If Only

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The 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.
—Luke 17:5-6

In the first part of Luke 17, there are four sayings of Jesus that appear here together, but which could probably be talked about independently, because each of them is important.

Occasions for stumbling are
bound to come
...  [Luke 17:1]
 the first one, Jesus tells his followers that something is forbidden, and that’s that they not to trample on the faith of the weak—or, more broadly put, we’re not to stand in the way of one another’s relationship with God.

If the first saying was something forbidden, the second one was a requirement: and this was forgiveness. And the forgiveness that Jesus describes is a rather illogical forgiveness, for it goes beyond what we usually think of as “advisable”.

The fourth saying is a bit rough around the edges, I think. It tells us that we might be able to do our duty for God, but that we cannot go above and beyond. Anything we do is done as service to the One to whom we owe service.

If these four sayings are tied together at all, then, I think it’s the third saying that is the link. This one comes as a response to the request made by the disciples (here called apostles): “Lord, increase our faith.”

...you must forgive. [Luke 17:4]
The request made at this point seems a little odd. It doesn’t at first glance seem to relate directly to what comes before or what comes after. But when we look at it more closely, it really does make sense in context. Jesus has just finished telling his followers two things that must’ve been hard to hear: Not only did he warn them about the consequences of meddling with what somebody else believes in, but he also told them that to do so was to commit a horrible wrong.

I think about this sometimes. It’s my job to talk about faith. And a lot of what I do is meant to encourage people in their faith. But sometimes our faith is misguided, and sometimes it leads us to do things that aren’t all that great. And so it’s also my job to upset the apple cart. My sermons are usually meant to challenge my own faith as much as they’re meant to challenge others—but still, I worry that I may be doing what’s forbidden when I try to guide people away from something they might believe in. It’s not my intention to be a stumbling block—indeed it’s often my intention to help people realize that, even in the midst of doubt there is belief, that even in the midst of sin there is forgiveness, and that even in the midst of rejection there is acceptance. But what if my attempt at helping to clear the path to a deeper faith actually places a stumbling block in the middle of it instead? I’ve seen millstones in museums. I don’t want to wear one as a pendant.

You could say to this mulberry
tree, ‘Be uprooted...'
[Luke 17:6]

The next saying is no easier. Maybe it’s actually harder. It’s the one in which Jesus tells us we have to forgive… over and over again, if necessary. This is great if we’re the ones doing the sinning. But if we’re the person who stays on the straight and narrow way (something especially difficult to do, since there’s always some well-meaning preacher placing stumbling blocks in our path), it’s beyond annoying to have to keep forgiving somebody who doesn’t even seem to be trying. Jesus knew all about being annoyed, as does God. We’re created in God’s image, and if we can spend our lives annoying God with our constant wrongdoing, then apparently Jesus expects us to show the same consideration to our fellow human beings as God shows us.

Because both of the above sayings were, in fact, so hard, the disciples asked for what they needed to get them done: they asked Jesus, “increase our faith,” for that’s what it was going to take.

And here Jesus’ answer seems odd at first, but it’s actually very sensible, and I think we can put it to use in our own lives. With even the tiniest amount of faith, he said, you can do mighty things. He used plants to illustrate his point—a mustard seed and a mulberry tree. And what he says seems no more possible than never being a discouragement and always forgiving. But think about it: We want the faith of miracles, but we seldom take what faith we do have and act on it. We want to end injustice, but what steps do we take to reach the goal? We want to close down internment camps on the border, but we’re sitting in a slightly too-warm sanctuary a thousand miles from the nearest one. We want to create all kinds of change, but we don’t want to leave our houses. Or our cars. Or our shopping centers. Or get off the internet. With faith the size of a mustard seed, we could start digging at the roots of injustice. And once we start digging, who knows where it would end?

Prepare supper for me,
put on your apron and
serve me...   
[Luke 15:8]
The final saying, I think, depends heavily on the third one, for we so often expect a reward for doing what we should do. But Jesus is taking the miraculous out of the realm of miracles and placing it in the matter-of-fact world of doing our duty. “Hey, Jesus, look at what I did! My faith just uprooted that mulberry tree!” …to which Jesus appears to be replying, “You played the part you needed to play. Now go help your neighbor weed her garden.”

I’m talking about all this on a day we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We all know the expression: You are what you eat. So when we eat this bread and we drink this cup, we are eating and drinking the One who was love, the one who was the way, the truth, and the life. And when we eat and drink those things, we are consuming all that they stood for, all that Jesus intended them to mean for us and for the whole world. We are eating faith, hope, and love We are drinking forgiveness, justice, and peace. And if that’s what we eat and drink, then that is what we become. Jesus told his followers, “With even the smallest amount of faith, you can work wonders.” So can’t you almost hear him saying the night before he died when he shared the bread and wine, “If only you become just a tiny bit of what you eat and drink tonight, you can truly love, you can faithfully serve, and you can continually forgive.” If only…
—©2019 Sam L. Greening, Jr.