3 Oct 2010
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” (Luke 17:5) In the name …
How would you feel if you were set-up to fail? That no matter how hard you tried it would be completely impossible for you to succeed?
Now think about what we read in today’s Gospel. The apostles have asked Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus gives in reply the strange response that if they had faith even the size of a mustard seed, then they would be able to command a tree to be uprooted from the ground and planted instead in the sea. There are all kinds of problems here, and even Luke realizes this, the one who’s writing this story. Luke is basing his Gospel on the older one written by Mark, and Matthew is doing the same thing when he writes his Gospel. In Mark’s first version of Jesus’ words, it’s not only uprooting a tree; it’s moving a mountain. Matthew keeps these words when he tells the story, but Luke tries to tame them a down just a bit. I guess if the task is moving Mount Sugarloaf into the Connecticut River just through the power of my faith, and then asking instead that only a tree be uprooted, I guess you can say that it’s a more reasonable request. Luke must have realized the futility of the task that Jesus is asking for in moving a mountain by the power of faith, and so Luke tries to make it sound more a little bit more practical. But obviously, it still remains impossible. So even as Luke is writing these words for us, he realizes the impossibility of what Jesus has said, but all he can do is make it a little less impossible.
There’s another problem though. With the mountain thrown into the water, the only impossibility is the act itself. In Luke, once the tree is uprooted, that same tree is supposed to be planted in the sea by faith. Now here we have another kind of impossibility. It’s not only the power of moving the tree that is impossible. Now it’s also the whole natural-order impossibility of it growing in the sea. So however this story is told, the one preponderant theme is its impossibility. None of the apostles could ever hope to pass this test of faith. None of the people to whom Luke was writing could ever hope to pass this test of faith. And none of us listening to this Gospel selection world-wide today can hope to pass this test of faith. The message of impossibility is consistent and thorough.
What makes this even more distressing is that these are most likely authentic words of Jesus. Last week when we shared the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the story ended with Abraham warning, “‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Lk. 16:31) Now these words make much more sense if they were spoken after the resurrection rather than before it, and therefore, these may be inspired words of the earliest church rather than Jesus Himself. But today’s words about the mustard seed of faith are hard to understand no matter what we do to them, and this makes them excellent candidates for being the very words of Jesus. The Evangelists are not going to create confusing statements on behalf of Jesus, so when we run into these difficult passages in the Bible we can be quite sure that they are there because Jesus said them. They’re not written to explain Jesus; they’re written because they’re from Jesus.
Is Jesus setting us up for failure? Is Jesus making it impossible for us to claim even a mustard seed sized faith? Or is something else going on here? The one theme that is unavoidable as we ask ourselves this question is the definite theme of impossibility. Whatever the answer is to our questions about this strange passage it has to include the theme of impossibility. It can’t be wiped away; it can’t be ignored; it can’t be interpreted out of the story. So again, why does Jesus answer the apostles’ request of “Increase our faith” with a message of impossibility?
I don’t know if I have a satisfactory answer for that question, but what I am drawn to is the possibility that maybe Jesus is pointing out to His followers that the question itself is setting them up for failure. Faith isn’t a commodity that can be defined by numbers, by terms like increase and decrease. Maybe when God seems distant or when we don’t feel Him especially close by, maybe there is an anomaly taking place, maybe that’s when faith is its strongest even if it can’t be measured. Maybe it’s just like that Footprints Prayer that everybody knows. Maybe the message is that when we try to measure faith we’re missing the whole point of what faith is all about. Maybe this is why this strange sounding passage is followed by the uninspiring story about being a servant. Be a great and obedient servant and all you can is, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” (Lk 17:10) Is that enough to define what a life of faith should be worth? So maybe asking the question of faith based on numbers, and trying to be faithful based on obedience and service, is to set ourselves up for failure. Maybe this isn’t what faith is all about. And maybe that’s the direction Jesus wants His followers to move-in when He answers their request in such strange sounding ways.
But what is it that the institution of church does so often? It still tries to measure faith. Then there will always be something we could have done or shouldn’t have done. We’re always found wanting no matter how good and decent we may try to be. We’ve set-up ourselves to fail in this way. It can even lead some people to think they’re not worthy of God when they need God the most. Jesus’ words today challenge us to think about all of this differently. To realize that to ask the impossible is not a fair request in the first place. That maybe we’re not only obedient but still worthless slaves, but that instead faith is a gift from God that can’t be measured or quantified. Maybe our faith is supposed to complement the faith Jesus already has in us. We can’t uproot trees, but we can believe that Jesus never expected us to in the first place, that faith isn’t about power, but about presence, the presence of God in our lives. And for this presence we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo