October 6, 2013

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus’ disciples ask him to increase their faith, and he says that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could command a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would happen.

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about faith evokes our worst fears about not having enough faith. We all have doubts and Jesus seems to be saying that, if we are not able to move mountains, there is something wrong with us.

The sequel adds insult to injury. Jesus compares his disciples to indentured servants who make the mistake of expecting some thanks for their service. He tells them they should realize that they are "worthless slaves."

How are we supposed to deal with this? Where is God’s love, God’s generosity, God’s infinite care for us? Where is the Good news?

Yet, I believe there is tremendous Good News in this passage. It is always important to remember that Jesus is a master of irony. Like any good teacher, he does not hesitate to bring us face to face with our assumptions so we can question them.

Luke’s Jesus never talks about faith as a means to gain power over anything or anybody. Faith is a disposition that makes it possible for us to receive what God is already doing. Over and over again, Jesus commends the faith that opens the door to his own healing work.

Jesus’ response to the disciples challenges their motive in asking for more faith. It suggests that they see faith as a way of wielding power, of gaining control, of achieving their own goals.

But that is not how Jesus understands faith.

Jesus’ focus on faith in Luke has a certain "in your face" quality. There is a sense in which we are required to move beyond the safety and certainty of our own experience and our own reasoning, and embrace God’s goodness and God’s word for us in trust.

At the same time, Luke presents us with a Jesus whose words and actions are the concrete embodiment of God’s being, God’s character, and God’s will. So faith in God is not entirely a matter of believing what we cannot experience or figure out for ourselves. It is trusting this person Jesus who has brought the reality of God to us in flesh and blood.

This shifts the whole question of faith to a different level. For Luke, we are talking about a person held to be trustworthy on the basis of the coherence of his words and actions. Trusting another person involves observation, analysis, and discernment.

So when we do decide to trust someone – whether it be a parent, or a teacher, or an employee, or a political leader, or even God – no matter how much our trust is informed by rational assessment and common sense – the decision to trust is finally a leap in the dark.

In Luke faith involves a loss of control, a yielding of oneself into the hands of another, a movement out into deep water. Faith is about conviction, but it is not about absolute certainty. It is about trust, but it is most assuredly not about power. Faith is the acknowledgement that what matters most to us cannot be mastered by us.

This is why Luke’s Jesus is so exasperated with his disciples when they say, "Increase our faith." If faith is a matter of placing our trust in Jesus, how can there be talk of "more" faith or "less" faith? In the end we must cross the line and give ourselves over to Jesus on the basis of a trust that eludes complete rational justification.

So when Jesus’ disciples say, "Increase our faith," it is not surprising that Jesus says something quite uncharacteristic about faith. "If you had even as insignificant amount of faith as a mustard-grains’ worth, you could command this mulberry tree to throw itself into the sea, and it would do so."

When the disciples ask for a little more faith, they show it is not faith they are really talking about. They want a share in Jesus’ power. They want to be in charge of their own shop, to start their own business.

Jesus calls their bluff. If what they mean by faith is power, they are right – they haven’t any power at all. But they don’t have any faith, either, because, if they did, they would know that faith is not a commodity or a resource, but a way of life that involves a surrender of oneself to God.

Now it becomes easier to understand the rest of the passage, in which Jesus goes on to talk about how we are worthless servants.

Is Jesus suggesting that this is what our relationship with God comes down to? Of course not! Just a few chapters earlier in Luke, Jesus assures his disciples that, if they stay true to their mission as disciples, they will be like servants whom the master rewarded by serving them in turn: "Blessed are those servants whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly, I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them" (Luke 12:37). In today’s passage, Jesus is deliberately contrasting that vision, which is the culmination of God’s generosity and love, with the disciples’ vision, which begins with a bid for power but leads, by its own internal logic, to the loveless and heartless relation of master to slave.

In other words, a choice is being laid before us: we can have a faithful relationship with God based on trust, in which we put our own selfish agendas to one side, or we can enter into the marketplace of selfish ambitions, where, even if we manage to subordinate other peoples’ agendas to our own, we will always end up being God’s unprofitable slaves.

So, if we are having problems with our faith, today’s Gospel offers both a challenge and a remedy.

The challenge is to examine our motives for wanting to have faith in the first place. Is it simply a ploy to gain more control or a deep desire to surrender to the one who can give us true freedom?

The remedy is a renewal of faith, properly understood as trust in God, as God has become known to us in Jesus Christ. This kind of faith approaches God with no strings attached. We simply place ourselves in God’s hands and know that God is not a slave-master with a selfish agenda, but a parent, a teacher, a friend, an advocate, who will never do anything that will harm us. To serve this God is perfect freedom.