Proper 22 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St Andrew’s Mountain Home
How many of you enjoy starting a movie half way through it? I can’t say that’s something I ever do, even if I’ve seen the movie many times before. There is usually a point to the first part of a story that adds depth and certainly explains the rest of it. I ask this because it appears that the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary are doing just that this week with the Gospel lesson. We start with an odd needle drop right into the midst of a conversation Jesus is having with his disciples. The disciples don’t just walk up to Jesus randomly and command him to increase their faith. There is a reason they exclaim it.
We start today in the fifth verse of the seventeenth chapter of the Luke. If you look back at verses one through five, you’ll find Jesus teaching a few hard lessons to the disciples. The first is a dire warning not to cause others to stumble, especially those who are new to their faith. We get that very well known statement, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” After that Jesus tells the disciples, “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
That is what spurs the disciples to exclaim to Jesus, “Increase our faith”. They see that as an insurmountable task. It sounds as if they are hoping that these things Jesus says they must do will be easier if they have a stronger faith. So Jesus then says something that I suspect we should understand as somewhat rhetorical. We have many phrases ourselves that we often say but don’t mean literally. Today for example, we could say, if it is raining hard that it is, “raining cats and dogs” and we don’t literally mean that we are going to be doing something dangerous with those animals at the pet blessing this afternoon. So when Jesus says that you can do these crazy impossible things with faith just the size of a mustard seed, he is being largely rhetorical. The point here is that these things he is commanding his disciples to do are not outside of their ability just as they are.
Passages like this are often taken wildly out of context and used for proof-texting. You might find someone feeling like they don’t have enough faith because they can’t seem to get anything to go right. These types of verses are also used to bolster the heresy of Prosperity Gospel, proclaiming that if things are going good for you, it’s because your faith must be strong. Jesus is not setting up a system of faith measurement. He is making the point that working to forgive someone isn’t a miracle that requires sainthood. It’s work that we can and should be doing right now.
To underscore this point Jesus then moves into what could be seen as a fairly harsh retort of his disciples. He asks them, “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”? The answer is none of them would. It’s sort of like going to Whispering Woods and inviting your server to have a seat and share your dinner with you. In like manner Jesus is telling these disciples that they are not justified because they have done good deeds. They are supposed to do good deeds, to do the things Jesus is teaching them to do.
The point Jesus is making here to the disciples is that you are not justified by your works. Your salvation is not earned through doing the things God asks of us. We are already saved. But he is also saying that doing the things that God calls us to should not lead us to expect accolades. We are already forgiven. We don’t need awards to follow Christ. If we look at being faithful as a way to gain entrance to heaven or some blessing in life, than these actions no longer suffice as morals but rather become us trying to force a cosmic transaction with God.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” We must be on guard against using a lack of faith or a lack of some other resource as an excuse for not following God’s call and commandments. Whether it is forgiveness, standing for justice, or many of the other examples Christ sets for us, we are not allowed to simply cry out that we have not enough faith to even attempt these things. If we must fail in endeavoring towards them, then we should fail, over and over again.
We must also not seek awards for simply doing the work that God has called us to. We cannot stockpile our good deeds and lived faith for blessings in this life or the next. No matter how many times I might chime in with a ‘stars in your crown’ remark when someone is willing to do a task that is less than desirable, it is not true that we are in an economy with God to trade our faithful tasks. We should instead be living God’s call through the blessings we have already received in life, not betting on the futures we might achieve.
God knows that we aren’t perfect. We don’t have perfect faith, we don’t regularly pull off the types of miracles that Jesus did during his ministry. But that does not give us an out for not living out what faith we do have. It does not excuse us from working in the fields of God’s harvest, and working with as much faith as we can muster. We must go into the world and live out the call of Christ, with faith and love, because it is our joy as God’s children. Chesterton also wrote, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” That is good advice. You don’t need perfect faith to forgive. You don’t need perfect faith to love. You don’t need perfect faith to follow Christ. All that you require God has already given you, and now it is up to you to do the work.