Increase Our Faith: A Reflection on Luke 17.5-10

Lord, increase our faith!

These words from the start of today’s Gospel reading are some of the most relatable words the apostles ever speak, even if the demand does not work out well for them. Today I’d like to look at what might have prompted the disciples’ demand, how Jesus responded to it, and what all of this might say to us today.

Today’s Gospel, 17.5-10, is a bit strange in its literary context. It is a small part of a lengthy section of teaching in Luke (the last real narrative piece occurred early in chapter 14). Chapter 16 included teaching on personal integrity, with particular reference to financial matters and to the Law, and concludes with the parable of ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus,’ with its focus on generosity towards the poor. Then chapter 17 starts with a warning against being a stumbling block for others and a hard teaching on repeatedly forgiving those who repeatedly repent. Now the apostles come to Jesus saying, “Lord, increase our faith,” to which Jesus responds with a variation of his common teaching about small amounts of faith being able to accomplish a lot in God’s Kingdom. And the section ends with another rapid-fire teaching about motivation and reward. As interpreters, we’re left with two major options with understanding how this fits together. Either, we see this section as containing a series of disconnected, stray teachings Luke wanted to include in his Gospel but which didn’t fit well into his narrative. Or, we consider it to be an actual sequential series of teachings of Jesus.

If it’s the former, the apostles’ demand comes out of nowhere and reflects a generic longing for ‘more’ faith. Again, this would be relatable: It’s hard to live as a Christian in a world full of distraction and competing priorities. Wanting to be better able to manage all of it is pretty much a universal longing among followers of Jesus!

But if we the latter approach, then the demand probably comes out of a sense of being overwhelmed: ‘be just with your money,’ ‘don’t try to wiggle out of responsibility before God and neighbour,’ ‘give generously to the poor,’ ‘be careful not to cause others to stumble,’ ‘forgive, forgive, forgive — seven times a day if you have to.’ It’s a lot to take in. So here too, the disciples’ longing for more faith to absorb it all would be relatable. I’d even argue that feeling overwhelmed is the quintessential psychological state of the 2020s so far. How to find the faith to keep moving forward is a genuine question in the midst of so much bad news.

But relatable and commendable are different things. No matter what approach we take to this text, the apostles’ response to life is basically to say it’s too hard and ask God to do it for them. “Lord, increase our faith!(We don’t have enough. We can’t manage this!) This isn’t all bad, of course. They aren’t suffering from an inflated ego, and recognize that they need God to help them. But, I think, they’ve missed the mark. The request for more faith, or demand, smacks of a sense of insufficiency, of not being enough. This is clearer in the Greek, which instead of ‘increase’, which suggests a natural growth of something, more literally reads, “add on to what we already have.” They are acting as though faith were an issue of quantity, rather than quality. And this, I think, is why Jesus responds as he does: “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.

This response has obvious parallels with the ‘faith can move mountains’ sayings we find in Matthew 17.20, 21.21 and Mark 11.22-23. In my experience, these are often preached as meaning ‘a little goes a long way.’ But in light of this conversation, I wonder if this interpretation perpetuates the quantity vs. quality mistake. I wonder if Jesus is in fact saying, ‘Faith is faith; it doesn’t matter if you conceive of it as a grain of pollen or a California Redwood.’ A common theme on this blog — and indeed it will recur as a major theme in Tuesday’s post — is that faith, within the thought world of our Scriptures, is not about ‘belief’ but about being in a reciprocal relationship of trust and trustworthiness. We ‘have faith’ inasmuch as we are living up to our responsibilities in our complicated network of relationships with God, one another, the world around us, and ourselves.

Understood in this way, the disciples’ demand comes across as them wanting God to take on the weight of both sides of the relationship. They don’t ask to be strengthened to live faithfully, which would be appropriate and itself an act of faith, they’re asking for God to do it for them. It’s a bit like the difference between going to your boss, asking for training or additional supports to accomplish a task, versus demanding of them “Give me more work ethic.” Or like praying that you’ll wake up with big muscles or having lost that extra twenty pounds of ‘COVID weight’, rather than living out the lifestyle that make such changes possible.

This interpretation is supported, I think, by the second half of the lesson, which is challenging and uncomfortable to our sensibilities:

[Jesus continued:] “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!'” (Luke 17.7-10)

Jesus’ metaphor here is awkward at best by our standards and assumptions, but its message fits well with how we’ve been thinking about faith and the apostles’ demand for “more” of it: Expecting God to do our faithfulness for us is like a slave expecting to be waited on by his master.

It is so hard to have faith today. Looking at all the serious issues facing us on all fronts, it’s hard not to think that the whole world itself is coming apart at the seams before our eyes. It is so easy to get overwhelmed. It is so easy to throw our hands up and ask God to fix it, or to fix us so we can keep moving. But, I think, the message of today’s Gospel reading is that we’re not suffering from a ‘lack’ of anything. We have what we need.

We don’t need ‘more’ faith; we just need faith and faithfulness itself.

It’s true that we cannot solve the world’s problems on our own. But God doesn’t ask us individually to solve the world’s problems. What we are called to do is to live the life we’ve been given faithfully: to show up in all of our relationships as best as we are able. I’m not suggesting this is easy. It is hard. But, if the recent series on Ephesians taught us anything, God is powerful and has empowered us — each and every one of us — to live faithfully, to serve our communities, and to grow up into all that Jesus was and is. And the more of us do that, the more the world will change. As Jesus says, this type of faith can move a mountain, or in the words of today’s reading, a mulberry tree — a species whose root systems are as notoriously complicated and intractable as our world’s myriad problems.

So then, as we face this new week and new month, let us remember this powerful teaching from Jesus today: We don’t need ‘more’ faith. We just need faith.

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