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In 1977 at the age of 14, Sokreaksa “Reaksa” Himm saw 13 members of his family murdered by Khmer Rouge soldiers in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Sokreaksa, along with his father and brothers were dragged to the edge of a mass grave and slashed with machetes and clubbed with hoes. Having been left for dead, he awoke in the grave in a pile of my dead and dying relatives. He was able to climb out and hide in nearby weeds when the killers left to get his mother and sisters. He watched from the bushes as they were murdered. He writes, “As the soldiers threw dirt on the people who were my entire life, I swore revenge. I was alone, hungry and scared and in the coming weeks I made my way across the jungle, avoiding soldiers by day and sleeping in trees by night to escape roaming tigers. I eventually found my way to the “safety” of a succession of refugee camps all the while planning and plotting the deaths of the men who murdered my loved ones … The anger against the killers was as great as the grief for my family and it burned inside me like a great ball of fire. For years I cultivated elaborate fantasies in which I tortured and murdered the killers again and again, projecting all my rage and pain I bottled inside myself in my plans for what I would do to the men when I found them. I realized that I would never know true peace until I had dealt with this as well.”
How would you respond? How do we respond when people wrong us. I told that story, because admittedly, it is a horrific story, yet if the gospel cannot speak to the horrible, can it really speak to the day-to-day? For when we are wronged, in whatever way, we would be likely to put our hurt in the category of the exceptional. Jesus speak to us about when we are offended.
Luke 17:1-4 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! 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.”
Before we get to the heart of understanding the thread that ties this passage together, I’ve got to clarify a translation issue. I would guess that nearly all of your translations here today translate verse one as something like: “Temptations to sin are sure to come,” The old and new King James version reads differently, and, I believe a better reading, “It is impossible that no offences should come,” or “It is impossible but that offences will come.” The word scandalon is obviously from where we get our English word scandal. And yes, it can be translated either as a offence committed against another, or as a trap or stumbling block set to cause another to fall. Now most modern English translations take the second option, for verse two goes on to say that this scandal may “cause one of these little ones to sin.” Yet i still believe that it is more reasonable to translate the word as “offence” in light of the entire passage which is about forgiving those who sin against us. if this is the case, then, how are we to understand verse 2 which clearly states that this scandal might “cause one of these little ones to sin”? Well, the book of Leviticus gives us a background for understanding what Jesus is addressing here. Leviticus 19:17–18 speaks directly to the issue of the spiritual danger we fall into when we are offended by others “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Leviticus 19:17-18 is an encyclopedia of how we might incur sin when others offend us:
- We may hate him in our hearts
- We may take vengeance
- We may bear grudges
This is why Jesus says “Pay attention to yourselves” - because the offense against you may in fact be a stumbling block to you. And isn’t that so true! A person offends us, or slanders us, or gossips about us, or injures us, or insults us, and it causes us to be ensnared in bitterness or retaliation, or hatred. This is to what Jesus is speaking. So what instruction does Jesus give us so that we do not fall into sin as we respond to offences? What is our best defence against an offence?
The Path of Reconciliation: Skipping over verse 2 for the time being, let’s stay in verse 3. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. This is the path of reconciliation upon which believers are called to walk. When you are offended, especially by a brother or sister in the church, there is no other path than the path that leads you directly back to the person who offended you. To rebuke means that you go directly to to him or her and show him how you were wronged by him or her. The word Jesus uses here emphasizes the need of the offended to address the wrong, rather than the expectation that the offender repent. This makes sense because you can only control your own actions - you can’t control theirs. You can hope that they might repent, but Jesus is wise to place the focus entirely on what we do. This perhaps suggest that going to the person and naming the offence is an important part of your dealing with the offence. It gives you a voice. Interestingly, I was reading last night about how there is a movement in the legal system to have victims confront their offenders. Now in these cases the criminal trial has already been concluded, so the confrontation is not about bringing the person to see their guilt - that’s already been done. The reason these jurisdictions are doing this is because it gives the victims a voice. It empowers them and helps them to get past the crime. So yes, we go directly to the person and point out how they hurt us. What would be the other options? Slandering the person? Gossiping about the offence? Holding it in, or burying it? These are the things that lead us away from reconciliation and incur sin. Going to your brother and clearly expressing how he wronged you is the only path back. Now, ideally, when you go to your brother or sister and rebuke them for wronging you, they repent - which may include them confessing their sin, changing their mind or their behaviour, clearing up the misunderstanding if there is one, and then you are left with the second step - forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the path of reconciliation.
Again, note Jesus’ words, “Pay attention to yourselves”! This is the main point in defending against offence: pay attention to yourselves.
The Only Thing We Control is Our Response: Both in the instruction to rebuke and in the instruction to forgive, the emphasis is on what we can so so that the offence committed against us doesn’t lead to our own sinful response. As Romans 12:18 so clearly states: If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Focus on what you need to do, and the only thing you can control is your response. So we pay attention to our response by going to the person and pointing out how they’ve offended us, and then we respond in forgiveness when we see that they’ve repented.
Yet, here is where Jesus gets a bit ridiculous to goes far beyond the teaching of his day. So, we’re all ok with the path of reconciliation described above. But what if the brother continues to offend you? “and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Now this is confusing? The guys says he repents, yet continues in the same hurtful behaviour? Is this genuine repentance? should I withhold my forgiveness until I see evidence that his repentance is genuine?
According to the teachings of Jesus’ day, the Jewish rabbis had reflected on this scenario and their answer was, if your brother keeps sinning against you, you keep reproving him until he changes. In other words, you will improve him through reproving him. The emphasis is on his behaviour. Yet Jesus’ concern is that we pay attention to ourselves. The only thing we can control is our response. Ruthie Dean, in an article entitled “Forgiveness Won’t Fix Your Toxic Relationship” puts it this way: “We are always called to forgive; but forgiveness should not be seen as a remedy to another’s character, rather a soothing balm to protect our own hearts from bitterness.”
So yes, Jesus focus is on our own response, guarding our own hearts and lives against hatred and sin. Yet what does forgiveness entail? Must I reconcile completely with a person who is continually offending me? Like if a person sins against me seven times a day, I understand that I need to forgive him, but does forgiveness require that I keep myself in a situation in which he is likely to sin against me seven more times tomorrow? This is where there is a modern debate - modern psychology often teaches that you can emotionally forgive someone in your heart without seeking any sort of reconciliation. They see forgiveness is a sort of self-therapy. Yet Bible scholars and theologians struggle with seeing forgiveness only through this individualistic lens. After all, Jesus did not just emotionally forgive our sins, he reconciled us to him. Doesn’t the gospel call us to restored relationships not only with God but with one another? Perhaps there is a middle way between mere internal forgiveness and full reconciliation. It is in the recognition that the primary way in which our relationship is defined in the kingdom of God is as brothers and sisters of one another. So can you forgive someone to the point that you can bless them and welcome them as a brother in Christ? You don’t need to be friends with the person and you may never even really like the person all that much, but can you see them as a brother or sister for whom Christ died, a sinner reconciled and a member of God’s family. This lead’s us to the second main idea:
Forgiveness takes faith: Forgiveness is an act of faith. Faith is needed to trust that God sees, that God is a just God, and that God’s execution of justice and application of mercy satisfies. This brings us back to verse 2: Woe to the one through whom [offenses] come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. When you are offended, be assured, God sees, God is just, and that God will judge appropriately. Forgiveness is an act of trusting in God justice and mercy, so that, no matter the other person’s response, I can control my response, I can rebuke, i can forgive.
The apostles understood that forgiveness takes faith, and yes, at times forgiveness is daunting it seems impossible: The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “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. Some take Jesus’ words as a rebuke, but more likely Jesus is encouraging them that the faith they already possess is more powerful than they imagine. Jesus is not telling us that we need greater faith to do impossible things. He is saying that we already possess the faith that will give us the power to forgive. What give faith this power? It’s definitely does not come from us, it comes from the gospel itself. Because, the heart of the gospel is forgiveness. The gospel is that we have all offended God, more than seven times a day. We slandered him, slighted him, abused and rejected Him. In fact Jesus is teaching on this subject of forgiveness, even as he is walking to Jerusalem to suffer and die by our hands, in our place. He forgives us; God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The heart of the Gospel is that God forgives, and if we have enough faith to receive God’s forgiveness, that same faith is sufficient for us then to turn around and forgive our brother.
This is what Sokreaksa found after immigrating to Canada: There, I would come to an even greater moment of truth when I eventually came to know Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Through years of Bible study and communion with God, I started a new life in the west but could not release myself from the prison of hatred, anger and vengeance. I discovered that forgiveness truly is divine and that as the years passed, my blood oath and all consuming ire were in direct conflict with my new nature.
If you’ve been deeply hurt, it isn’t easy to forgive but we can learn a lesson from Jesus, who forgave those who crucified him. I began to meditate on the Bible, and I found in the book of Psalms a wonderful source of support and comfort. Here was someone like me, David, who had known despair and who was not afraid to cry out to God in pain and anguish. Across the centuries I heard the voice of a man who wept and cried to his God, and yet who always reaffirmed the reality of God’s ability to keep him safe.
Forgiveness doesn’t come through vengeance, and neither does forgetting: no amount of violence could erase my memories. So I gave up my urge to inflict pain on those who had hurt me and killed my family. I knew it wouldn’t help, and nursing those desires was only damaging me; my emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological being. In time I discovered that forgiveness opens a channel for real spiritual power to work in my life; a power which brings healing and wholeness.
In the years that followed, I began a new mission: one that still included finding the men responsible for the deaths of my loved ones but for a new purpose. I no longer wanted to seek their deaths, but to tell them of the life and hope that I found. I eventually found two of the men involved in my family’s deaths, in the very village and among the very people they terrorized over two decades before. Initially on hearing that I wanted to meet the men to forgive them, many people thought that my plan was just another attempt to locate the men so that I could take my revenge. To the surprise of the men and most of the villagers, I shook hands with the two men and forgave them.
Sokreaksa found that forgiveness takes faith. Faith in Christ, the one who forgives us in our sins. This is the point of Jesus’ final parable in this passage: to the Christian who has been forgiven, forgiveness is not impossible but ordinary.
Forgiveness is not for Extra Credit
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Now if you have been offended, this is not to minimize your pain, but to maximize the gospel. if we have so received the forgiveness that the gospel offers to us, how could we not offer such forgiveness to others who offend us? the point of the parable is that we don’t get an extra star on our chart for forgiving others, it should be part of our regular response to our apprehension of the gospel of Christ, our duty - if you will. So if you find yourself struggling to forgive, to bless, to receive an offender as a brother, the answer is not to dwell on the offense, or to examine the repentance of the offender, but to drive deeper into the gospel of Christ.