a mustard seed faith, why smaller is actually better

Luke 17:5-10

The disciples said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord 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. 7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

The disciples ask Jesus: ‘increase our faith!’

You can hear in their request a burning desire to have more faith.  This is a very natural and human response, especially if you look at the verses right before these.  They are all about forgiveness and the difficulties of human relationships in community.  Jesus is teaching the disciples how to live with one another.  He says, don’t be a stumbling block for one another, when something happens between you forgive one another and repent, i.e. be open to transformation.

He also gives this incredibly difficult teaching: if the same person sins against you 7 times a day, forgive them 7 times a day.

The next verse is the disciples begging Jesus, ‘increase our faith!’  Which makes sense right.  Forgive a person 7 times in the same day.  Increase my faith!

The question we should ask ourselves is this: what is the disciples’ motivation?  What is at the heart of their request?  Maybe if we understand what’s at the heart of their request it can help us to understand Jesus’ response…that bit about the mustard seed.

At the heart of the disciples’ request of Jesus seems to me to be this very human understanding of the world and our lives: that more is better than less, acquiring is better than losing, bigger is better than smaller.  It’s a consumer-driven understanding of spirituality. 

The disciples are bond by a conditional understanding of their lives and their world especially when it comes to their relationship to God.  They are saying: Jesus we just need more faith and if we had more faith then we would and could finally get it.

As a pastor, I have to say that I identify with the disciples, personally, and I see it in my work.  We are still bound by the law although we say we live by grace.  In other words, we still think in an if….then…. conditional manner.

As a special function of my vocation, I sit with people who are walking through various life circumstances and struggles.  I cannot tell you how often I hear people say, I just wish I had more faith, if only I were more connected to God, if only I believed more, if only I knew how to pray, if only I gave more to the church, if only, if only, if only.

I totally get this because 9 times out of 10 it’s my modus operandi too.  If only I could do or say or be the right thing then I could finally experience salvation, healing, wholeness, contentment.

In the church, we suffer from this same thing communally.  We long for the glory days when all was well when business was booming when as a society we had a faith surplus when people came to church and the world was perfect and everyone was blessed.

And yet, during these great times of religious prosperity, the world was fraught the same issues and corporate sinfulness that we experience today.  Racism, poverty, sexism, hunger, hatred, etc.

And yet, we say sometimes, God we wish things were the way they used to be when our church was bigger and better, if we could only get back to that place everything would finally be ok, increase our faith!

Jesus response to this request is the spiritual teaching of the mustard seed, a tiny seed which grows into a tremendous shrub.  He says if you have faith that is the size of a tiny seed it is enough.

If you trust at all in that which is greater than you, the holy one, the divine, the mover of all things, it is enough… if you have an active and engaging relationship with God which is full of doubt and longing and yearning for more and more and more, you already have more than enough, not because of who you are, but because of who God is.

If you have a little bit of faith, a little bit of trust, it’s better than having the biggest, best, really super shiny kind of faith.

There’s this saying I heard recently, ‘you only want more of what’s not working’.  If you are craving more and more of something, it probably ain’t working.  More money, more stuff, more Facebook likes, more admiration, more, more, more.

Jesus telling us that less is more.  He says even a hint of trust or movement toward that which is greater than us is more powerful than we can even imagine.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, smaller is actually better.

Ok, so now onto the whole part about worthless slaves.  It’s a weird part of the text which to us seems foreign and strange and surprisingly un-Jesus like.  Here’s my interpretation of the text, backed by some commentators:

When we are connected with God through faith, we are who we are and it’s enough, even if we are ‘worthless’ by the world’s standards.

When Jesus’ asks the question, ‘

do you thank a slave for doing what the slave was commanded?’

he is getting at the heart of this spiritual issue: believing that we can or should earn our salvation.  The slave in this parable is functioning under this assumption that if he/she works hard enough they can finally receive their master’s favor, their gratitude, their blessing.  If they just work harder they will be enough.

But Jesus paradoxically says, no that’s not the way it works in the kingdom.  Someone who is spiritually grounded, rooted in God’s grace, can even say something as extreme and crazy sounding to us as this ‘we are worthless slaves, we’ve have done only what we ought to do.’

When we read this we need to pull ourselves back from this one passage and remember the larger story, remembering that Jesus places himself in this category of people.  He said, the son of man didn’t come to be served but to serve, he said if you want to be my follower you must be last of all, not first.

This parable is right along with these teachings in getting us to move beyond our categories of honor and shame, prestige or disrepute.

Jesus is trying to move us beyond our mind-frames which want to earn our salvation and fix ourselves, beyond the narrative of the world which tells us that we need more and more and more in order to be content and satisfied.

Jesus is reminding us of the gift of grace, the gift of our worthiness in the midst of worthlessness.

Jesus’ teaching here is along the same lines as St. Paul when he writes to the Corinthians, ‘therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness so that Christ’s power may rest in me, that is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, I am strong.’

We might re-work that to say when I am worthless I have unbelievable worth.

May God grant us a faith, a trust which is tiny, so tiny it can transform us and our world.

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