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 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 17:5-10 – NRSV)
See Matthew 17:20 for a parallel text on the power of faith, though Matthew places it next to the disciples’ inability to cast out the demon – see Matthew 17:14-18. Matthew and Mark are much stronger in their promises of what faith can do – see Matthew 17:20 & 21:21 and Mark 11:22–23.
the size of a mustard seed: The tiniest bit of faith. The sentence by Jesus begins with “If” and then contains the word “would”, suggesting perhaps that the disciples do not yet have the tiniest bit of faith! There is something consoling about this. However, the fact that the disciples have asked the question, “Increase our faith!” does suggest that they do in fact have faith. It might also suggest that Jesus is not so much criticizing them as he is holding up to them an extraordinary prospect for when they do finally receive the fullness of faith.
we have done only what we ought to have done!: Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “In the present Lucan setting Jesus’ words stress that the Christian disciple who is a servant’ or ‘slave’, and has well carried out his task, can only regard himself as an unprofitable servant. Their stress strikes home in two ways: (1) The conduct of such a Christian disciple in fulfilling his/her appointed tasks does not necessarily guarantee his/her salvation; having done all that is expected, the disciple still realizes that the destiny that awaits him/her is a grace. (2) There is no room for human boasting. The Lucan Jesus formulates what Paul teaches in terms of human kauchēsis: ‘It is excluded’ (Rom 3:27; cf. 1 Cor 1:29; Eph 2:9.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, SJ, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1145-1146.)
Perhaps Meister Eckhart, nearly thirteen centuries later, takes this line of thinking even deeper: “Do all you do, acting from the core of your soul, without a single ‘Why.’ I tell you, whenever what you do is done for the sake of the Kingdom of God, or for God’s sake, or for eternal blessing, and thus really for ulterior motives, you are wrong. You may pass for a good person but this is not the best. For, truly, if you imagine you are going to get more out of God by means of religious offices and devotions, in sweet retreats and solitary prayers, than you might by the fireplace and in the stable, then you might just as well think you could seize God and wrap a mantle around his head and stick him under the table!” (Meister Eckhart in Raymond Blakeney, translator, Meister Eckhart, Harper Torchbooks, 1941, 127.)
Do you think the religious authorities of Jesus’ day – people with whom Jesus was constantly in conflict – did not know the content of the tradition? In fact they were well informed. But there was something essential missing. Matthew’s Gospel points in this direction when we hear Jesus say: “if your virtue goes no deeper than the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
One scholar writes: “It is hardly news that there was a very profound clash between Jesus and the Pharisees and that Paul’s conversion instigated a dialectic no less violent. But later Christian animosity has badly distorted the true nature of this confrontation. Pharisees are described as hypocrites or as uncaring legalists and inhuman externalisers who imposed on others burdens they themselves would not bear. Most of which is inaccurate, unhistorical, and purely polemical. If Pharisees were such, how is one to explain their tremendous power over people for whom they had only the authority of competence? In fact, the Pharisees were superb moral guides. But there precisely lay the problem which Jesus and Paul saw so clearly.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 80.)
Were doctrines and laws important to Jesus? In Luke we hear Jesus say: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for one little stroke to disappear out of the law” (Luke 16:17). The true disciple recognizes that doctrine and laws are not only important, they are essential. The true disciple also recognizes, however, that there is something far more important, far more fundamental than doctrines and laws – it is the Covenant. Jesus comes among us, not as a moral teacher or the bearer of a belief system, but as the Incarnation of God’s love. The Covenant is embodied in his being.
The primal fact of the Tradition – both Jewish and Christian – is God’s reaching out to us, loving us into freedom. God’s love is unmerited and absolute. We cannot earn that love nor can we stop that love or do anything that would make God love us more or less.
Faith is first and foremost an awakening to the fact of this divine event. It is gift! A “mustard seed”! Faith is a relationship, and like any relationship, when nurtured, encouraged, facilitated, appreciated, celebrated, it never stops growing.
It is a terrible mistake to think that we can “pass on the faith” by imparting information about doctrine and law. Faith is caught, not taught. The “mustard seed” is most likely to take root in a community where people, by their very presence, radiate the Presence.
Here is a rule of thumb: As you have been loved into freedom, be in the world so that God may love others into freedom through you. Is your faith an experience of being loved into freedom? What has been most significant in the development of your faith – for better or worse.