“Lord, increase our faith!”
Sunday 6 October 2013
Church of the Ascension – The Anglican Church in Hilton, KZN
Gospel: Luke 17: 5-10
(Read vv 1-10)
[As always, with grateful thanks to many sources for ideas and well-expressed phrases]
According to Luke, Jesus tackles the issue of trying to earn favour from an unexpected angle. Is there anything wrong with the disciples asking, “Lord, increase our faith!”? It seems like an excellent thing to ask.
But this request had a context: Jesus has previously talked about the high standards of behaviour expected of them. He says that if they do or say things which cause other people to stumble in their discipleship, then they’d be better off being thrown into the sea – modern Mafia-style – wearing concrete boots. And he goes on to say that when other believers sin, we are to be straight with them and call them to account – something that these days we are allergic to doing.
Then he says that if another Christian wrongs us and then asks our forgiveness, we are to forgive them, and we are to go on forgiving them even if they do the same thing seven times in the day and keep asking forgiveness.
If it were me, before they even got to the seventh time, I’d conclude that they didn’t really mean it and would be very worked up about it, but Jesus says that’s none of my business. I am to keep taking their repentance at face value and go on forgiving them. So when faced with this sort of superhuman expectation, the disciples throw up their hands in exasperation and say, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Jesus is dismissive of their request. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” and that just leaves us feeling inadequate.
But when Jesus says “if you had enough faith you could move mountains”, his point is that you don’t and you can’t. He is almost mocking the idea.
He is saying you don’t need more faith; faith is not something you can build up extra reserves of, to enable you to do miraculous things. [A bit like before our twins were born and people with children already told us to “store up sleep in a bottle” for the sleep-deprived nights that would surely follow. Really helpful advice!!!]
Faith is not a thing that you can have measurable amounts of, more or less. Faith is something you do. Get on with living with integrity and loving one another and stop trying to measure your performance on some sort of faith meter.
But then Jesus turns the idea back on itself and uses an illustration which doesn’t immediately seem to be about faith and how we go about exercising it sufficiently. He points to the example of a person who owns a slave and how you don’t go out of your way to shower the slave with gratitude every time they do their job. So it is with us, he says. When we have done all God requires of us, we should simply say, “We are only slaves, and we have only done our job – nothing special.”
We might be uncomfortable at this illustration, as if Jesus somehow supports the institution of slavery. It is hard for us to understand a society that took slavery for granted – it wasn’t necessarily brutal, but it certainly involved one person owning others and the slave wasn’t a free person at all. But Jesus often used common aspects of life to illustrate something.
Perhaps another illustration would help here. How many of you have ‘phoned Umngeni Water just to thank them for keeping the water supply coming to your taps? No, I haven’t either. Why not? Is it because we are ungrateful? Or is it because we expect that they will do what they are paid to do and we are entitled to take it for granted?
Or for those who are married: Do you make a special point of thanking your spouse every week for not having an affair with someone else? You may well be thankful that they didn’t, but if you needed to say it all the time, it would probably indicate insecurity and distrust rather than loving gratitude. You have made commitments to one another and you both have a right to expect those commitments to be honoured.
Jesus is saying the same thing. If we are committed to God, we are not owed any special thanks or favours simply for doing what we said we would do, or for fulfilling the normal expectations of any follower of Jesus.
The connection to the question about getting more faith is not obvious here, but I think what Jesus is doing is not so much discussing the question as unmasking the motivation behind it. We think that the tough demands of accountability and forgiveness are the hard part of what Jesus has to say, but Jesus is turning it back and saying that the reason we find that so hard is because we have even more trouble with the basic nature of our relationship with God.
What Jesus is exposing is the false belief that we can earn God’s love and grace. Even though I might understand the theology of grace, and be able to stand here and preach about it, in the inner workings of my motivations and expectations, I strive to please God and earn God’s love. We live in a society driven by an expectation that nothing good is ever given for free, and that good things only come to those who prove that they deserve them.
The double edged message of Jesus in this passage is just about the hardest thing in the whole gospel, yet it is at the heart of the good news. On the one hand, Jesus is telling me that I am absolutely right: The standards required to please God and earn God’s love are unattainable. They are always out of reach. If I used every ounce of strength and determination and understanding I will ever have in my life, I could still do nothing more than my basic duty as a Christian. I could still never exceed the basic expectations of faithful discipleship. I would still be just another worthless slave who has done nothing more than my job and has done nothing worthy of special rewards.
That half of the truth leaves me still desperately hungry for the affirmation I crave.
Jesus is preparing us for the good news, telling us that our efforts to earn God’s love and grace are not the gospel at all. They are more like pagan religion, little different from sacrificing an animal to the gods to ensure good crops. They are an attempt to purchase God’s favour, to pay the price that will put God in my debt and oblige God to give me what I (think I) have earned.
But God’s love and favour are given as a free gift in abundance. Whether we do anything God asks of us or nothing God asks of us, God loves us and offers us more joy and security and freedom than we could ever imagine. To quote that wonderful summary of it, used by various writers: There is nothing we can do that could make God love us more, and nothing we could fail to do that would make God love us less.
If God’s love and grace are sheer gift and not something I can earn and control, then I must stand empty-handed and vulnerable before God. I am utterly dependent, and unable to gain what I most need by my own efforts. I must put my trust in God, knowing that God does not owe me anything.
When we stand up to recite one of the Creeds of our faith, it is not in order to impress God with our sincerity. When we pray for the world, it does not earn us points for diligence and effort. And when we hold out our hands to receive the communion bread, it is not because it is some kind of spiritual steroid to build up our faith and enable us to perform at a higher level.
We do these things because God has sacrificed everything for us and poured out love and mercy and grace on us in lavish abundance, more than we could ever comprehend, more than our hungering hearts could ever consume. And we do these things to write the gospel story into our hearts and minds, from there to act it out, and to drink deeply from God’s mercy and grace.