Luke 17:5-10 (NIV)
5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
7″Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”
Our challenging walk through Luke continues today! I don’t know about you, but I never realized just how challenging Luke really is. Maybe you are like me and you have read these verses a hundred times, but you have never really taken the time to think about how these passages are tied together. The challenge to me seems to be to find a continuous thread from one passage to the next as we seek to find out what Jesus intended to teach his original hearers and what Luke intended to pass on to the next generation by including these passages in his gospel.
Today’s passage is a challenge because there seems to be no continuity from one verse to the next. This seems to be ADD Jesus coming through again as he goes from one thing to the next without taking a breath. And this is how most of the commentaries treat it as well. They will usually address verses 5 & 6 as one section and then 7-10 as a totally separate section. But I tend to think that Jesus had a little better attention span than we give him credit for. Often what we miss when we read through the Bible is that the authors are weaving together long and complex thoughts through multiple examples, parables, and stories.
We have been looking at passages about the shrewd manager and the Rich Man and Lazarus over the last couple of weeks. And just as I said that these passages have been tough for us to understand and live out, I believe that the same thing was true for the disciples when they first heard these teachings. These passages were hard to understand back then, and they were difficult to live out back in Jesus’ day as well. And that is why the disciples approach Jesus in verse five and request that he increase their faith. They have their doubts. They doubt their ability to do what Jesus is calling them to do, and they may even begin to doubt if Jesus is the guy that they thought that he was.
Jesus replies to their request for more faith by telling them that if they only had faith the size of a mustard seed that they could cast a mulberry tree into the sea. And lets be honest, who doesn’t want to cast a mulberry tree into the sea. I stay up all night just wishing that I could go about relocating trees into a new aquatic habitat.
We know that the mustard see is extremely small but perhaps you are like me and you don’t know anything about mulberry trees. The only thing that I know about mulberry trees is that they also come in bushes and sometimes monkeys will chase weasels around them. Well it turns out that mulberry trees would do very well in a dry summer like the one that we are just coming out of because mulberry trees have extensive root systems that allow them to suck up any moisture that is near to them. You should not plant a mulberry tree close to a garden or perennial plants because the mulberry tree usually out-competes the other plants for the available water. Also, you should not plant mulberry trees near a concrete or blacktop driveway because their strong root systems will grow under the hard surface and break it up.
So this is why Jesus uses the mulberry tree in this example. The mulberry tree isn’t any heavier than comparable sized trees, but it is so well rooted that it would have been nearly impossible to uproot the thing, let alone uproot it and throw it in the sea. But Jesus is saying that if you have faith, only a little bit of faith, the things that seem impossible become possible.
Let’s look at this again. The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, and what does he tell them? He doesn’t say, Sure, I’ll increase your faith. I’ll take away any doubt that you might have. I’ll prove once and for all right here and now that I am the Christ. Nope, he says, all you need is a little bit of faith, and you can do what you once thought was impossible. And guess what? You already have a little faith.
This is how I have always heard this passage interpreted, so imagine my surprise when I read a commentator who wrote that there is no such thing as having a little faith and having a lot of faith. He said that faith is like being pregnant. You can’t be a little pregnant. You either are or you are not pregnant. You either have faith or you do not have faith.
I thought about this a fair bit this past week and I think I understand what this person was trying to communicate by saying that there is no such thing as having a little bit or a lot of faith, and I think I am starting to understand. As I read through this passage in several different versions, I noticed that not all translations say that all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed. And what the original Greek actually says is that we are to have faith “as a mustard seed” and then we can throw around those mulberry trees. But what does it mean to have faith as a mustard seed? Does a mustard seed have faith?
I am pretty sure that Jesus isn’t trying to say that we need to have faith like the mustard seed has faith, and I don’t know that this is a reference to the size of the faith that we are to have. I think that this is a reference to the kind of faith that we are to have. What do we know about the mustard seed? It starts out extremely small and it grows extremely big; so big that the birds can nest in it.
So in reference to the commentator that said that there is no such thing as having a little bit of faith or a lot of faith, I think that he is right. Faith isn’t measured by the number; faith is measured by the size. We can have a small faith or a big faith.
What we don’t know from our scripture then is if Jesus gave them the increase in faith that they were looking for. Did he help their mustard seed sized faith grow as tall as the trees? I don’t think that he did.
Jesus launches into this parable that seems to be totally unrelated. He tells them to imagine that they had a servant that was out working. Either they were plowing or they were watching sheep, it doesn’t really matter what they were doing, but they were working. When they come in from working, are they told that they can take the rest of the evening off? No, there is still more work to be done. They are the ones that are to prepare the evening meal. And it is only after they have done everything that they are supposed to do, it is only when all of their work is done that they are able to reap the benefits of all of their hard work and enjoy a nice evening meal.
I think that this parable is related to the disciples asking for Jesus to increase their faith. The disciples have agreed to be followers of and laborers for Jesus. They will work to bring his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. But yet in spite of all that they have seen and heard, they still have their doubts. And I find that amazing! They have seen this man cure leprosy and blindness. They have seen him walk on water and they have seen him transfigure and have a conversation with Moses and Elijah. They have heard him speaking day after day, week after week, and yet they have their doubts about this Jesus guy and they doubt whether or not they will be able to rise to the occasion and do the things that Jesus is calling them to do. And Jesus says you don’t need a lot of faith, just a mustard seed faith.
The point of the parable is to inform them of just how their faith will grow big and strong like a mustard seed. When they ask Jesus to increase their faith, they seem to be saying, “Show us a sign. Prove that you are the Messiah beyond a shadow of a doubt.” But Jesus is saying, “That’s not how we do things around here.”
Now that the growing season seems to be over, it is good to reflect back on our flower and vegetable gardens to think about what we might have been able to have done differently to improve the yield and appearance of our crops. We have some perennials around our house and in the back yard, as well as annual crops in our garden. None of them did any good for us this year. And it isn’t hard to say what was the problem for our garden. We didn’t get enough rain and I didn’t feel like watering the garden as much as I should have.
We had a promising spring with ample amounts of water from the early rains. And when I planted the garden I had high hopes for what would come of it. But those hopes were never realized. Now if the plants in the garden would have grown to maturity and if they would have been ready to harvest immediately, I would have enjoyed the green beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, etc. that I planted. But these things take time. And over time, they were being robbed of the essential nutrients that they needed to grow. Yes, early on in the growing season, everything that they needed was present. But when the water became scarce, the vegetables stopped growing.
The mustard seed faith that Jesus is talking about is much like the vegetables in my garden. We want our faith to be big and strong. We want to trust God; we want to believe in and practice the things that Jesus talked about. And all that we need to be able to do that is a little bit of faith. And if we continue to provide the things that the faith needs to grow and develop, our faith will grow and develop. But if we hold back the essential nutrients, that faith will wither and die.
Like the disciples, we are tempted to ask God to just increase our faith, to help us to jump past these intermediate stages, to come to full maturity. But that isn’t how a mustard seed grows and that isn’t how faith grows. Growth takes time, growth takes effort, growth has some necessities.
So how does faith grow? By being faithful. Faithfulness leads to more faith, just like a mustard seed reproduces itself and makes more mustard seeds. When we step out in faith, when we risk our finances, our comfort, maybe even our own health and we find that in our faithfulness to God that God is faithful in return, that is when our faith will grow.
When Jesus tells his disciples this parable about the servants that are out working for a while and then they come in, he says that they don’t get to eat yet because they still have work to do. When they are finished with their work, then they are rewarded.
I know how tempting it is to want to have our faith strengthened in the middle of a difficult task, but that just doesn’t seem to be the way that God works. We want to have our supper while we are still working, and it makes good sense to me. We want our food in the middle of a difficult task because it will provide the energy, the nourishment, the very things that we need to go on. But that isn’t how we develop faith. Faith comes at the end of a job done in the name of Christ.
In Matthew 14, beginning in verse 13, we find the story that is commonly referred to as Jesus feeding the 5,000. Jesus was in a remote, deserted place teaching and healing the sick. Well the sun was going down and the disciples were starting to get worried. They kindly suggest that Jesus send away all of the people so that they can go into the nearest town to find food for themselves.
Jesus said to them that they need not send the people away. Instead, Jesus gave them a job to do. He said, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples check their pockets, they search under every rock, and pool all of the food that they have together and they come back to Jesus and they say, “We only have five loaves and two fish.”
I would guess that at this point, the disciples’ faith is pretty low. After all of that looking and scrounging around for food, they found enough to feed only a few people. But Jesus says to the disciples, “Give them to me.”
It is hard to imagine the position that the disciples were in. They didn’t know when and if they were going to be able to eat again. They didn’t know if it was going to be another long night of Jesus teaching the people and if they were going to go to be hungry that night. They had five loaves and two fish among them, and now Jesus was saying, “Give them to me.” I would be pretty tempted to tell Jesus to go and look for his own food.
But…they…didn’t. They had that faith the size of a mustard seed and they gave the loaves and fish to Jesus and he blessed them. And then he gave them back to the disciples and he told them to give them to the people. And I am sure that the disciples just kind of looked at the bread and the fish and they thought, “This isn’t going to go too far.” And I am sure that at that time that they would have loved to have some kind of sign from Jesus that this was going to work, just to make sure that they were not going to fail. I am also sure that they would have loved to have had a chance to stop and eat before their work was done. But they didn’t have that assurance until they were through. They didn’t know that they were not going to run out of bread and fish until the last of the 5,000 received their meal. But when they were done, their faith had surely grown from a mustard seed to a mustard tree.
Following Jesus would be a lot easier if every now and then God would do something miraculous to prove to us along the way that he truly is with us, that he truly is God, and that everything is going to be okay. But that isn’t how faith grows. We can’t circumnavigate the process and fast forward to the end. Faith grows through our faithfulness. And when we are faithful, that is when we see that God is faithful. That is when God will take that mustard seed faith and develop it into a mustard tree faith that can produce more little mustard seeds.
The next time you want to throw a mulberry tree into the ocean, the next time that you want to feed five thousand, the next time that you are being called by God to step out and do something that is out of your comfort zone, take the faith that you have, even if it is only the size of a mustard seed, and be faithful to your calling. Allow God to prove his faithfulness by your being faithful.