Pentecost 17 Proper 22 C Luke 17:5-10 October 6, 2019
The disciples said to Jesus, "Increase our faith." Now I suppose being with Jesus all the time might give you a very inflated idea of what kind of faith everyone is supposed to have. They may felt that they had to have faith that would be equal to His. From what we know now this would be difficult if not impossible.
But Jesus should have picked a difficult way of responding to them. Over the years He has been misunderstood. In fact, His answer to their question it has been used to support some very crude theologies of faith. Especially when you take it literally. It has been used to distort faith into some kind of magic.
"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".
Jesus apparently pointed to the nearest tree and made up the most fantastic event He could think of to describe the power of faith. He could just as easily have said "turn this tree into a rabbit."
Of course, Luke does not mean to make faith look like magic. He is speaking in metaphor. But what the theologians find self-evident may not be so clear to us. This is a god time to ask, what is faith, anyway? What is Jesus trying to say about faith in this verse?
At the very least, Jesus is saying that faith is not something we can measure or quantify. The apostles had just asked Him to, "Increase our faith!" (verse 5). It is an understandable and well-intended request, especially when we consider what Jesus has just told them: "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" (Luke 17:4)
In other words, you do not stop offering forgiveness to someone who sins against you and then asks for forgiveness. To be able to take that teaching seriously, we all would as for "more" faith?
Jesus' response suggests that the apostles' request is a big misunderstanding of how important and effective even a little bit of faith is. He explains the difference of quantity to the question of sufficiency. Faith, even the size of a mustard seek is sufficient for even the most demanding tasks you will ever face as a Christian.
The mustard seed was known to be very small (1-2 millimeters in diameter) and it grew to be a very large, unruly bush. It was the perfect example for a small beginning leading to a big result.
The point of Jesus' metaphor, His example, is not to measure faith as much as to affirm its power. God works through a little faith to empower us to achieve amazing results. We even have the patience to forgive even the most annoying, repetitive sinners.
To make His point even clearer Jesus introduces a second illustration that also has built in problems. The slave who works very hard without the expectation of special treatment. We might see it as an association between being a disciple and thankless drudgery: "Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?"
It is one thing to see a disciple as a servant/slave who obeys his or her master. That is a common example in the New Testament. but do we have to paint such a dismal picture? Are obedient disciples just "worthless slaves" (verse 10a)?
So, what can we earn from today's Gospel reading? an understanding that will not be misunderstood. Obedience to Jesus is not, in and of itself, something to be regarded ("we have only done what we ought to have done," (verse 10b). Discipleship with Jesus has its own rewards, fellowship with our God and our neighbor).
Second, we should keep in mind that scripture frequently connects obedience with joy. Especially when we see obedience as an entering more deeply into fellowship with God, it is not hard to see how obedience even fosters joy. Luke is the last person to see discipleship as drudgery.
The bottom line is, forgiveness is among everyday work of discipleship. It is quite ordinary, nothing special. Forgiving the most repetitive (but repentant) sinner is more extraordinary tan the slave tending the sheep or preparing dinner.
When it's all said and done, then, this passage presents "faith" less in terms of our assent to Christian doctrine and more in terms of our steadfast devotion to Jesus--that is, the Christian life itself. In a culture enamored by sensationalist news it is easy to question our faith when it does not feel extraordinary. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with a mountaintop experience. But the most mundane act of faith carries extraordinary potential for transforming the world into the image of its Creator.
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