top of page

Our Duty to Forgive

“In the same way, when you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we’ve only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)


Let me ask you a question. Or two.


Does a clock deserve praise when it tells us what time it is? No. That’s a clock’s nature. That’s what it was made to do.


Does a stove deserve applause when its heat cooks food for dinner? No. That’s a stove’s nature. That’s what it was made to do.


After doing their duty to their master, should a servant deserve a reward or commendation? No. That’s the nature of a servant. That’s what a servant was made to do – to serve.


Let’s do a little Bible study today, shall we? Let’s look at Luke 17:1-10. Before you read further, take a moment to read this section of scripture. Do it slowly and thoughtfully. Look for the point Jesus is making to His disciples. Go ahead. I’ll wait.


(Moments pass.)


Great! Interesting section, isn’t it? I asked you to identify Jesus’ lesson, but that was a bit of a trick. I see two lessons that go hand in glove, one inside the other. Let’s walk through the reading together for a sobering and challenging insight, shall we?


What’s the situation Jesus addresses? He said to his disciples, “Offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to stumble. (Luke 17:1-2)


What’s meant by “offense” here? The Greek word for “offense” is skandalon, from which we get the word “scandal.”


What is a “scandal?” It’s 1) a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions or disgraces those associated with it, or 2) a person whose conduct offends propriety or morality. In other words, it’s something that a person does that offends another person because it violates the offendee’s sense of what’s proper or morally right.


For example, someone hacks into your bank account and steals your money. The outrage you feel is an offense. You’ve been offended/scandalized because someone did you wrong, and you want them punished.


But an offense doesn’t have to come from such a severe act. When someone maligns your character on social media, you become offended/scandalized over such rotten behavior because it violates the decency of social etiquette and polite human interaction and tweaks your sense of propriety. Again, you want to punish them for their sin against you. And if you’re anything like me, after getting publicly maligned, I want to unleash the full force of a social media flame-fest that’s oh-so-deserved. But then I would be sinning, wouldn’t I?


However, an offense that’s really bad and worthy of extreme punishment is when someone at the party double-dips their chip in the queso. Yup. You want to verbally punish them until they shrink to two inches high and slink out the door, never to be seen again. “Humiliations galore!” (hat tip to Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride) But if I succumb to the temptation to retaliate for the offense, wouldn’t I be giving in to sin? Yes.


The word skandalon used in Luke 17:1 refers to someone who tempts you to sin by the offense they create in you when they do something to you that you feel steps over the line of what’s proper or moral. What does Jesus say about this?


Get used to it. That’s life.


Don’t get me wrong. Jesus doesn’t excuse the offender. They’ll be held liable by the Highest Court for what they provoked in the other person. Jesus tells His disciples someone will offend them eventually, but the offender will undoubtedly reap the consequences.


Jesus shifts the focus in the next verse. Not only will the person be held liable for offending another person, but it will be worse for them if they do it to one of His disciples (one of these little ones) and make them stumble, causing them to sin because of the offense.


Yes, I can already hear your question. Why does “little one” refer to a “disciple” rather than a child? You have to go to Matthew 18 to find out.


In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches about humility and forgiveness, especially concerning kerfuffles between His disciples. It opens with Jesus telling His disciples they must become like “little children” (Matthew 18:3) to enter God’s kingdom. In other words, a person has to be like a child who humbly accepts what they’re told and willingly surrenders their will to the authority over them. Therefore, in context, a “little one” refers to one of the Father’s children, a disciple.


So, Luke 17:1-2 says it’s one thing for a person to offend another and provoke them to sin in return. But it’s worse for them to do it to one of Jesus’ disciples. Why worse? Perhaps because that “little one” is trying their best to live the way Jesus wants them to, the offender has provoked that disciple to sin in anger or vengeance due to the offense.


Jesus acknowledges that by nature, people will inevitably offend other people. It’s a given. And this doesn’t change when you or any other person is born-again and joins Jesus’ community of followers. I know that’s hard to believe (the author wrote in a snarky tone), but born-again, Spirit-filled Christians sometimes offend each other. In these first two verses, Jesus tells the disciples that the person who offends another is in a lot of trouble when they do (v. 1), but it’s worse if the perp causes one of His disciples to fall into sin through their offending provocation.


However, Jesus turns from addressing the offender to His disciples who get offended. “3 Be on your guard. If your brother sins (in context, offends you), rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) Why the warning? Offenses will inevitably happen between Christians, and we disciples will be tempted to sin via a retaliatory strike to punish the person who offended us.


But retaliating for being offended isn’t an option with Jesus. Instead, if someone offends you, Jesus instructs us to call them out on it. Don’t let it slide, and don’t sit on your hurt feelings. It’ll only fester in you, creating an even greater temptation to sin. Whether or not the offender knows what they did, the person needs to know they offended you so they can make things right.


Jesus continues, If that person turns from their offense-causing behavior and asks for forgiveness, we’re duty bound to forgive them. (Luke 17:3) Yes, I hear a lot of groaning from you disciples at this point, along with the expected, “Aw, do we have to, Jesus?”


Yes, you do—no excuses for any of us disciples.


Not only that, He commands us to forgive over and over again whenever the offender turns from their offending behavior and works to make things right. (Luke 17:4) No, forgiveness is not limited to seven times, and after that, you get to whack the guy. “Seven times” is an idiom that means entirely and continually. Forgive them. Every. Darn. Time. And Jesus sticks an imperative “must” at the end to drive His point home.


You can almost hear the shock in His disciples’ reply. “Increase our faith (trust)!” (Luke 17:5) In other words, “Oh wow, Jesus. You’re gonna have to help us out here! That level of forgiving is beyond us, especially when it’s an ongoing problem.” To which Jesus responds, “Guys, you have all the help that you need from Me not to sin when someone offends you and to forgive them every time.” (Luke 17:6) We understand that through Jesus’ mulberry tree illustrative idiom.


The idea of uprooting and planting a mulberry tree in the sea is a beautiful idiomatic exaggeration! 1) A mulberry tree has an extensive root system, making it extremely difficult to uproot. 2) The mulberry idiom is similar to the “moving a mountain by speaking to it” idiom, which refers to doing something impossible.


In other words, Jesus tells the guys, “Forgiving the person who offends you can be tough and seemingly impossible, but trust Me. With My help, you can do it! You can forgive and do it repeatedly.” (Matthew 17:20) His point? “Guys, you think this level of forgiveness is impossible, but it’s not. I wouldn’t command you to do it if it were.”


So, Jesus’ first lesson is about forthrightly addressing an offense so that we don’t become guilty of sin, especially when the offense is between fellow Christians.


And now comes the kicker, the second lesson.


“Which one of you having a servant tending sheep or plowing will say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? 8 Instead, will he not tell him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, get ready, and serve me while I eat and drink; later you can eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank that servant because he did what was commanded? 10 In the same way, when you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we’ve only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10) Ummm, what does that have to do with the forgiveness thing?


Simply put, a servant isn’t asked to do their duty to their master. They’re commanded to carry out His command. Nor should they expect to be commended for doing so. Why? Because obeying is their job. That’s the nature of a servant. That’s what a servant was made to do – to serve their master. 


The title Rabbi means “My Master.” In Jesus’ day, the rabbi was the master, and the disciple served the rabbi. When the rabbi said, “Jump!” the disciple replied, “How high?” There was no discussion or negotiation. For a disciple in Jesus’ day, obedience was not optional once they signed on as a rabbi’s student. They studied because that was their nature as a student. They served because that was the nature of their willing relationship to their master.


So, in Luke 17:1-6, Jesus’ first lesson is about handling offenses so we don’t fall into sin by being offended or not dealing with offenses properly. In Luke 17:7-10, the second lesson is that forgiveness is not optional when our offender repents, and we shouldn’t think we’re something remarkable or worthy of commendation by doing so.


Why? Because it’s our job.


It was also our Master’s job, and we are to copy our Master as all proper disciples are expected to. (See “Take My yoke upon you,” i.e., “obey My teachings and mimic My ways,” Matthew 11:29).


Jesus freely and generously forgave those who greatly offended Him when they rejected and killed Him. Jesus refused to punish them. Instead, He forgave them because as terrible and unjust as Jesus’ crucifixion was, the participants didn’t understand what they were doing. (Luke 23:34) What makes us think we’re to forgive any less? As Jesus’ students and servants, we must also “die to ourselves” and refuse our self-declared right to punish those who offend us so that our offenders can experience genuine, Jesus-level forgiveness through us.


It’s not optional, servant. It’s our duty. Doing one’s duty means to perform “obligatory service, that which ought to be done.” In other words, we do what we owe Rabbi Jesus because He is our Master.


Jesus commands us to forgive as we work things out with those who have offended us. Part of Jesus’ prayer template that we call the Lord’s Prayer (or more appropriately, the Disciples’ Prayer) is the verse, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) The Greek word for “debts” can be translated as “offenses” because we feel we’re owed some restitution or satisfaction when someone offends us. Nope. Our Master commands us to let it go or work it out righteously. Furthermore, when we pray the “forgive us our debts” part, we’re asking our Master to forgive our offenses against Him in the same manner we have forgiven (or not) those who have offended us. Here’s a stern warning from our Master attached to the same promise. “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.” (Matthew 6:14-15, italics author)


So, how much forgiveness do you want from your Master and His (our) Father?


When we forgive, we’re forgiven (Luke 6:37), which means Jesus drops His right to punish our offense against Him when we drop our claimed right to punish our offender and choose to forgive them. Do you see how we wind up on both sides of the offense/forgiveness equation in Luke 17?


Paul echoes Jesus’ words in Colossians 3:12-13, “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive.”


So, lesson Number 1. When faced with a situation where forgiveness is required, let’s not kid ourselves. Even if it seems impossible, Jesus has given us all we need not to sin and to forgive the one who offended us genuinely.


And lesson Number 2. Forgiving others doesn’t make us special. We’re simply following our Master’s lead, and as our Master’s servants, we shouldn’t do so expecting a commendation. It’s part of our job. Being “walking forgiveness” should be second nature to every one of Jesus’ disciples.


Now, imagine what it would be like if every Christian did this!

Shining the Light of God’s Truth on the Road Ahead


Pastor Jay Christianson

The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts


bottom of page