Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.
‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’ (NRSV).
Jesus’ harshest words seem to be consistently reserved for those in leadership.
This is true of Jesus’ approach to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and their scribes. It is also true of those who would lead among the disciples of Jesus.
So, our passage opens with a warning to anyone among Jesus’ followers who would find themselves with power and influence over another: ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’
A sobering thought.
In responding to this possibility the disciple is to have their guard up. Specifically, we are to be willing to ‘rebuke’ where necessary and, where repentance is evident, eager and generous in our forgiving.
Rebuking in love, turning away from sin, graciously forgiving. These are part of the way of living we all are likely to find ourselves involved in as we take our place in the community of Christ.
But the challenges and temptations to those who lead in these things are profound. It is often easier to overlook the shortfall of another than to confront; it is less demanding to assume repentance, and; it can be alarmingly simple to hold the grudge.
No wonder the disciples respond with their request for an increased faith.
But this requested faith is not about quantity. The mustard seed, perhaps as a result of this parable, became known for both its minute size and great potential. Yes, faith, directed well, is a quality of significant influence.
I wonder if the final paragraph of our reading has a balancing effect on the disciples. A faith that moves mulberry trees from land to sea carries significant dangers. Perhaps not least of all to ego and self-righteousness.
The one who wishes to take a place of leadership among God’s people – to plough in God’s field and to tend God’s sheep – is not becoming more than other followers. Indeed, Jesus chooses to use the confronting language of slavery here. There will be no special treatment handed out. Apart from the privilege of serving there is no particular reward.
And all this takes a significant, even profound, trust in God.
Perhaps that is why mustard seed faith sits at the core of this call to authentic, gracious, servant-hearted leadership. Trust in God – and God’s ways – is central to authentic leading in this kingdom that is so unlike any other.