Luke 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a[a] mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 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’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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!’”
The beginning of this text seems to come out of nowhere. Why are the disciples asking for their faith to be increased? They are asking for more faith to be able to do what Jesus has just stated. Let’s read the verses right before this.
Jesus[a] said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 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. By little ones, Jesus could be referring to children, but he also could be referring to those new to the faith. Be on your guard! If another disciple[b] sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 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. This is a tall order. It is no wonder the disciples were alarmed. Not only must we rebuke or call out those who are on the wrong path. When they repent, we must forgive again, and again, and again.
The disciples felt like they needed extra power. They wanted to take Jesus to the bargaining table. Look Jesus, if you are going to require so much of us, you are going to have to provide us with the power to do it. They asked Jesus to increase their faith. His answer was not exactly what they were hoping for. Jesus explains that even having a tiny amount of faith one would be able to do amazing things. The example he gives is purposefully outlandish. He says with just a tiny amount of faith we could tell the mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the sea. Jesus is telling them they don’t need more faith. Any amount of faith is sufficient. Our abilities are not determined by the size of our faith, rather they are determined by the love of our God.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, those we least expect to have faith are often held up as examples of that faith. When the sinful woman pours ointment and kisses Jesus’ feet — to the dismay of all those in attendance, disciples and Pharisees alike, — Jesus not only forgives her sins but also says “your faith has saved you.” (7:50) Jesus says the same thing when he heals a blind beggar (18:42); again, with the Samaritan leper who comes back to thank him after he has been healed (17:19); still again to the woman who touches his cloak in order to be healed of hemorrhages (3:48). Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the disciples themselves often appear to lack faith. When they are in a boat with Jesus and a storm happens, they get so anxious that Jesus has to ask, “Where is your faith?” (8:25). Aware that Peter will betray him, Jesus prays that his faith will not fail him (22:32). We often distinguish between the faith that “moves mountains” or “mulberry trees” from our basic trust in God. Rather than two different kinds of faith, it is our trust in God that enables God to move the mountains. To have faith means having our whole way of perceiving and responding to life transformed by the abundance of God’s creative justice and power. What seems “impossible” for us is “possible” for God.
My first experience with such faith came from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, “What seemed at first a flimsy reed, has proved to be the loving and powerful hand of God. A new life has been given us or, if you prefer, “a design for living” that really works.”
Just in case we start feeling a little full of ourselves, Jesus goes on to talk about a Master and a slave. I have to remind myself to read this in the context in which it was written. In those days, having a slave was normal. That is how people worked off their debts. Jesus says if we were masters, we would treat a slave like a slave. We would not thank them for doing what is expected of them. We would not treat them with special regard. But as the lesson progresses, our point of view changes from that of the master to that of the slave. And as slaves we recognize our own lack of status and the fact that we are simply doing the work we are supposed to do. Jesus is explaining that just as there is no limit to what we are able to do through our faith in God, neither is there a limit to what we will be expected to do. As long as we have breath, we will be doing God’s work. We know from experience that doing the work of God is its own reward. But in this life, there will be no recognition. No brownie points, no gold stars, no slave of the month. We cannot level up. Jesus is telling us that this path of discipleship that we are on will not be easy. We will never feel like we’ve arrived, like we are finished. We will not feel accomplished. As soon as one task is complete, there will be another. There is no bargaining with God. There is no quid pro quo. But sometimes I live as if there were and I don’t even realize it.
Once I went on a trip to the Colorado River with my daughter, Kayleen, and the youth at my church. My pastor had property on the river and every year she took the youth group out. They had a boat and the kids learned to water ski, they slept under the starts, they all helped to prepare and clean up from meals. It sounded amazing. I was excited to be a driver and a chaperone. I drove a bunch of teens to the property and my husband, Karl was to meet me there with Kelly and our son Kyle. Kelly had a Taekwondo test she needed to take, and Kyle had a football game. I was so worried about them arriving safely I couldn’t sleep. Neither of us had ever been to this place before and it was late at night. I prayed for God to please help them travel safely. And then I thought that I am not proud of. I thought God, after all my family has done for you, you had better make sure they get here in one piece. As soon as that thought came into my head, I knew that was wrong. God doesn’t work that way. Rather than dwell on what my family had done for God, I began to recognize how much God had done for me and my family. That I even have a family is a gift from God. As often as we might try, God will not sit down at the bargaining table with us, and that is a very good thing.
There is only one kind of table God will meet us at. It is the table of Grace. The table we gather at today, where everyone is welcomed, and everyone is fed with the abundance of God’s love as shown to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today we come to the table with Christians all over the world. It is an act of solidarity; it is an act of resistance to the bargaining ways of the world. Amen