wise to the sin traps of the world have a responsibility not to encourage others to fall into those traps—traps that those wiser folks may have yielded themselves to at one time or another. Instead, we are to be rescuers and protectors, snatching others from the fire (Jude 23). Jesus shifts His focus from causing others to sin to situations when we ourselves have been wronged. We sometimes think that sin only involves offenses against God, forgetting that most sinful behavior is also tied to behavior between people. Verses 3 and 4 should be considered together. Verse 3 gives a simple formula: recognize sin, rebuke the one committing it, expect repentance, and then forgive when repentance is forthcoming. By itself, this verse tells us how but not how much, thereby allowing us to keep a scorecard on forgiveness frequency. By including verse 4, though, we can understand Jesus’ main point: don’t keep score on forgiveness. Keep forgiving. Be quick, ready, and willing to forgive. This is not weakness, but strength.
- Growing and Serving, 5-10.
The topic moves from forgiveness to faith. The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Our understanding of this request will be influenced by what we understand faith to be. One view of faith is that of a logical process of coming to belief based on acceptance of evidence. Others see faith as entirely a gift of God. These, then, are the extremes: (1) faith as a human reaction to circumstances or (2) faith as a supernatural endowment from God. The Bible presents both views as having some validity. In the final analysis, lack of faith is our choice, and being faithless is our responsibility. On the other hand, faith is also a spiritual gift that is bestowed by God. For what, then, are the disciples asking? It doesn’t quite make sense for them to be asking for faith in the sense of the first type, above. How can Jesus increase faith if it is a human choice that concerns the disciples’ evaluation of circumstances? Neither is the second type of faith in view since the disciples are not faithless fools asking for something they do not already have. They are already men of faith, people who have chosen to follow Jesus. Jesus answers their request by giving an illustration of what powerful faith is capable of doing. He uses two extremes to make His point. The mustard seed is well known for its tiny size. Jesus’ declaration has this impact: the one having even a tiny amount of faith that is unblemished by doubt can do very mighty things. This pronouncement does not immediately increase the faith of Jesus’ disciples, but it does indicate His approval of their request. More faith means more things done for the kingdom of God. Jesus offers another illustration concerning the nature of faith. Imagine a farm servant who completes his tasks of plowing or feeding cattle, then returns to the house at the end of the workday. Does the one in charge say, Go and sit down to meat? Jesus’ disciples know the answer: no head of household in this era would say this. Servants are subject to be on duty whenever required, and something else has to happen before the servant has dinner. Jesus answers His own question, and His answer is what any of the disciples would give. The servant may have worked long hours in the field, but before he dines, the head of the household expects his own evening meal first. Servants eat and rest only after that. Jesus pushes this illustration a step further. Does that servant deserve any special thanks for doing his duty? In the harsh world of heads of households and servants, there is no recognition or praise for obedience, so the answer is no. The obedience of the servant is simply expected. The older English expression I trow not means “I think not!” Servants of Jesus’ day do not get participation trophies. Verse ten serves as the answer to the request of the disciples in verse 5, the appeal for more faith. Jesus tells them to continue to act faithfully, to do all those things which are commanded. Faith in this sense is not so much something you possess as it is something you do. Faith must be worked out in humility, with a self-deprecating sense that we are unprofitable servants. The right kind of faith is not characterized by congratulatory high-fives or expectations of praise. Faith is to be steady and reliable. The consistent practice of obedient faith makes it stronger and more mature.
Into the Lesson
Ask who is familiar with the series of Death Wish movies, starring Charles Bronson. If someone is, have him or her give a very brief synopsis of the series. If no one can do so, say, “Bronson plays the part of a vigilante who seeks revenge against those who killed his wife. In the process, he kills various evildoers.” Then ask, “What is it about these types of movies that some people find so satisfying?” Briefly lead a discussion on the human desire for revenge and getting even.
Then say, “These movies usually neglect to show the harmful effects of harboring bitterness. Today we will look at what Jesus has to say about the place of forgiveness in the life of faith.”
Into the Word
Distribute the following four assignments to four groups of three or four, one per group. (Create duplicate assignments for larger classes.)
Millstone Necklace Group—Provide the group with a square of poster board, scissors, and a long string. Tasks: read Luke 17:1, 2, then use the materials to make a “millstone necklace.” Discuss these questions: 1. In what ways might a person cause a child or other naïve person to sin? 2. In what way does the image of a millstone necklace illustrate how serious the consequences will be for those who do so?
Forgiveness Unlimited Group—Provide the group with one blank sheet of paper along with four index cards on which are written the words forgive, trespass, repent, rebuke, one word per card. Tasks: read Luke 17:3, 4, then put the words in the correct sequence. Use the blank sheet to create a sign to represent Jesus’ teaching. Discuss these questions: 1. Why does Jesus say we should rebuke those who trespass against us—can’t we just forgive silently and move on? 2. By telling us to forgive “seven times in a day,” what is Jesus implying about forgiveness?
Mustard-Seed Faith Group—Provide the group with a mustard seed (or picture of one, see page 297) and a picture of a tree with deep root systems, along with the information from the commentary on these verses. Tasks: read Luke 17:5, 6 and the commentary thereto. Discuss these questions: 1. What is it about a mustard seed that makes it so useful for Jesus’ illustration? 2. How does the tree illustrate the types of things that are possible for those who have even a tiny amount of unblemished faith?
Obedient Servants Group—Provide the group with a plate, cutlery, and cup. Tasks: read Luke 17:7-10; then use what you’ve been given to make a place setting. Discuss these questions: 1. When servant and head of the household have been working all day, why does the latter get to eat first? 2. What does the head of the household’s treatment of the servant teach us about our duty to God?
Have groups present conclusions in whole-class discussion, using their visual aids as appropriate.
Option. Distribute copies of the “Bad Advice/Good Advice” activity from the reproducible page, which you can download. Have learners work in pairs to complete as indicated.
Distribute handouts of the following scenario:
You spoke in confidence to a youth minister about concerns you have regarding your son using drugs. Although the youth minister promised to keep it confidential, he did talk to his wife, who has experience counseling drug addicts. She mentioned it as a prayer request in her small group, and some of those people have been telling you that they are praying for you. According to Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness, how should you handle this situation?
Discuss either as a class or in small groups.
Option. Distribute copies of the “Forgiveness Formula” activity from the reproducible page. Encourage learners to use as indicated.
Standard Lesson Commentary 2015-2016 (KJV).