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
One of the constant struggles in listening to the onslaught of daily news briefings on the coronavirus is the back-and-forth debate about vaccine/treatment development. Much of it stems from folks (in understandable desperation) wanting to speed up the normal process to begin using some of the possible antidotes on human beings. Most scientists caution that testing protocols need to be followed, lest unproven procedures produce equally dreadful results. Their advice, while empathizing with public impatience, is to “stay the course” and keep doing what we know as best. The parable for today echoes some of that advice.
The parable is delivered as Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, healing and teaching en route. As the entourage moves forward, Jesus’ disciples make a plea that seems to be a common refrain for disciples then and now, “Increase our faith.” On the surface it seems so natural, so understandable. “If you’re going to expect this much of us, Lord, we’re going to need more faith.” Jesus responds in an un-Jesus-like way. His answer to this request seems to have an edge to it. He says with an almost antiseptic sting that the issue is not in having more faith, but in the use of the faith and knowledge that we have. It is not a quantity issue, but a quality issue; and the parable that Jesus tells is one of dislocation. That is, it moves us from the place we think we deserve to the place where we are to serve. In a short and pungent way, Jesus tells us that we have forgotten our place. Quite directly, he points out that we have more than enough faith to live out our callings, if we just would.
He asks a question that those of that time would have found easy to answer: “Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say, when the servant comes in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at the table?’ Would you not rather say, ‘Prepare supper for me and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; then, afterward you may eat and drink’? Jesus, in a not-so-subtle way reminds us that our calling here is not to be served, but to serve.
Rachel Held Evans once said, Maybe the mistake the disciples make isn’t so much in asking for more faith, but in thinking they don’t have enough, in thinking God’s gift to them was insufficient. How easy it is to think we don’t have enough! These guys were in the very presence of Jesus and still they wanted more! Walter Brueggemann has said: “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity.”
But as we are about to piously critique the disciples, Evans calls us to attention by asking, “We’re not so unlike the disciples, are we? How often we tell ourselves: “If I only had more faith, I could… Do something important; Do something impressive; I’d never struggle with doubt; I wouldn’t be so scared; I’d finally be appreciated. I’d finally know I’m right. It would finally all make sense.”
It is hard to know all that it means, but it seems to me that Jesus is pointing us to the realization that we have enough faith to do incredible things for the Kingdom. The problem arises in the fact that, more often than not, we see ourselves as masters rather than servants. Our calling is to serve God and to do our duty. God will provide us with what we need, and that includes ample faith. In fact, the only way to receive more faith is to use the faith we have. Isn’t that the bottom line of Jesus’ famous parable of the talents? More talent is given when the talent we have in the first place is used for the Kingdom.
It also means, I think, that we rarely believe we have the power to accomplish great tasks beforehand; we discover that power as we are engaged in doing. That is the way it works, isn’t it? We learn, we experience, we gain faith as we do faithful things. When we marry, we say we love one another, and we do, but we discover what love costs and how much we are capable of only in sorting through the mutual responsibilities of married life. We give birth to children, but on that day of wonderful rejoicing we worry as we wonder whether or not we have the wisdom to be parents. That wisdom only comes later, amidst the weighty responsibilities and duties of parenthood. The day we are hired, we think we have what it takes to get the job done, but as the days and duties unravel and the trials come, we really discover the power within us to accomplish the tasks assigned to us. Faith is not increased by waiting for faith; rather faith comes and is made strong as we go about the simple, ordinary chores of being God’s servants.
In a wonderfully satisfying movie of a few years ago, TheKarate Kid, a young man by the name of Daniel LaRusso moves to California away from his old friends and lifestyle. To be accepted, to defend himself, he desperately wants to learn karate. After a series of exasperating events, LaRusso is taken under the wing of a Japanese janitor by the name of Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Daniel karate, but his lessons are predicated upon the dictum: “I say; you do. No questions.” Daniel immediately consents, and the next day shows up for his first lesson. However, that day and for the next few days, Mr. Miyagi assigns him all kinds of seemingly meaningless tasks. First he says, “Daniel San, wash all the cars and then wax them. Wax on with right hand, wax off with the left hand. Breathe in, breathe out.” After a full day of following that instruction, Daniel is told to come back the next day, when he is put to work sanding Mr. Miyagi’s back-yard decks. The following day he is told to paint the fence, “Use long strokes, Daniel San. Up and down. Breathe in and breathe out.” On the fourth day, Daniel is left to paint Mr. Miyagi’s entire house while the teacher goes fishing. This puts Daniel over the edge, so much so that when Mr. Miyagi returns from fishing, Daniel blows up. “Look, I’ve done all this work, and you haven’t taught me one thing about karate.” “It is not all it seems Daniel San. Show me, ‘sand the floor’; show me ‘wax on, wax off’; show me ‘paint the fence.’” And then Mr. Miyagi takes all of those seemingly dull, unimportant disciplines and reveals how they are the basic techniques of karate. Their value then dawns on Daniel, and from that point on, he is able to learn not only the physical art, but also the deeper lessons karate has to teach him.
The wise old Scottish preacher, George MacDonald, who was such an influence on C.S. Lewis, once wrote that in the beginning we are able to understand our duties and responsibilities better than we can love them. We may even begin by resenting duties and responsibilities. We do them because they are required of us. But in the doing, something happens, something changes and we are transformed. We are “enabled to love them in the doing,” MacDonald says, “then they cease to show themselves in the form of duties, and appear as they more truly are, absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights.”
Jesus’ parable calls us to follow and to serve, even when we lack confidence and certainty, to take the faith that we possess and work it, in mundane ways that grow in strength and wisdom . . . the strength and wisdom to change the world.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
It is a beautiful thing to see those among us modeling out servants’ hearts, alleviating suffering in ways small and large. Give thanks for someone who meets your needs and/or the needs of others.
During these strange days, the concept of serving may call us to revamp our daily habits a bit. I remember reading recently that, when calling a friend to check up on them, rather than asking, “How are you?”, it is more valuable to say, “What can I do for you today?” Is there a need that you are called to supply? Ask God for guidance and awareness.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” Pray that our church may embody that love-generated soul to our hurting community.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: George Herbert’s “Love (III)”
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.