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Gospel according to Luke 17: 1-6 (NIV)
1 Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 So watch yourselves.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 He replied, “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.
The first record in the Bible of one of God’s creatures causing another to stumble introduces the “fall” of humankind. The snake of Genesis 3 said to the woman whom God had created, “You will not certainly die … For God knows that when you eat from (the tree) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (verses 4, 5).
Satan, the deceiver, had lied. Satan had not only misrepresented God but had set out deliberately to undermine God’s authority and to plant in the woman’s mind seeds of doubt regarding God’s goodness and the perfection of God’s plans for his creation.
When Jesus warned his disciples about things that cause people to stumble, he was more concerned about the source of such causes. We might at first make a mental connection with current events of which we are aware such as the corrupting of officials through the offering of bribes or the illegal gaining of advantage through “stand-over tactics”. Criminal offences seem to be readily identifiable as such; these are often clearly wrong in a legal sense as well as in a moral sense.
We must be alert to more subtle causes of stumbling. We must remain on guard against anything that might tempt us to act as the conduit through which such causes of stumbling can appear.
In particular we need to guard against anything that could subvert or undermine the faith of another. We must never sow doubt in the mind of another about God or about God’s holiness and power and authority. We must never entertain any question about the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection from death, ascension to be with the Father and Lordship over all. We must never cast doubt over the work of the Holy Spirit, recalling that Jesus himself taught that “anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12: 10).
Forgiveness is the second theme in this passage from Luke 17. As we have seen in Luke 12: 10, Jesus has identified a limit to God’s forgiveness. While he did not actually specify a punishment for anyone through whom a cause of stumbling might come, we must allow for the fact that there could be a limit to God’s forgiveness in relation to undermining the faith in God of another member of his Church. We need to take this warning seriously, guard our speech and be positive in all our references to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.