The Injustice of it All
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.” 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.
You do not have to live long in this world before you are exposed at some level to the human capacity for evil. A woman named Rosaria knows this all too well. Like countless women before her, she loved her daughter. Born in December 1994, Rosaria named her daughter, Cadeaux, which means “gift.” There are many reasons why a parent would consider their child to be a gift. Rosaria’s is particularly compelling.
Cadeaux was not her only child. She and her husband had four children before Cadeaux. One of her sons, Alexis, became sick and she took him to the hospital. While in the hospital with Alexis, violence erupted in her country. She thought that there would be refuge for her there in the hospital, but the hospital eventually forced all of the patients to leave saying that there were too many military soldiers who needed care. Now, after being sheltered from the violence for a month, she and Alexis are thrust into it. Traveling along the roadside they passed bodies that lay in various positions of flight, glass from a smashed-in car windshield glinting in the sunlight, and a wild dog gnawed at something resembling a human leg. After a few miles she and her still sick son found what they hoped would be a shelter and refuge from the devastation. They made their way into Holy Family Church, the largest cathedral in the city.
The church was full of people who were barely living: a woman without an arm trying to nurse a baby, an old man moaning with bloodied cloths wrapped around his head, a child crying inconsolably for her missing mother. But something was wrong. Rosaria saw the head priest. The head priest was arguing with some nuns. Not only was the young priest arguing with the nuns, he wasn’t dressed in a clerical collar or a priest’s garb. He was dressed like a militia man with a flack jacket around his chest and a gun in his hand. Two nights later, the militia this priest was a part of raided the church. Called out the names of particular men seeking refuge in the church. Took them outside and executed them.
This is one of the stories from the horrific genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Over the course of 100 days Hutus slaughtered between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In the midst of racial and ethnic cleansing, Rosaria and Alexis, as Tutsis, were unable to find any refuge. After those men were taken out of the church and executed, she didn’t wait around any longer. The next morning, she took Alexis and they left Holy Family Church. Then, their luck ran out. They were discovered, hacked with machetes and left for dead. Alexis did indeed die, but Rosaria, pregnant at the time, survived. Now you can appreciate why she named her child “gift.” She said that Cadeaux was, “the only gift I had left.”
This is outrageous, and it should make your blood boil. Humanity’s capacity for evil seems to know no bounds. What are we to make of the fact that even many churches and priests were not simply indifferent, but were active participants in the genocide? Why bother with Christianity when so much blood can be laid even at the door of the church? As Tim Keller asks in his book, The Reason for God, “If Christianity is the truth, why has the institutional church supported war, injustice, and violence over the years? …Shouldn’t Christians be better people than everybody else?” We’re going to come at this hard to handle question by looking at this amazing passage in the gospel of Luke. You see, the heart of Christianity isn’t an idea, it’s really not even a message. The heart of Christianity is person, Jesus Christ. This person does the work of uniting us to God and to one another. So, we want to hear what he has to say about the matter.
We’re going to talk about three things from these six verses, The Harsh Reality, The Hard Response, and The Hope Revealed.
The Harsh Reality
The Harsh Reality
I’m calling vv. 1-2 the harsh reality. Notice this with me please. Jesus has been speaking in ch. 16, from v. 14 through the end of that chapter, to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were religious leaders, and they weren’t down with Jesus or his program. Jesus said that no one could serve two masters. You’ll either hate one and love the other, or you’ll be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. Right after that, in 6:14, Luke says that the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed Jesus. The religious leaders only want to discredit Jesus. But then there’s a shift in the audience in 17:1. Luke tells us that Jesus says to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” That sounds like something he should be saying to the Pharisees. That sounds like something he should be saying to the people who reject him. He should be warning the people who want nothing to do with him that they’ll continue to be enticed to do wrong. Not only that, but they’ll keep on tempting other people to do wrong. But Jesus is talking to his followers. He’s talking to people who are saying, “I’m with you Jesus.”
We can have the wrong expectation. Part of the problem is that people expect that Jesus’ message was, “Follow me and you won’t have to worry about being tempted anymore by unjust people or be tempted yourself to do unjust things.” The Greek text in v. 1 has a double negative. We don’t translate the double negative into English because that’s not good grammar. But it’s perfectly fine in Greek. Here’s how I’d translate Jesus’ words in v. 1, “It is impossible for the temptations not to come.” The word “temptations” is plural, broad, general, and inclusive of every kind of wrong. That includes injustices of every kind. Be they racial injustices, gender injustices, political injustices, socio-economic injustices, individual injustices, or systemic injustices. Jesus says this is the harsh reality, you will be unable to prevent the enticements to take part in unjust things from coming your way. You might be tempted to steal supplies from your office, or you might be tempted to join in a conspiracy to destroy other people. Faith in Jesus doesn’t free you from temptations to do evil. Jesus is the Truth, and he doesn’t want us to be deceived as a Christian. Don’t be deceived into thinking that the Christian life is the easy road. Don’t be deceived into thinking that as you travel along this road seeking to follow and serve Jesus Christ that you will not be enticed to turn away from him. Don’t think that being a Christian doesn’t include times of intense struggle to keep the faith and not stray away from Jesus toward whatever is tempting you. Given that Jesus himself says that that you will face a barrage of temptations to do wrong, is it surprising that even people who claim to follow Jesus can find themselves giving in to those temptations?
Let’s be clear though. Jesus isn’t playing. He’s not sweeping the sins or the injustices under the rug as if the harsh reality of temptations always coming excuses us from giving in to those temptations. Jesus loves justice and righteousness. Look at what he says in the second part of v. 1 and v. 2, “but woe to the one through whom the temptations come. It is better for him if a millstone is bound around his neck, and he was thrown into the sea than he tempt one of these little ones to sin.” The little ones Jesus is talking about aren’t children. He’s talking about those who follow him. The little ones are Christians. It’s not that Jesus is unconcerned about injustice in general and sins committed against non-Christians, but he understands that the Christian community represents him. It’s supposed to be a witness to his love and his power. So he speaks to us like the OT prophets when they pronounced doom and destruction because of sin and wickedness.
What Jesus does is put people in community together to grow in righteousness and holiness all the days of our lives. And he’s serious about it. How tragic it is that we can all readily think of moral, financial, and sexual scandals that have corrupted the church and dishonored the name of Christ, and people have been turned away from Christ, lead astray because of them. Jesus says better for them if they had met their downfall before they led others astray.
The Hard Response
The Hard Response
This harsh reality leads us to the hard response in vv. 3-4. The next hard and sobering thing that Jesus says is an imperative. It’s a command. “Pay attention to yourselves.” “Take heed to yourselves!” “Watch yourselves!” It’s not absolutely clear whether Jesus is saying, “watch yourselves,” as a concluding thought to the harsh reality he’s just spoken of, or if he’s saying, “look out for yourselves,” as an introduction to the hard response he’s about to explain. I lean toward it being more of an introduction to the hard response. In light of the fact that there are serious and dire consequences for Christians who are actively causing others to sin, who are actively participating in the kind of injustices we saw Rosaria suffer in Rwanda, Jesus says to his disciples, “y’all need to check one another.”
Understand what Jesus has said. He doesn’t detail what the consequences are for those who entice others to sin, but understand that he’s the one who’s delivering those consequences. He takes it so seriously that he’s going to deal with it in his way in his time. So he says to this community of disciples that he’s creating, “Check each other. Don’t just let each other go rogue.” In other words, “Step to one another when you see each other doing wrong.” Those are my words. Jesus’ words are, “If your brother or sister sins, rebuke him or her.” Don’t ignore wrong. Don’t act like you don’t see what’s going on. To rebuke a brother or sister is a loving confrontation. It's not an attack. There’s an assumption behind Jesus’ command to rebuke. The assumption is that his disciples will have such quality to their relationships that it allows for loving, honest, positive and confronting behavior to occur with out destroying the relationships. Here’s the hard part though. It’s easy enough to rebuke somebody, to tell them what they’ve done wrong.
Jesus goes further. He says, “If he repents, forgive him.” That doesn’t seem so bad, right. Then he says, “If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times he turns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Listen. What does it mean to repent? To repent means more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” To repent means to turn and go in the other direction. To repent means to stop doing the wrong I was doing and to start doing the right thing that I’m supposed to be doing. Now let me explain what forgiveness is. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that there’s no consequence to your sinful behavior. Earlier this year, when 20 year old Dylann Roof, motivated by racial hatred, murdered eight Christians at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, if you saw the video, or read the story of what happened at his bond hearing, you heard several of the victims’ family members say to him, “I forgive you.” Dylann Roof is still going to jail. He’s still not going to see the light of day outside of prison walls for the rest of his life. What happened when those Christians extended forgiveness to him? They were declaring, “I’m not holding what you did against you. I’m not going to throw what you did back in your face.” They were saying, “While you will face consequences, I desire good for you, and will not harbor ill will in my heart towards you.”
Get the picture now of what Jesus is saying. If someone does wrong, is rebuked, repents, and is forgiven once, ok. But it never ends. If he sins against you seven times in the same day, you still have to be ready to forgive. In other words, the Christian always stands ready to forgive, over and over and over and over again. To say it another way, the Christian never has any excuse not to forgive! Here it is! The question of how Christians can participate in unjust acts and violence is an incomplete question. It doesn’t go far enough. The question is how is it Christianity can participate in the greatest injustice of all? That is the injustice of forgiveness. Christianity says, “you can never not forgive.” It doesn’t matter how much injustice has been committed. It doesn’t matter how heinous the crime. You don’t get to seek revenge. You don’t get to pay the person back. You don’t get to keep bitterness welled up in you heart against those who do you wrong. The position of forgiveness is one that desires the restoration of relationship.
The scandal of Christianity is the extension of immeasurable forgiveness. The injustice of it all is the injustice of forgiveness. The reason Jesus can say that the well of forgiveness you extend has no bottom is that the forgiveness Christians receive has no measure. If we were to receive justice from God's hand for our sins and injustices, we would be condemned to wrath and eternal punishment. But God poured out our just penalty on Jesus Christ as he hung on Calvary's cross so that we could be forgiven in Christ. What did Jesus say about his executioners and those who betrayed him as hung on the cross? “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” For that reason, when you’re connected to him as a recipient of God’s forgiveness, Jesus says, there is nothing that you must not forgive.
What you have in Christianity is both the condemnation of injustice and the only true correction to injustice. You see, Rosaria’s story in Rwanda is a story about forgiveness. You can find her story and more in the 2009 book As We Forgive, Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda. The Rwandan prison system was unequipped to incarcerate the 120,000 people charged with crimes during the 1994 genocide. The prisons were grossly overcrowded, and even if their legal system hadn’t been decimated, the backlog of cases would’ve taken over 200 years to prosecute. In January 2003 Rwandan President Kagame announced plans to release 40,000 confessed criminals from the genocide. 40,000 murderers would be released. They had to have confessed, and agreed to receive reeducation before being released back into the community.
A Rwandan pastor named Gahigi had begun going to the jail to preach repentance and forgiveness to the prisoners. Pastor Gahigi was Tutsi, and all but eight of his 150 family members were murdered in the genocide. Yet here he was, making the seven-hour journey by foot to the prisons to meet with Hutu murderers. One of those prisoners who heard Pastor Gahigi was a man named Saveri. Saveri couldn’t comprehend mercy. He believed that God’s mercy couldn’t reach him. He was haunted. Saveri had killed Rosaria’s sister and her children. One day, Pastor Gahigi’s gospel preaching penetrated Saveri’s heart. He heard the words from the prophet ,
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,
He began to consider the possibility of divine forgiveness. He became one of the 40,000 released from prison. The pastor would facilitate reconciliation meetings. Hutus on one side, Tutsi survivors on the other. Prisoners and survivors meeting face to face. Saveri on one side, Rosaria on the other. At the first three meetings he approached her and begged for her forgiveness, but he didn’t tell her why. But the fourth time Rosaria asked Saveri why he so desperately wanted her forgiveness. He said to her,
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” He began to consider the possibility of divine forgiveness. He became one of the 40,000 released from prison. The pastor would facilitate reconciliation meetings. Hutus on one side, Tutsi survivors on the other. Prisoners and survivors meeting face to face. Saveri on one side, Rosaria on the other. At the first three meetings he approached her and begged for her forgiveness, but he didn’t tell her why. But the fourth time Rosaria asked Saveri why he so desperately wanted her forgiveness. He said to her,
“I am the one who murdered your sister and your children. I am begging you to forgive me.”
What would Rosaria say? What would you say to your sister’s murderer? She said,
“I forgive you. If you have sincerely confessed your sin before God and truly changed, then I forgive you. How can I refuse to forgive you when I did not make you? Your crime was against God, who created the people you killed.”
This is the hard response. Forgiveness is the hard response. Forgiveness goes beyond justice. That’s why it’s the ultimate answer to injustice. Jesus doesn’t wink at injustice, but he also goes beyond justice to forgiveness.
The Hope Revealed
The Hope Revealed
I don’t know if you think this is easy. Jesus’ apostles sure didn’t. They heard what Jesus said, and they understood the implications of it. They needed Jesus to reveal some hope if they were going to live like that. Look at what they say to him in v. 5, “Increase our faith!” They're not asking for him to give them faith. They're saying, we don't have enough faith to forgive like that! What you're asking is too hard. We need you to add to our faith. Can you feel that? Does their response resonate in your heart when you consider what Jesus is demanding of us? They desire to do what Jesus demands here. They want to obey. So their request is commendable, and their going to the right source, God himself. What does Jesus say to them?
“If you possess faith like a mustard seed you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
The mulberry tree was a tree that could live for 600 years. It's roots grew deep into the earth. Jesus isn't concerned with them or us trying to uproot trees and plant them in the sea. This graphic illustration is intended to teach us about the power of a little bit of genuine faith. Where does forgiving faith come from? How is it possible to always stand ready to forgive? How is it possible to get beyond the grudges we hold? Even though we don’t overlook injustice, how is it possible to be ready to respond with forgiveness, even when those injustices are committed by Christians? It is possible because even the smallest amount of genuine faith has as its object the God of all creation. The object of my faith is not me and my ability, or strength and my goodness. The object of my faith is the Lord of glory, Jesus Christ. The One who is able to change the hardest hearts and to bring to life what has been ground to dust. He is the only one who provides hope both for those who commit injustices and those who are victims of injustice.
There will be more stories in the future of people who claim to follow Jesus committing acts of injustice. But there always have been, and there always will be immeasurably more people who belong to Christ who understand the unfairness of the undeserved forgiveness they have received from God, and who, therefore, by faith extend that same grace and forgiveness to others.