It Doesn’t Take All That Much Faith to Be Faithful
10-6-19 Luke 17:5-10
Reading through the Gospel of Luke, I’d read the parables of the lost sheep and coin, then the parable of the shrewd manager.
Good lessons to be reminded of … but familiar.
But then, forgetting what was coming next, I’d turn the page to chapter 17 and once again be assaulted by today’s passage.
I say assaulted because I’d feel personally dressed down by Jesus.
Luke 17:6 (Jesus) replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
It’s like a slap in the face because, in a convoluted way, the failure of my prayers to heal my friends of all their diseases, addictions, and broken marriages must mean that I’m thoroughly lacking faith.
Was their continued illness exposing me as a spiritual fraud?
Do I not even have the faith of a tiny mustard seed?
My former church, back before I even went to seminary, was really big on prayer.
My experiences there engrained in me a strong faith in the power of prayer … but even in that community of prayer, people still got sick, people still died.
And worse yet, when our beloved minister, Dr. Peggy Bassett, developed an autoimmune disease that would eventually take her life, some church members walked away from our church, blaming her for not having enough faith to heal herself.
The proof of your faith is in the pudding.
If your cancer keeps advancing despite your prayers, then like the emperor with no clothes … you’re being exposed for not having enough faith.
Or is that what this passage is about?
How often in our bible studies and sermons have we emphasized that context is everything?
We’ve pointed to so many examples of how lifting a line or two out of context has often led to great misunderstanding of what the Bible’s authors were really saying – and in some cases that has caused great harm.
This is especially important here in Luke 17 because at first the connection to adjacent scripture may not seem clear.
In fact, common bible translations add to the confusion with the headings they give this section.
The NRSV, for example, says “Some Sayings of Jesus”, as if the otherwise careful author Luke just took some scraps from Jesus’ talks and swept them into a little pile that he stuck at the beginning of Luke 17 before getting back to the real story.
And the NIV doesn’t do much better with its heading, “Sin, Faith, Duty”.
But before we walk away deflated by our own feeble level of faith – which I doubt could uproot crabgrass in the backyard, not to mention the deep tangled roots of a mulberry bush – let’s consider what Jesus was addressing when we spoke these words.
Jesus used faith a mustard seed as a hyperbole to make a point about an issue that had arisen among his disciples.
So, let’s back up a couple of verses to see what was going on.
Luke 17:3b-5 “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
We know from his previous teachings that forgiveness, not repentance, is the issue they are facing.
At last Wednesday’s discussion group as we were talking about how difficult it is to forgive, someone added that it’s even harder when that person makes it clear that they hate you.
Maybe you’ve faced that: Someone at every family gathering who glowers at you and makes a show of sulking out of the room when you enter because of some long-held grudge.
Or maybe you have a co-worker who’s never gotten over your getting a promotion they felt they deserved and who now delights in pointing out every mistake you make, and who persists in spreading gossip about you.
Or a stranger whose stare telegraphs disgust because they see that you’re gay, or because you’re wearing a Bernie Sanders t-shirt, or maybe a red Make America Great Again cap.
How do you forgive and love that person?
So, here are Jesus’ disciples on the receiving end of those stares, surrounded by hostility so thick that it seems to stick to them even after they’ve left the village.
Here they are, men and women who not so long ago were back home with their families and jobs but who now find themselves following this rabbi who’s heading through unfamiliar territory in Samaria and toward Jerusalem where people have warned him that he could be in serious trouble.
And instead of stopping for dinner at the homes of pious rabbis, he’s hobnobbing with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, even Roman army officers – people they’ve been told for their whole lives to avoid.
The religious authorities and most of the respectable people around them are growing more hostile by the day.
Some are so enraged that they make no secret of plotting to kill Jesus – and that puts them all at risk.
It seems to me that the disciples have shown a lot of courage and a great deal of faith just by sticking with Jesus … but now he is saying to forgive those who hate and conspire against them.
But endlessly – which is what seven means.
No wonder the disciples say, “I don’t have what it takes. I need some more faith for that.”
Sure enough, forgiving can seem a lot like wrenching up a stubborn tree, roots and all, and tossing it into the sea.
Forgiveness can be that tough.
The disciples want to quantify and calibrate faith levels.
“I’m at faith factor three, but to forgive like that, Jesus, I need a spiritual transfusion to get me to at least faith factor six.”
But Jesus doesn’t see it that way.
He’s insisting that you already have the faith to do what he asks.
Just a mustard seed of faith is all you need – you just need to do what’s expected of you.
And to illustrate his point he tells a parable about a slave performing his daily duty.
In the cultural context of the Ancient Near East, slavery was just a given.
In some of the big Roman cities, as many as 80% of the people were slaves or former slaves.
So, a slave doing his or her chores and then coming home to prepare dinner for their owner was as routine as our spending the day in the office, classroom or factory and then coming home to cook dinner and do the dishes.
Jesus offers the slave metaphor as a way of situating his forgiveness directive among the everyday tasks of discipleship.
Following the way of life of Jesus – such as forgiving – is not a spectacular-fireworks-of-faith; it is routine, mundane and expected of anyone following the way of Jesus.
Nothing heroic, but essential.
Now, let’s step back, even more, to give this little passage an even broader scriptural context.
What was Jesus referring to when he said to forgive?
That’s the earlier verses.
Luke 17:1-3a Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.”
Are these the persons we are supposed to forgive?
We’re even supposed to forgive people whose teachings have misled people from the true faith?
In this gospel context, Jesus may have been referring to the Pharisees who major on the minors of faith – missing the big picture of love of God and neighbor by nitpicking ways their neighbors were falling short on some minor purity practice.
Yes, Jesus said, forgive even them.
But what about us?
Even forgive those televangelists who preach the Gospel of Jesus while living in mansions maintaining their fleet of personal jets?
Even those supposed teachers of Christ’s love who spew their prejudice against
feminism, gay people and immigrants from the pulpit?
Aren’t they part of the reason why so many folks today have walked away from the church?
Apparently, yes; we are to forgive and move on to focus on our own life of growth in love.
Apparently, God will take care of them – and the consequences don’t sound pleasant.
For the most part, we can just turn-off the TV and not give them another thought.
But is Jesus saying that if a rabbi or a pastor or a lay leader gets some important points of theology wrong so that their congregation heads down the wrong theological rabbit hole that they face such a horrific fate?
Well, here’s the thing.
Maybe with the exception of the most egregious misuse of scripture or abuse of authority, we tend to associate Jesus’ warning about not misleading believers with wrong teaching.
It’s not getting some point of theology correct.
There are many churches who bitterly debate fine points of scriptural interpretation
because they are convinced that getting it a bit wrong could lead people down the road to hell.
And sometimes they quote this passage to highten awareness of how critical it is to get our teaching just right.
However, the understanding of belief in the time of Jesus was very different than what we think of today.
Today, belief is doctrinal, intellectual, cerebral, analytical.
It is largely head stuff.
But when Jesus spoke these words, his culture’s understanding of belief was more about how we live, which is exactly what the following verses show.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus taught was less about a tight system of beliefs – although we do need structure to our faith – and more about following his way of living.
Remember, Jesus’ disciples were sometimes called “followers of the way”.
In this particular case, a way of life guided by Jesus’ teaching will routinely lead to forgiveness.
So we could say, “Don’t cause people to stumble by claiming to follow Jesus by saying you’re a Christian and then walking around gossiping and holding a grudge, or spewing homophobic attitudes, cheating your clients, or any other way that would indicate that belief in Jesus leads to corrupt, prejudiced or bitter life.”
You are the only Bible your friends are likely to read.
In other words, Jesus’ response to his disciples was that you don’t need more faith, you need fewer excuses.
The demands of discipleship are hard – but we don’t need super faith – just a mustard seed’s worth.
We just need to do it.
And our community of believers and the presence of Jesus, himself, will walk by our side to help us make it possible.