“Increase our Faith”
October 2, 2022
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!” ’ ***
Where I live in northern Wisconsin an invasive small tree called buckthorn is causing concern. It has spread around the edges of mature stands of hardwoods, along town roads and in wetlands. Residents know this invasive plant is detrimental to the health and future of woodlands and wetlands. When buckthorn takes over large areas it destroys wildlife habitat and blocks sunshine to native plants which sustain a healthy ecosystem.
Landscapers introduced buckthorn to Minnesota from Europe back in the late 1800’s. It was used to form hedges and windbreaks. As a plant species, buckthorn has some medicinal uses as the bark and berries are effective laxatives. Therein lies the answer to how buckthorn migrated east into Wisconsin. Birds eat berries. Buckthorn berries are not digestible, but they do keep the digestive system moving, so birds keep dropping seeds.
As I considered today’s scripture passage, I was reminded of buckthorn. Like buckthorn, mustard weed also propagates through bird droppings, because birds cannot digest the seeds. Mustard weed was ancient Palestine’s version of buckthorn: a nuisance plant that was difficult to get rid of. Mustard plants grew rapidly and could be more than six feet tall. They sprang up in the middle of wheat fields, blocking sunshine from the growing grain. It did not do much good to pull up the weeds, because birds would just drop seeds somewhere else in the field. Mustard seeds are tiny, but their impact on Palestine’s agriculture was huge.
In today’s passage, Jesus begins by comparing faith to a tiny mustard seed, but he goes on to explain that it is not how much faith you have that matters. It is how you use it.
As always, knowing a little context is key in understanding what Jesus says. He is making his way closer to Jerusalem, the cross and the empty tomb, and along the way he has been teaching his followers about the life he has in mind for them. He tells them:
Love your enemies.
Bless those who curse you.
Forgive even when it is not deserved.
Give without expecting anything in return.
Be ready to take up your cross.
Just before this passage today, Jesus tells them: “Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but too bad for whoever brings them on! Better to wear a concrete vest and take a swim with the fishes than give even one of these dear little ones a hard time! And he continues piling on the disciples: “Be alert. If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive him.” (17:1–4)
Hardly easy stuff. No wonder the disciples cry, “Increase our faith!” 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 uncharacteristic annoyance: “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, next he launches into a slave-and-master analogy: “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.’”
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t like the Jesus in this passage. He sounds irritated. He promises the impossible — a tree that bears fruit in the sea? — while simultaneously expecting his disciples to regard themselves as worthless slaves. What is happening?
Well, taking a step back we need to acknowledge that this passage is a disjointed story Jesus tells without a pleasant progression. It reads like a patchwork of sayings which means they did not originate together. This passage requires us to accept that Jesus is not speaking literally about seeds, ocean flying trees and slaves. Rather, he exaggerates to make a point.
Yet this passage still rubs me wrong because the request at its heart is so sincere. “Increase our faith!” the disciples ask. What does Jesus say in response? No. He says no! I find that irritating.
Perhaps the only way to answer why Jesus says no is by focusing on “faith” and what asking for more of it means.
Let’s think about this. Everyone would like to have “the faith that moves mountains. With such supernatural abilities we could manipulate God into doing what we want. There are Christians who struggle with tenets of Christianity that seem illogical — the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Second Coming and they ask for an
intellectual booster shot so as to have a corresponding mental capacity to affirm such beliefs. Sometimes, we ask for an antidote to anxiety. “Take away my fears and worries God — even as you seem too silent and aloof. Give me some certainty of you care and guidance so I can feel relief and peace. Rewire my brain and my heart so that it becomes impossible to doubt you.”
When I think about these sorts of assumptions about faith, why Jesus says “No” to his disciples request for increased faith 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 faith is a verb? What if faith is engagement and action? What if faith is something we do and not something we have?
Looking around the story Luke tells of Jesus it is striking how often and extravagantly Jesus commends the faith of those who seek him out. To the woman who had hemorrhaged for 12 years and reaches out in the crowd to touch Jesus’ robe, he says “Your faith has made you well.” (Luke 8:43–48). And to the leper who returns to thank him for the healing he says, “Your faith has saved you.” (Luke 19:19).
Back to those disciples seeking an increased faith Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” And behind those words it is as if to say, “You do. Don’t you get it? You have faith already. This is not about quantity. I can’t give you a recipe. This is not balancing a chemical reaction. You have faith because you have me. What else do you lack?”
Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ request is the invitation to make faith a verb. Using the illustration he provides in this passage, faith is as straightforward as a slave serving his master dinner and as ordinary as a hired worker fulfilling the terms of his contract.
You see faith isn’t fireworks 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 faith is simply showing up when we are expected to show up. Faith is commitment motivated and made actionable by love.
When it comes to faith, our problem is scarcity. We waste time feeling guilty that we do not have enough faith for facing life’s tasks and troubles. We berate ourselves about not having enough faith when we 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.
G.K Chesterton (1874–1936) was an English writer, philosopher, lay theologian, and literary and art critic. In his book “What’s Wrong with the World” he writes, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Could it be that when we ask God to increase our faith, what we are really asking for is a spiritual life that is easy, smooth, and uncomplicated. Jesus’s response to his disciples, however, suggests that faith requires rigor. It grows stronger when it is exercised and weakens when it is idle.
In other words, Jesus does not avoid the disciples’ request for increased faith out of callousness; he skirts it out of wisdom and deep love. Because he knows the things that make for robust faith and living. 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 delight you — and serve your neighbor.