Luke 17: 5-10
If only I had more faith….as a parish priest, it’s a refrain I hear often. Nobody imagines that they have enough faith - they worry, they doubt, they struggle, they lionise others who they imagine to have far more faith than they could ever have, they look around at what needs to be done and think “I’m not up to this, the resources I have at my disposal are insufficient for the task. In some, this sense of inadequacy leads to prayer, whilst others use it as an excuse not to engage at all.
It would appear that my 21st Century parishioners are not alone in this. As even the first disciples felt that their levels of faith could do with a boost. They demand that Jesus increase their faith. It sounds such a holy request, doesn’t it? How could Jesus possibly respond with anything other than an indulgent smile and some reassurance? But Jesus is far from predictable and his response is more challenging than comforting. “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.” Thus, implying that the disciple’s faith is even smaller than they imagined. Smaller even than a mustard seed, which for the record is 1-2mm in diameter. Whether this is a rebuke or not is hotly contested, but either way, it seems that even the tiniest amount of faith goes along way.
Perhaps what the disciples are really asking isn’t for more faith at all but rather more confidence and more certainty, but the Christian journey isn’t that easy is it? We must make do with the amount of faith we have and trust that it will be sufficient.
The sense in which we have too few resources for the task in hand will be a familiar one to those concerned about the ecological crisis and seeking to respond to it in the light of faith. Individuals have comparatively little power whilst the governments and businesses who do are failing to take the lead required. It is often argued that there is little point in doing anything if others are doing nothing, but there is power in the small action. Greta Thunberg has famously said “No-one is too small to make a difference” and many small yet faithful actions consistently repeated by a growing number of people may yet have a large cumulative effect.
This week’s reading has two paragraphs and trying to understand the second paragraph in the light of the first can lead to all kind of torturous mental gymnastics so I prefer to understand the connection between the two as tangential, both paragraphs dealing with misunderstandings about the nature of being a disciple.
The first, tackles the idea that we must be spiritual giants in order to be effective for God, whilst the second stands as a stark reminder that in seeking to serve God we earn no favours. We might find the analogy of a slave and slave-owner a problematic analogy but the message remains pertinent today. God owes us nothing, whilst we owe him everything. Obedience and service are nothing more than his due, and we should not be looking for any kind of quid pro quo, be that material rewards, or conviction that our efforts will lead others to admire us. Anyone asking “what’s in it for me?” is asking the wrong question. Yet if God’s love and grace are infinite, we can expect that our efforts, however small, weak, and lacking in faith will have a place in God’s economy of salvation.