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Careful – don’t get a free ticket to hell

November 10, 2014

Luke 17:1-6                           Monday 10 November 2014

Today’s gospel helps us to understand sin and faith. It about tempting others to sin.

In the original Greek the word σκάνδαλον (skandalon) has been translated in the English version as “obstacle”. A skandalon was originally the mechanism for triggering a trap to catch an animal. But it became a figure of speech describing the trap, which can lead someone to sin. Actually what Jesus said could be literally translated as ‘it’s impossible that temptation won’t come’.

I don’t know whether you know, but my wife Catherine is down in London during the week. On weekdays I’m on my own – I’m a single man during the week! She’s looking after our grandson: his mum has gone back to work and Catherine’s determined to look after him properly – that’s lovely. She came back on Friday on the train, and then she just happened to mention, “Oh, my return ticket, they didn’t stamp it.” Oh…… and an evil thought crossed my mind…… ‘You could use that again…..’

I didn’t say anything to Catherine because I wouldn’t want to even consider letting her have such a thought in her mind. (Perhaps she had that thought herself. When she listens to this recording on the internet she’ll tell me!).

But we mustn’t tempt each other. And what’s worse, we mustn’t be the one who does the tempting. ‘It wouldn’t harm anyone, would it? Yes it would – it’s stealing!

It’s worth saying here that temptation is not a sin. Yes, that’s right, temptation is not a sin. It’s acting upon the temptation that is the sin. And remember, a sin is a failure to come up to the mark, to fail to reach the standard of behaviour required of us by God.

So, another example, I may be tempted in some sort of way by someone to miss coming to mass, once a week at least, and as a result I can easily get into the habit of not worshipping in the way expected by God. Acting on the temptation is a sin. Resisting temptation is heroic, even in small ways. I say that because such temptations abound in our modern society, particularly when we are young. For example, our young people might go off to work or university, and can find they are severely tempted to join the crowd, and give up practicing the Faith. There is tremendous social pressure on young people (and on us!), but when they’re achieving their independence to conform to the ways of the world, they are tempted by it. Should the person leading them astray be a fellow Christians, they are warned by Jesus very clearly that they are likely to be getting themselves into serious difficulties by tempting others.

“It would be better for him to be thrown into the Sea with a millstone put round his neck than that he should lead astray a single one of these little ones. Watch yourselves!”

In Jesus’ time every family would have their own small millstone to grind its own flour. And it’s a very dramatic picture he paints: someone being thrown in the sea with such a stone around their neck. As we saw last week, this is yet another example of Jesus using really strong images to make a point. He is shouting out a warning: sin is bad enough, but tempting other people sin is really dangerous.

So being tempted is not a sin, but being the person who tries to tempt someone – that is a really serious sin.

Jesus goes on to say that when we realise someone we know is committing a sin against us, we should point it out to them. After all, we may be doing them a favour. So if I had suggested using that rail ticket again, Catherine should have quite rightly said, ‘Phil, that’s not right!’. Straightaway. In their enthusiasm for something, in their naivety, people who sin against us may not realise they are doing wrong. In today’s society, fiddling train tickets is small change. Of course, we shouldn’t be like the Pharisees. We can make allowances – we’re all human, things have to be said with sensitivity. Often the most eloquent way to point out something that’s not right is to make it clear you’re having nothing to do with. She might rip the ticket up in front of me. So, to follow the example of not going to mass, doesn’t the simple act of going to mass rather than missing it speak volumes? Within our Christian community, between us Christian brothers and sisters, if someone is doing wrong, they need to be told. What we’re talking about here is becoming sensitive to the way we behave and the way people around us behave.

And when someone sins against us, realises it and apologies, should we forgive them. Of course, says Jesus? But how often? Seven times a day? Not literally. The number seven to the Jews signified completeness and perfection. Forgive them perfectly, as far as is humanly possibly. That’s what the number seven means – the ultimate in human perfection. To do that, we need help. If someone has really hurting us by sinning against us, it’s very difficult to forgive them. We pray for God’s grace to forgive. That’s what the disciples meant when they said, “Increase our faith”. To become someone who can genuinely forgive repeatedly requires faith in God, a closeness to God, or God’s grace.

But be reassured by Jesus that you do not need super-human faith to achieve this. Even if you have a minute trace of faith (‘the size of a mustard seed’: barely visible) you can still do astonishing things, even uprooting a mulberry tree, which was well known for having particularly deep roots and very difficult to get rid of. Jesus is telling us to believe in the enormous power of prayer. [And we did it on Friday night. If you were here you’ll know there was a missing child. We prayed as a community for that child to be recovered safely. And it happened. Direct effect? Don’t know, but we had faith to pray.]

This morning we are here to be with our Christian brothers and sisters to proclaim our faith in God, to pray together; in a few moments, to receive God into our bodies in the form of Holy Communion. We should leave this place with a determination to be a good example to others through the way we lead our lives. In particular in the way we choose to deliberately, meaningfully forgive those who have sinned against us.

Jesus Himself says that we can do it if we try.

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