The apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
He 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.
“Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We’ve only done our duty.’”
One of the things I don’t like about the Lectionary is the way it chops up the context of the passages selected. I know we can’t read the entire context in a Sunday morning service but I also know it’s the only time some people hear or read the scriptures. And context is hugely important, especially in today’s gospel reading. As it reads, we don’t really know why the disciples exclaimed, “Increase our faith!” Why would they say that in that way? To find out, we’ve got to go back a bit.
In the previous verses (1-4), Jesus is continuing a conversation that started back in chapter 15. Because he hung out with all the wrong people, the religious elite that sometimes followed Jesus started complaining about those people and questioning Jesus’ devotion to Yahweh. In other words, Jesus didn’t fit the mold of what they thought a righteous person ought to look like.
And so, as we saw last week, Jesus told a series of stories about who’s welcomed
into God’s family. And it wasn’t the religious people. In fact, they’re almost always on the wrong side in Jesus’ stories. They’re the ones trying to keep out the people who desperately needed to be in God’s family. But, for whatever reason (and they had several to choose from), the religious elite deemed those people as being “unworthy.”
That’s one of the things I really like about Jesus—he tells stories from a lot of different angles to help people see what he’s getting at. But, every now and then, Jesus just plainly tells people what he means.
In the first four verses, Jesus said to his disciples—
“Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen, but how terrible it is for the person through whom they happen. It’d be better for them to be thrown into a lake with a large stone hung around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to trip and fall into sin. Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person” (Luke 17.1-4; adapted).
I can see Jesus staring at the religious elite in those first couple of verses (verses 1-2). People will trip and fall into sin. We all do it. But it seems that the religious elite of Jesus’ day were purposely keeping people out of God’s family. Whether that was through their actions or words or just their self-righteous sneers and stares, the people on the outside were being tripped up on what following God was supposed to be like.
This is still true today. Just turn on the news and we’ll see how religious elites of our day say or do things that create a stumbling block in the path of other people (think Westboro Baptist Church and the like). When religious elites force their beliefs on others through laws, people will be tripped up and fall (think supposed “pro-life” groups taking away the rights of women or people who continue to keep LGBTQ folk from marrying and other basic human rights).
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He turns to the disciples and tells them that they need to watch out, too (verses 3-4). The people who follow Jesus are supposed to be “forgiveness people.” In fact, Jesus says, even if people sin against his followers “seven times a day,” but asks for forgiveness, they’re to be forgiven (verse 4).
Now we can see why the disciples exclaimed, “Increase our faith!” Perpetual forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that Jesus talks about, takes more faith than the disciples think they have. That kind of forgiveness goes against (false) human nature.
But to be truly human requires very little faith. Jesus said that if the disciples had faith “the size of a mustard seed” they could do incredible things. Things they couldn’t even imagine. Seemingly impossible things.
But it’s not really incredulous or unimaginable or even impossible. It’s normative. That’s Jesus’ point in the short story that followed (verses 7-10). People following Jesus don’t deserve any “special praise” for their perpetual forgiveness and faith. That’s what’s expected. That’s what people who follow Jesus are supposed to look like. They’re supposed to be perpetually forgiving, all-loving, faith-filled, people who do good works towards God, neighbors, and supposed enemies. The reason they don’t deserve any “special praise” is because of God’s grace. They’re reflecting what humanity looks like in its truest form, in its true nature.
Just like Jesus.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC