The disciple’s question doesn’t come out of nowhere. Jesus has been piling on the past few weeks. In chapter 14 Jesus strode into a banquet at the home of a leader of the Pharisees and said, you have invited all of the wrong people. Don’t invite your friends, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. That is a feast fit for the kingdom of God! The exalted will be humbled, don’t you worry. The humble will be exalted. So therefore, none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. He follows with a bunch of difficult parables that speak both of the extravagant grace of God, and of the narrow way that leads to life.1
In this immediate context, verse 5, “Increase our faith!” doesn’t come out of the blue. In verses 1-4 – right before today’s text begins – he tells the disciples that they must keep forgiving the same person who sins against them again and again and again – even 7 times in the same day.2 You MUST forgive. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he needs us to understand how hard it is going to be.
I think they are beginning to get it. “Increase our faith!” the apostles cry out in response. AHHH! Jesus. Help. We’ve got a lot on us already, you keep asking more. We’re not sure we have more in us. Sharon Ringe notices the shift in language here from disciple to apostle – these are key leaders with experience, who have done this before.3 Increase our faith, Jesus! Maybe you’ve felt that way. Tired. Worn. I remember seeing a friend in seminary in the library at the end of a long week. You alright, brother, you look tired. I’m not tired, Chris, he said. I’m weary. Maybe that’s something you know. Work and life feels like about as much as you can bear. Maybe you’re caring for someone you love who is sick. Maybe you are crushed by grief.
I’m weary looking at our world. I confess I wanted to be a good citizen and watch the presidential debate Monday night but I couldn’t. I’m weary of the lack of substantive conversation and the mindless newscycle. I’m weary of protestors in the streets… I’m not weary of the protestors themselves – I want anyone from anywhere to speak out, that is one of the things I love about this country. But the weariness I have seen in Charlotte or Baltimore or Ferguson is, from my limited perspective, less about specific cases than a deeper grief, a sense of worthlessness among many in the African American community who are weary from their children dying, from systemic poverty, from breakdown in their communities, and from the rest of us, maybe especially us white folks, saying, it will be fine. Just work harder. We must be in this together. And our leaders argue and preen, and we don’t listen to each other, and the poor stay poor and children here and in Syria die and there’s plenty that makes us weary, like the disciples were.
Jesus looks those tired leaders in the eye and says, “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.” According to the Greek experts the phrasing here is, as one scholar noted, not a “condition contrary to fact” but rather a “condition according to fact.” It’s not, “IF you had such faith you could do something, but since you do not have the faith you can’t.”4 It is more accurately: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed [which you do have], you could say to this mulberry tree. . .” Jesus is not chastising the disciples for their lack of faith, but saying that even a tiny bit of authentic faith which they already have is more powerful than they can possibly imagine. Fred Craddock says, “Even the small faith they already have cancels out words such as “impossible” (a tree being uprooted) and “absurd” (planting a tree in the sea) and puts them in touch with the power of God.”5 They do not need to have Jesus increase their faith, as in to give them more. They need to trust in the power of the faith they already have.6 They don’t need Jesus to give them something they don’t have. They need to trust in the power of the faith already planted in their hearts.
Jesus gives us this nice moment, though, then ruins it. Who among you, Jesus says, would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing the field, come sit with me at dinner? Rhetorically, the intent is to have the listener say, “None of us. We’d never do that!” In moments like these I’d prefer for Jesus to transcend history, reach beyond the all-too-historically-rooted references to slavery as an assumed part of life, references we are only just beginning to wrestle with. No, Jesus says. You’d tell that slave to do his job, to do what he was supposed to do. Again, this leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I think it’s important to name that. But I also think that Jesus was trying to use this example to send a message to those weary apostles. Jesus does not offer pastoral care, he says that following me, loving, serving, seeking justice, THAT IS YOUR JOB. There are no days off, no time-outs, no moments when I let you off the hook. Jesus is fierce, relentless, clear. Like the slave, don’t ask me to thank you for what you are supposed to do. I have given you enough. GET TO WORK.
I like thanking people. That’s why we do things like Teacher Appreciation Sunday at the end of the Church School year, Music Appreciation around the same time. We send thank you notes, stop people in the hall. The ministry you do is wonderful. It’s my job to be here, but so many evenings and weekends you all are here with me, digging in, caring, and its magnificent. Thanking people for faithful service is good manners, but also part of what it means to be a community. I don’t know anyone who teaches Church School or sings in the choir because they know they’ll get their name in an insert in May. But in an age where we are all busy and burnout is real and so many of us are committed to many things, thanking people isn’t an extra, but an important part of the ways we care for each other.
I remember growing up and complaining to my parents that some of my friends got paid by their parents for making good graders. They said to me: We’re not going to pay you for things we expect you to do. Jesus isn’t going to thank us for doing what we are called to do. You don’t serve for that warm fuzzy feeling that only sometimes comes when you serve the poor, you do so because Jesus has reminded you that the man living in the woods off 15-501 is your brother, and he is hungry. You worship and pray not only for the music which lifts you up, or the sermon that is occasionally helpful. You do so because God calls the community together, week after week.
One of you sent me a note about an article in the paper last Sunday. Steve and Laura Swayne hosted a five-star feast at their home in West Raleigh Friday night before last – a semi-formal affair with filet mignon, asparagus and cinnamon ice cream. But it was the guest list…the addict who survived Raleigh’s crack houses; the mother who endured its winters in a tent, the jobless man who bunked on any spare sofa. They arrived in coats, ties, and borrowed gowns.
The idea came to the Swaynes from Jesus, from a parable in Luke from a few weeks back that he heard at his Methodist Church in Raleigh, using the lectionary like we do. In the parable, a wealthy man throws a party but finds his well-heeled friends too busy to attend. So he tells his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor, and the crippled, the blind and the lame… Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” The Swaynes asked some friends to help them with the guest list straight from the shelter, picking them up in a van and delivering them to the door. The article tells some of those folks’ stories, but also how the street preacher and the drug addict, the woman who lived in a tent behind a grocery store, sat around a table.7 And at that table, if you turned your head the right way, you could see something of the kingdom of God.
Sometimes I worry that all of these texts, especially as we’ve settled into this difficult run in Luke, get reduced to things that challenge us but also leave us where we are. We couldn’t do anything like that, Jesus. It’s too hard. It’s not practical. That was back then. BUT, what if Jesus is saying to us, to each and every one of us, “You are enough.” Not, IF you only believed a little bit, you’d be able to do something. But IF you used the faith you already have, the gifts you already have, the money and the time and the talent you all have in spades, the courage already within you. You don’t need a thank you note, you need to use the seed of faith planted in your heart. Imagine what God might do through you then.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. This sentence comes from the Rev. Andrew Foster Conners paper on this text at The Well, 2013, Baltimore.
2. Also from Andrew’s paper.
3. WBC: Luke, by Sharon Ringe, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), 218-219.
4. Ringe, 219.
5. Fred Craddock, Luke, (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 200.
6. I am indebted to Andrew’s paper for much of this paragraph.
7. In Raleigh, a five-star feast for the homeless who survived, The News & Observer. With thanks to Carol Walker for pointing me to this article.