By Debie Thomas
This week’s Gospel reading begins with a request I know well: “Increase our faith!” If you’re like me, you’ve made this request many times, and you’ve used language just as insistent and desperate as the disciples’ language in Luke’s Gospel.
To be fair, in the verses preceding our lectionary reading, Jesus delivers some heavy-duty teaching to his would-be followers: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.” And, “Even if your brother or sister sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Hardly easy stuff; no wonder the disciples cry, “More!” Given the context, I’m inclined to applaud them. After all, their request is so earnest, so well-intentioned. They’re not asking for wealth, comfort, prestige, or safety. They’re asking for faith. Isn’t that a good thing?
Apparently not, because Jesus responds to the request with bewildering impatience: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he tells them, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Worse, he then launches into a slave-and-master analogy that grates on my 21st century ears: “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?’ Would 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’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So 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.’”
Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I like Jesus in this passage. He sounds so irritated. He seems to promise the impossible — a mulberry tree that bears fruit in the sea? — while simultaneously expecting his disciples to regard themselves as worthless slaves. What is happening in this passage?
We might sidestep the interpretative difficulty in part by acknowledging that this section of Scripture is disjointed, not a coherent Jesus story with a pleasing and easy-to-follow arc, but a cobbled-together collection of sayings that probably didn’t originate together. I can also minimize my discomfort by recognizing that the passage is hyperbolic. Jesus isn’t talking about literal mustard seeds, oceans, mulberry trees, or slaves; he’s exaggerating on purpose to make a point.
But the passage still grates at me, maybe because I care so much about the request at its heart. “Increase our faith!” the disciples ask. “Increase my faith!” I ask in some guise or another nearly every day. What does Jesus say in response? No. He says no. Why?
Maybe the only way to answer the question is to unpack what I mean by “faith.” What exactly am I asking for when I beg God to give me more faith? Sometimes, I’m asking for “the faith that moves mountains” — a supernatural ability to manipulate God into doing what I want. Sometimes, I’m asking for an intellectual booster shot — an increased mental capacity to affirm the more challenging tenets of traditional Christianity — the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Second Coming. And sometimes, I’m asking for an antidote to anxiety. “God, please take away the fear I feel as I face your invisibility and your silence. Grant me certainty so I’ll feel happier, holier, stronger, braver. Rewire my brain and my heart so that it becomes impossible to doubt you.”
When I take a hard look at my assumptions about faith, Jesus’s “no” begins to make some sense. What if faith isn’t quantifiable? What if “more” faith isn’t “better” faith? What if faith isn’t even a noun?
What if, instead, faith is engagement, orientation, action? What if faith is something we do? Not something we have?
Whenever I read the Gospels, I’m struck by how often and how lavishly Jesus commends the faith of those who seek him out. “Your faith has saved you,” he tells a woman who anoints his feet, a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him, and a hemorrhaging woman who grasps his cloak. “Your faith has made you well,” he tells a blind beggar. “Such faith I have not seen in all of Israel!” he exclaims about a Roman centurion.
What is it that Jesus admires in these people? As far as I can tell, the only thing they do is turn to him. Orient themselves in his direction. Trust him. What earns his admiration is their willingness — even in difficult, painful, and potentially risky circumstances — to lean into his goodness, healing, justice, and mercy.
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says to his disciples. As if to say, “You do. Don’t you understand? You have faith already. This is not about proportion. I can’t give you a recipe. We’re not balancing chemical equations with a neutron here and two protons there. You have faith — because you have me. You’ve seen me and known me. What else do you lack?”
I believe the invitation in this lection is for us to go forth and live in light of what we already see, sense, hear, and know. In other words, the invitation is to do faith. To do the loving, forgiving thing we consider so banal we ignore it. Why? Because the life of faith is as straightforward as a slave serving his master dinner. As ordinary as a hired worker fulfilling the terms of his contract. Faith isn’t fireworks; it’s not meant to dazzle. Faith is simply recognizing our tiny place in relation to God’s enormous, creative love, and then filling that place with our whole lives. In this sense — and I know how unpopular this sounds — faith is simply showing up when we’re expected to show up. Faith is duty motivated and sustained by love.
One of the most damaging messages the Church communicates to people struggling in their spiritual lives is that faith is somehow antithetical to doubt, fear, ambivalence, or confusion. That when it comes to faith, our problem is scarcity. This is a cruel and deeply damaging lie. Having faith — even having enough faith — does not mean that we will never struggle with unbelief, distrust, or anxiety. Having faith means leaning hard into God’s abundance. Having faith means pursuing God and the things of God even when the pursuit feels painful or pointless. Faith is not deciding once and for all to follow Jesus. Faith is living within God’s extravagant decision to love and pursue us. Faith is trusting Jesus one step at a time, day after day after day. For the long haul.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that we waste a great deal of time and energy looking for the “key to the treasure box of More.” All we lack, she argues, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”
G.K Chesterton, in turn, suggests that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” If I’m honest, I must admit that when I ask God to increase my faith, what I’m really asking for is a spiritual life that’s easy, smooth, and uncomplicated. Jesus’s response to his disciples, however, suggests that faith requires rigor. It grows stronger when it’s exercised, and weakens when it’s idle.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t sidestep the disciples’ request for faith out of callousness; he sidesteps it out of wisdom and deep love. Why? Because he knows the things that make for human flourishing. He recognizes the muscular living our hearts require in order to thrive. Do faith — and faith will increase. Do faith, and the astonishing fruits of faith will reward you.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com
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