Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 17:5-10
So often it seems that Jesus was not really listening. He seems not to have listened to what people asked him or said to him, or maybe it is just that his responses were so unexpected.
His disciples, some of them, maybe all of them, however many there were at this moment—nothing here mentions a number—ask Jesus to increase their faith. It’s unclear what they expect. Maybe they thought he would touch them, or wave his hand over them, or speak a few words like a prayer, and they would have enough faith to work miracles.
Signs and wonders. That is what they wanted to work, signs and wonders, and that is why they asked for more faith. And who could blame them? They had grown up hearing about floating axeheads, of poison made harmless with a little salt, of bears and of drought and of rain and of fire falling from heaven. Never mind Moses, the Hebrew superhero of the ancient world.
Instead, Jesus tells them that it doesn’t take much faith, not really. It’s the famous mustard seed line—if you had faith as a grain or seed of mustard, you could command mulberry trees to leap into the sea. (What did he have against mulberry trees?)
Maybe he meant that a tiny amount of faith was enough. It isn’t about the size of one’s faith, but of God’s power. That sounds ok, doesn’t it? After all, if we go around trying to measure faith, trying to determine how much is enough, enough to be thought faithful, enough to be thought good, enough faith to be thought a child of God, then where would it end and how much would be enough?
Jesus went on to remind them all that they were no better than slaves, that the work they did was only what was expected. So what if they managed enough faith to order trees around, or to work miracles, it was only what was expected.
There are problems with that line of thinking, of course. We don’t go ordering trees around, and if we do, they do not listen. It was never about hurling mulberry trees into the sea anyway.
It is an appealing thought, this notion of having command over nature, ordering trees and rocks to do as we see fit. It’s wizard stuff. All in the service of God, of course—if one ordered a tree to jump into the ocean, it would be in the service of God, wouldn’t it?
Only how does that work? Why would God empower us to command trees? To impress unbelievers? That would probably work wonders on church attendance, though God could come up with more impressive displays. It is an odd image, suicidal trees, like wooden lemmings leaping from a cliff’s edge.
Why would Jesus offer such a thing instead of, say, telling us we could heal the sick, or raise the dead? Wouldn’t healing the sick be at least as impressive as bullying trees, and be of direct benefit to the sick?
No, it was never about the trees. And a tiny amount of faith is enough, he says, to work astonishing miracles, at least the ones that matter.
Maybe that is it.
Jesus is not only ascribing a size to our imagined faith, but taking the air out of our self aggrandizing miracle balloon. Our tiny faith would be sufficient, since God is sufficient. On the other hand, God isn’t asking for anyone to work flashy miracles. God asks for day to day things: plowing a field, tending sheep, serving a meal, all of which are miraculous in an everyday way, when you think about them. Planting a field of grain and watching it grow is astonishing. Working wool into a blanket is miraculous, especially in the winter. To serve a meal is to sustain both life and civilization, embodied in a single simple act.
Maybe we could paraphrase Jesus.
“If you had any real faith, the tiniest bit, you’d already be working signs and wonders. You’d be growing things, growing one another, tending to one another. Feeding people, meeting their needs. Those are signs, and wonders, enough for anyone. And you wouldn’t go around expecting thanks either. You’d do it because you ought to do it, because what you are doing becomes who you are. You’d do it because that’s what God’s people do. You’d do it because that’s what God does.”
Still, a little of that commanding mulberry trees kind of stuff would be useful. Or fire from heaven.