A Slave to Forgiveness (Luke 17:1-10)

I’m sure we all know the children’s poem, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” The first published version of this poem was in the Christian Recorder, 1862. Since it first appeared, is has been a wonderful comeback to bullies on the playground. But the older you get, the more realize it is not true. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words hurt far more and take longer to heal. To put it another way, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words cause war.”

Have you experienced a hurt recently?

Has someone, close to you betrayed you?

Has a friend said or done something that offended you?

Has someone recently done something to you and you are having a hard time forgiving them?

Have you ever said to someone, “I can never forgive you for what you have done?”

forgiveness-and-reconciliationWell, I’ve got something to tell you that you may not like. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have no choice but to forgive others regardless of what they have done to you. If as I write that, I know how difficult it is to do. In Luke 17:1-10, Jesus tells a story that teaches us we are actually a slave to forgiveness. In other words, in the same way a slave does not have the freedom to do what he or she wants to do, so I do not have the freedom to not forgive.

Three Types of Sin

Beginning in Luke 14, and continuing through Luke 16, Jesus’ main audience were Pharisees and religious leaders. Now, in Luke 17, His audience changes. Luke writes, “Jesus said to his disciples…” (Luke 17:1a). This doesn’t mean that other people were not listening, but His focus is now His followers.

Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come…” (Luke 17:1b). Thus, Jesus’ topic is sin. In actuality, over the next several verses, Jesus mentions three types of sins. The first type of sin is personal sins. Everyone is going to sin because temptations are “bound to come.” The bible teaches we are born into sin. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). You don’t have to teach your children to do wrong. You have to teach them to do right. Why? Because we have a natural bent towards sin.

As bad as personal sins are, there is something more sinister, and that is causing someone else to sin. Jesus continues, “…but woe to that person through whom they come” (Luke 17:1c). In other words, don’t be that thing that causes “people to sin.” Ultimately people are responsible for their own sins, but don’t you be the reason, or the temptation, that causes another person to do wrong. Our court system recognizes the seriousness of causing someone else to do wrong. An adult can be charged with “contributing delinquency of a minor.”[1] And, if a group of people break do something wrong, we give the “ringleader” a harsher sentence than the rest.

To the person that causes someone else to sin Jesus says, “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2). A “millstone” was a wheel-shaped rock, weighing hundreds of pounds. A millstone was used to crush different grains and vegetables for consumption. There is some evidence that ancient cultures would execute criminals by tying a millstone to their neck and throwing them into the sea. Jesus is saying it would be better to die a horrible death then to cause “these little ones” to sin.

The question is, who are these “little ones?”  There is no evidence in the text that children were around or that Jesus was referring to children here. Later, children were present, and Jesus does refer to them, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). But not so, here! By application I do think there are very few things an adult could do that would be worse than causing a child to sin.

However, in the context of what Luke has been writing, the “little ones” refers to people who have been marginalized by society. The “little ones” are people whom the world has taken little notice of. People like Lazarus in the previous story (Luke 16:19-31). People living on “the streets and alleys of our town…the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (Luke 14:21). Here is the lesson: If we close our eyes to the needs of the forgotten, causing them to steal, borrow, and beg to survive, it would be better for us on judgment day if we simply died by criminal execution! No wonder Jesus says to His disciples, “So watch yourselves” (Luke 17:3a).

The third type of sin Jesus mentions, and the one He spends the most time on, is sinning against someone else. He says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3b-4). We have zero authority to forgive sins. Only God can do that! Thus, what Jesus is referring to is forgiving others when they have sinned against us, or wronged us, or hurt us. If this happens, “rebuke” him (or her); holding them accountable. Then, regardless of what it is they have done, if they repent (if they say, “I’m sorry”), forgive them.

Why is it so important to forgive others?

First, it’s important because the Bible commands it. In addition to His words here, Jesus said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Elsewhere the Bible says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

This should be enough for us, but a second reason forgiving others is so important is because we need it. Forgiving others is as much for our own spiritual health, and emotional wellbeing as it is the other person. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31). How do we get rid of these things? By being “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the other person’s behavior, but it does prevent their actions from destroying your heart.

Corrie ten Boom, a Christian lady who hid Jews from the Nazi’s during the Holocaust, told of not being able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the person, but she kept rehashing the incident and so couldn’t sleep. Finally, Corrie cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest. “His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor,” Corrie wrote, “to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.”

“Up in the church tower,” the pastor said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the bell-rigner lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

“And so it proved to be,” she wrote. “There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force — which was my willingness in the matter — had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether.”

Forgiveness isn’t easy, and it make take time to get over the hurt. But, if we ever want to heal, if we ever want to move forward, we must let go of the rope and forgive!

Third, it is important to forgive because discipleship requires it. In today’s passage, Jesus is telling His disciples what it means to follow Him. As His followers, we have the responsibility to not just forgive, but to forgive over and over and over again. Jesus says, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:4). The number “seven” should be read symbolically. Jesus is saying that every time we have been wronged by someone, and every time they ask for forgiveness, we are to forgive them.

This is easier said than done! The disciples knew what Jesus was saying was impossible, and so they said to Him, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Let that sink in. The original Twelve apostles witnessed Jesus do incredible miracles and supernatural healings, and never did they ask Jesus to increase their faith so they could do the same. But when Jesus tells them their lives should be characterized by forgiveness, they knew it was impossible without more faith. “Lord,” they said, “We can’t do that unless you give us more faith.”

In response to their request, Jesus tells a story. The lesson behind the story is as follows: The secret to following Jesus is not more faith, but more obedience. Jesus says, “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” (Luke 17:6). A “mustard seed” was miniscule. A “mulberry tree,” which Jesus pointed to as he talked, had a vast root system that made it virtually impossible to uproot. Some mulberry trees have lived for more than 600 years! The smallest amount of faith can do the largest amount of good. If you are stuck in your Christian walk, and unable to forgive someone, the issue is not your faith. The issue is your obedience. Forgive, let go, and move forward.

Jesus continues, “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat?’ Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink?’” (Luke 17:8). What Jesus is saying can only be understood in the slavery culture of that day. No matter how hard a slave had worked during the day, his master was not going to have pity on him and say, “Come in and rest while I fix your supper.” Instead, no matter how tired the slave may be, he is going to come in and first fix the master’s meal before preparing his own meal. It’s what is expected! Anything else would be disobedient. What is not expected is for the master to thank his slave for doing his duty. Jesus says, “Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?” (Luke 17:9).

Likewise, forgiving others is what is expected of you because you are God’s slave! “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10). Again, let me repeat, as a follower of Jesus, you have no other option but to forgive those who have wronged you. You forgive them, not because they deserve it, or because you feel like it. You forgive them because you are a slave to forgiveness; a slave to God; a recipient of His grace. Doing so is your duty. The issue is not faith. The issue is obedience.


One day, in his laboratory, Thomas Edison was working on a crazy contraption called a “light bulb.” It took a whole team of men 24 straight hours to put just one together. The story goes that when Edison was finished with one light bulb, he gave it to a young boy helper, who nervously carried it up the stairs. Step by step he cautiously watched his hands, obviously frightened of dropping such a priceless piece of work. You’ve probably guessed what happened by now; the poor young fellow dropped the bulb at the top of the stairs. In a moment, a days work completely undone. It took the entire team another twenty-four more hours to make another bulb. Finally, tired and ready for a break, Edison was ready to have his bulb carried up the stairs. Guess what he did. As an act of forgiveness, he gave the light bulb to the same young boy who dropped the first one.

Forgiving the other person is your duty as a follower of Jesus

Has someone wronged you this past week?

Has someone hurt you?

Has it been more than a week?

Maybe it’s been months or years, but you just haven’t seemed to be able to let it go.

Forgive the other person. Even if you don’t feel like it, even if they don’t deserve it, and even if they don’t ask for it. Forgive them so you will be set free to become all God wants you to become.

Remember: It’s not about faith. It is about obedience.



[1] Any action by an adult that allows or encourages illegal behavior by a person under the age of 18, or that places children in situations that expose them to illegal behavior.


About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike rider, author...in that order.
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