Luke 17: 5-10
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.
‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing 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!” ’
We have two short sayings of Jesus here: I am not sure we are meant to find a connection between them. This is a chapter with a number of separate elements within it, and, as we have noted in earlier weeks, it is part of the long section of teaching and encounters framed in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (chs 9-19), and our call to be disciples.
I think, and quite a few commentators agree, that the first saying about faith is ironic. Humans are prone to think of faith as a measurable quantity, a bit like the amount of petrol in the tank, but faith is a present connection to God, a living in the moment with God, not something we store up or achieve. Sometimes we wish our faith was stronger, but that is probably because we are beset with doubt or feeling fearful, lost or unsettled. The road to Jerusalem does not have short-cuts and it is not a sprint. It is a journey, a daily journey, through all the changing scenes of life, even through the night of dark and sorrow; faith is a connection, trust. The root word of the Greek word is “trust”.
The second section is a contrast to an earlier passage in ch 12 where the waiting watchful servant discovers that the master arrives and serves him! Now we are reminded that serving God is not about expecting thanks for doing what we should be doing anyway. This is not about a split personality, nor about going about grovelling, but holding in tension that we are both welcome at God’s Table, but we do not presume to come to it trusting in our own good deeds; we are assuredly loved by God but we cannot take that for granted; we can trust God has hold of us, but we should then seek to follow Him. Jesus did serve his disciples, he did wash their feet, he modelled service, and so we too should gladly serve others, not seeking “any reward save that of knowing I do your will”.
For a moment think what the world would be like if we were in a faith competition! Mulberry trees would be flying all over the place, we would be focused only and always on what more miracles or signs were happening, trying to achieve more, measuring ourselves against others. That is not the way of Jesus – Yes, he stepped in to heal and restore, but these were glimpses of the Kingdom. He did not call down the legions of angels – he did not give in to the devil’s temptation to show off – he suffered and was buried and on the third day rose again. That is the journey to Jerusalem. Lord, give us faith.
Revd Peter Reiss