‘of the increase of our faith…’
October 6, 2019
Scripture: Luke 17:1-6
For a while now Jesus had been teaching in a way that caused a significant amount of tension and conflict with the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Jesus had been very blunt of late and had called out the religious authorities’ numerous times for their treatment of common folk and for their legalistic captivity of the Law which allowed them to interpret it in ways that were virtually impossible for anyone to follow. This had the effect of making the common people feel unworthy of God’s love and unable to live up to the demands of the faith…and ironically, it also made them quite hungry for the new message Jesus was seeking to share. This enraged the authorities all the more as the crowds began to flock more and more to Jesus. They could feel their grasp on authority and their power over the populace beginning to slip dangerously, giving them all the more cause to seek to eliminate Jesus.
On this day however, Jesus chose to draw away from the fray of open conflict with the authorities and to spend some time alone with his disciples. Sitting down in a remote place in the hills Jesus began to share with his disciples the very real cost of discipleship. In particular, the demands that were being placed upon them as his followers, and what it actually meant to follow after this radical Galilean prophet with a wholly new message. They had heard Jesus preach and teach day in and day out and had picked up a lot in watching him duel with the authorities. However on this occasion it seemed that Jesus had something deeper to share with them, he seemed to be concerned that they very clearly understand what was now being expected of them.
As he started out, he first addressed the very common issue of personal failure, of sin, or as it is written in the Greek: hamartia meaning ‘to miss the mark’. “Things that cause people to sin and to fall away from the faith are going to happen”, Jesus started, “but be very careful that it is not you, or something you have done or said that causes anyone to stumble. Those who are seeking after the truth are precious in the sight of God, and it would be better for one to have a large millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these who are young in the faith to stumble.” Of course, Jesus did not literally mean that this might or should happen to anyone but rather sought to underscore how important it was that the disciple’s public and private lives match up with their public message. As if to drive home his point Jesus finished the thought by saying, “So…watch yourselves!”
Next Jesus turned his attention to the question of forgiveness. The disciples had heard Jesus speak on this before but Jesus wanted to be sure they understood that forgiveness was not something that had either a limit or an expiration date. He also wanted to remind them that it was not just about others but that forgiveness was to be between the disciples as well. “If your brother or another disciple goes astray”, he began, “if one who is close to you falls away, be sure to gently and lovingly call them out on their error. And when they turn and repent you must forgive them no matter what. And even if that same person sins against you as many as seven times in one day, you must find it in your heart to forgive him each time he repents. In truth, every single time he comes to you and repents you must extend forgiving love towards him. You are never to withhold forgiveness and love from one who falls and then turns back to the ways of God.”
At this the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words, feeling overwhelmed by the demands he was placing on them. They were not used to this sort of radical love that seemed to go against the ways they had been taught from youth. For they had been taught that there were always consequences to poor behavior and that forgiveness was expected up to a point…but this! Feeling very challenged by the demands to both live exemplary lives, and be always ready to forgive, they cried out almost as one, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Jesus brushed on by their request sharply by responding to them saying, “If you…any of you had faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, then you could say to this huge sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” This is the word of God, for the people of God…thanks be to God
I would venture to guess that Jesus’ response regarding faith and mustard seeds surely did not comfort his disciples that day. And I also think that it might have surprised us as well. Let’s look a little closer to see if we might understand Jesus’ response to what seems to be an honest request from the disciples. What was it that Jesus was trying to point out to them by seeming to belittle what faith they had? How was that message supposed to help them grow deeper in their understanding?
The disciples were challenged by the words of Jesus and felt that the only way they would be able to measure up to these demands, this cost of discipleship, the only way they could do what Jesus was asking of them was to have a greater quantity of faith. Jesus, in his response seems to be meeting their assumptions about faith by telling them that in fact, they have little faith to speak of…he seems to be indicating that their understanding of faith itself is what may be missing the mark.
The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary picks up on this twist of understanding in this passage and says that indeed the disciples have not understood the nature of genuine faith. Their understanding is that faith is a gift from God…that faith is something that gives them an ability to be and to do things for God in a good and holy fashion. They see faith as a God-given talent or capacity to act in the ways they are being asked to by Jesus, and that their ability to do what they are asked is directly related to the amount of faith they each have individually.
We could say that for the disciples, faith was like strength in your arm or food on your table…something that would give you the ability to do more and to go farther. If you did not have enough or if you were weak, then you would not be able to live up to the demands Jesus seemed to be asking of them. Their request then for Jesus to give them more faith seemed to make perfect sense…and yet, it also revealed that they had no idea what faith truly was.
You see, faith is not something that is given to you to strengthen or empower you in and of yourself…it is not something you get and then possess. Rather, faith is a gift from God that enables you to draw on and to rely upon the strength of God as it is shared with and through you in holy relationship, and in holy endeavor. In other words, as the commentary explains, “The point is not that (the disciples) need more faith; rather they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience. The saying is not about being able to do miraculous works or spectacular tricks. On the contrary, Jesus assures the disciples that with even a little faith they can live by his teachings on discipleship.”
So, once again we are brought back to what often seems to be one of, if not the main thrust of Jesus’ message. His Good News that indeed in Christ, God has drawn near to us and that God has important and critical work for each one of us to do. And furthermore, that the work which we are to do for God can only be done through the power of divine strength, divine energy, divine patience, and divine love…as it is channeled through us, channeled through those of uswho have turned our lives over in openness to God, and who always and steadfastly wait upon the Lord for strength and guidance.
For you see, a faithful life truly is all about relationship…about we who are willing…and about a God who anxiously awaits our open hearts, minds, hands, feet, and voices. We are the bearers of true and genuine faith, that gift given in relationship that allows our frail and imperfect selves to act in ways that can truly be magnificent and glorious.
So in fact, the size of our faith, the size of the gift of grace we each have been given is not what matters at all…what matters is the degree to which that faith becomes a window or a door through which God can work through our lives. If a tree needs to be uprooted, or if as it says in Matthew’s gospel a mountain needs to be moved…and if it is desired by God, then it can be done through our faith if we let God act in and through us. Our faith is about letting God act through us for God’s good.
If on the other hand we see our own ‘’measure of faith’ as those first disciples did…if we somehow look at faith as an indicator of God’s pleasure with us, or of how much God may trust us to do the “big things” of the faith, then we have truly missed the mark. Faith is not a badge given for good attendance or bible-verse smarts, or for any other thing we may have been able to accomplish as a result of our own attempts to live righteous life. Any faith we have, is a gift of grace freely and unconditionally given…not because we deserve it, but because of God’s great love for and hope in us. It is, as we hear in Hebrews chapter 11, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.”
Faith is the substance of, the tangible evidence of what God is doing through each of us to make a difference in the world in which we live. It is that which God does through divine impulse using our individual human strength and energy to cause righteousness to bloom in the deserts of human struggle and despair. It is not necessarily something that we may see or understand in advance, in fact we may have no idea of the results that may emerge from a particular holy action. Rather, true faith is the action of God in the moment, as it occurs within our yielded life.
So indeed, those occasions may come, in fact they may at times seem to be somewhat constant, in which we ourselves or someone near to us may stumble or miss the mark. It is normal, it is human, and it is the lived experience of all who are honest with themselves. The challenge we hear from Jesus is to ever and always step up to those situations, willing to first lovingly correct, and then to offer forgiveness…not once…not twice…but rather as many times as are needed in order to preserve the unity of Christian fellowship and community. Even when it involves someone close to you, of whom you would never expect it, in fact particularly when it is someone close to you, we must stand ready to extend the forgiving love of God in seeking the good of all and for all. Our call then should not be, “Lord increase our faith!”, but rather, “Lord, help us to live into the gift of faith already given…that we might not only reflect the love you have given us but in fact allow your very presence to invade and to reside between us and with us, each and every moment of our waking lives. May it ever be so…amen and amen