5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 He 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 has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
A man was running late for an important lunch meeting with a very high-powered client in New York City, and of course, he could not find a parking spot. So this man, who had never been much of a Christian, prayed, “God, if you will provide a parking spot for me I will change my ways. I’ll go to church regularly, I’ll give to the poor, and I’ll even try to get along with my mother-in-law.”
Just then, the man saw a car backing out of a spot right next to the front entrance to the restaurant. The man looked up to the heavens and called out, “Never mind, I found one.”
Today we are looking at faith and faithfulness. How much faith does one need to be a faithful servant? The answer might surprise you.
The apostles begin today’s text with a simple request of Jesus: increase our faith. That seems to me to be a pretty fair request. Every one of us has surely experienced the ups and downs of faith. We have a number of women in our congregation coming back from a Women’s Retreat last weekend and I would think that they are feeling filled with faith and ambition this week. I also know that there are some among us who have been struggling financially, relationally, and spiritually. Faith ebbs and flows. It goes up and down in large part because of the situations in our life. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me when I say that the things that we do and the things that happen to us have a great effect on our level of faith.
It would seem to me that the moment that we need the most faith is just before embarking on something new: a new job, a new home, a new responsibility, or a new ministry. To keep doing things exactly as you have been doing them really doesn’t require faith. It only requires consistency. So it is easy to see why the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. Things just got a little more difficult.
It is hard to say if Luke’s gospel is laid out in actual historical sequence or if the good doctor just chose to include a bunch of stories from the life and teachings of Jesus, throwing them together wherever they fit. But I like to assume that Luke is trying to say something by putting these stories in the order that we find them. And to understand Luke is trying to say, we need to look for an over-arching message through the last couple of chapters.
Luke 14 begins a new line of thought and historical events, so let’s assume that the stories between Luke 14 and 17 were meant to be read as a unit. Chapter 14 begins with Jesus attending a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. As he is there he and the religious leaders go back and forth with Jesus seeing this as a teaching opportunity. He says in verses 12-14, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
It seems clear to me that followers of Jesus should not expect rewards for the things that they do here on earth. In fact, he goes on to tell his disciples to expect the opposite of a reward. Expect to have to sacrifice. The end of chapter 14 talks about the cost of being a disciple of Jesus and the things that you will have to give up: money, power, perhaps even relationships. This teaching seems to provide the framework for the next few chapters.
Chapter 15 allows the disciples of Jesus to know how much they are loved, but from there on things just get challenging. They receive teachings on their responsibility to alleviate the poverty and suffering of others through the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Jesus gives them a challenging teaching about not causing others to stumble in their faith, even saying that it would be better to have a mill stone hung around their necks and thrown into the sea than to cause another to stumble. Then he gives one of the most challenging teachings in the Bible: forgive your brothers and sisters when they sin against you. Here he says that even if they sin against you seven times in a single day and come back to you in a spirit of repentance that the follower of Jesus must forgive.
So let’s recap these chapters quickly. Jesus says that his followers should not expect to receive rewards here on earth for following him. Instead, they are to expect things to be pretty rough at times. They need to help those that can’t help themselves, they need to provide positive guidance for others, and they need to forgive others that sin against them.
Is it any wonder that the apostles say, “Lord, we can’t do it on our own. Increase our faith!”?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Sure, I can do that. Watch me heal another sick person while I walk on water.” Nope, he says that they already have enough faith to get the job done.
You don’t need a lot of faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to pull up a mulberry tree by its roots and toss it into the sea. What the disciples were asking for was not faith. They were looking for assurance. They were looking for concrete evidence that if they followed Jesus and did as he commanded, they would be rewarded and everything would turn out okay. But concrete evidence and assurance don’t actually strengthen your faith. Concrete evidence and assurance are the opposite of faith.
Since I used the metaphor of concrete, let’s stick with that. Every time I go to visit my parents, we load up the car and cross the mountains, the valleys, and a few rivers along the way. The largest river that we cross is the Ohio River, which makes up the border between Ohio and West Virginia (and some others along the way). Of course, we drive across a bridge made of metal and concrete.
I looked up the weight of a Subaru Outback, and they have a curb weight, which means without fluids, cargo, or passengers, of about 1.5 tons. The gross weight, which includes those things, puts us over 2 tons – probably even more on the way back from grandma’s house!
Is it a step, or a drive, of faith to pull onto that bridge? How do I know that it will hold us? Even more, how do I know that it will hold all of the other cars and semi-trucks as well?
Sure, it takes a little faith to drive over that bridge, but really not too much. We’ve done it plenty of times before and we have seen many other cars drive over the bridge as well. We know that there have been engineers that spent many hours calculating how much the bridge would need to hold and what kind of upkeep it would need. The bridge is surely inspected on a regular basis. So we don’t even give it a thought. We just drive right across the bridge.
We don’t have faith in the bridge, we have concrete evidence that it will hold us. And this is what the apostles were asking of Jesus. They wanted the same concrete evidence. But Jesus said that all that they really needed to do the things he was calling them to do was to have faith the size of a mustard seed.
Now this is where things get a little bit weird and if someone has a better explanation or interpretation for what Jesus has to say, I am very open to learning from you — as I hope I always am.
Jesus begins to tell a story about a master and his servant, telling the parable in the second person. He invites his listeners to imagine that they have a servant that is out working the fields, maybe watching the sheep. The task is not important. Jesus asks the question, If that servant comes in from doing the work that he was supposed to do, does the master invite him to his table to eat? No, there is still work to be done. The food hasn’t even been prepared yet, so how could the servant be invited to eat with the master?
The first thing that I want to say is that this parable is not intended to reflect the personality of God. Remember that we started today by looking at Luke 14 where Jesus encourages his followers to invite the crippled, the poor, the lame, and the blind to their table. I can’t imagine that Jesus really expects his followers to dine with society’s outcasts, like he himself did, but that God refuses to allow his servants eat with him.
No, the master in this story is either the Pharisee who Jesus was dining with beginning in chapter 14 or some random followers of his. Recall that he is telling this parable in the second person, “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep.” Jesus’ first century, Jewish listeners would not think that this was a message about God because they wouldn’t dare to think of themselves as God or to compare themselves to God. That is blasphemous and idolatrous.
What Jesus was doing in this parable was using normal social protocol to illustrate his point. And in normal social protocol, a servant does just that, they serve. They don’t expect a generous gift or act of kindness in the middle of their work day. They don’t expect to be given something extra for all of their hard work.
I heard a story about a woman who approached her pastor one Sunday after he delivered his weekly sermon and asked him, “Pastor, what’s in it for me to live a life of faith?”
The pastor thought about it for a while and he promised the woman that he would have an answer for her the following week. And sure enough, the woman approached the pastor and asked him again.
Without flinching, the pastor said, “The reward for living a life of faith is getting to live a life of faith.”
I think that the most powerful testimony to Christianity is the fact that if I learned tomorrow that it was all a hoax, all made up, that there never was a Jesus and that there is no such thing as God, that I would still pretty much strive to live my life according to the teachings of Jesus. This whole concept of, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Forgive others just as you would like to be forgiven” is a gift to us in and of itself. We shouldn’t need more than that! The reward for living a life of faith is that we get to live life to its fullest as life was intended to be lived. And then we get the reward for having put our faith in Jesus.
Yet I think that there is still more to this text than just the apostles asking Jesus for faith and him telling them that they already have enough and telling them to get back to work. I believe that Jesus is also saying that if we desire an increase in faith, the best thing to do is to be faithful. Being faithful to Jesus will lead to an increase in faith.
We have come to the end of another busy Relief Sale weekend. For those of you who are not familiar with this event, churches from across the state of Virginia come together every year as the culmination of months of meetings, preparation, woodworking, baking, and sewing to donate these hand-crafted items to be auctioned off to support the work of Mennonite Central Committee.
I am always very proud – in a humble, Mennonite way – of our congregation and our level of participation in this event. Every year we have people helping in various capacities and it is pretty hard to not see the impact that our church has on this weekend. Just walking through the front gates and buying a donut is in a small way helping someone who is displaced by war or weather. Furthermore, we have been working for weeks to collect school kit for students that can’t afford pencils and paper, trying to give them the opportunity to improve their own life through education.
I know that many of us are tired, very tired, today. But I simply want to ask those of you who worked, donated, or attended the Relief Sale, what are you expecting to get out of it? Are you expecting a big pat on the back and a “thank you very much!”? I doubt it. Are you expecting some kind of financial gift for your help or perhaps some of those donuts delivered to your front door in the morning? Of course not. The strange thing is that with all of the work that goes into making the Relief Sale happen, there is really very little “reward” for our efforts. So why do you keep doing it, year after year? Because you know that it is the right thing to do. And furthermore, I know that when I participate, I get a boost in my faith. I know that I am serving God by serving God’s people and when I see so many people, people from vastly different backgrounds, working together for the common good, I get excited. I know that it is not just us human beings that are working, but it is indeed the Holy Spirit working through us. It is our faithfulness that increases my faith.
I came across a quote by a man named Joel Randymar this week. He says, “When you give and share and expect something in return, like a compliment, a simple thanks, a favor or whatever it is, then you are not really loving. You are actually doing business. Why? Because business is about expecting returns. Love simply delights in giving and sharing unconditionally.”
Out of love, expecting nothing in return, God became human and gave his life for us. When we chose to follow Jesus, we do indeed find a reward for ourselves at the end of this journey. But along the way there are going to be a lot of highs and a lot of lows, highs and lows that we will need faith to endure. It is by being faithful, by doing the things that Jesus has called us to that we will see God working in this world and through us, thereby increasing our faith. Faithfulness leads to more faith.