Does Size Matter??

This Gospel makes us wonder. How much faith does a person need? According to Luke, the ones closest to Jesus believe they don’t have enough: “Increase our faith!” they plead.
Despite 2000+ years separating their experience from ours, on one level we understand their appeal because in our culture we often think we need more of everything. We are very attentive to what is missing, and don’t pay much attention to what is in abundance.
Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, healing and teaching as he makes his way. Traveling with him are disciples and apostles (Luke sometimes distinguishes the two). Crowds gather, people seek healing, and challengers seek answers. There are seven references to the coming death of Jesus, so even this early there are signposts.
Our passage is framed by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, on one side, and the Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks, on the other. It constitutes the second half of a four-part series of loosely connected teachings related to discipleship, which may be summarized as a Four Step Program: (1) Don’t be the cause of another’s sin (Greek skandalon, stumble); (2) Forgive, again; (3) Miniscule faith is sufficient; (4) Discipleship is not about reward: Just do it!
These are challenging commands — maybe even impossible ones — then and now. It is a sobering thought to recognize one’s capacity to cause another’s stumbling, despite intentions otherwise. Plus, it is hard enough to forgive, even once. But seven times in a single day?! No wonder the apostles ask Jesus for a transfusion of faith (literally “Add faith to us!”).
More faith? Better faith? Any faith at all?
When it comes to faith (Greek pistis, may also be translated as trust, confidence, commitment), Jesus suggests that size does not matter; even a seed of faith holds tree-like potential. Jesus’ followers can live and act on the basis of whatever faith is theirs, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. We might recall that even the immeasurable reign of God is compared to a mustard seed (Luke 13:19).
As commentators note, the Greek grammar of Jesus’ response to the apostles’ request in Luke 17:6 presents difficulties for translation. It is a mixed conditional sentence. The “if” clause is a simple condition (assumed to be true for the sake of argument), while the “then” clause suggests a contrary-to-fact condition (assumed to be untrue for the sake of argument).
Mulberry trees do not routinely replant themselves, in the sea or elsewhere, suggesting that most Jesus-followers have faith even smaller than a mustard seed. So then, is Jesus chastising the apostles for a complete lack of faith? Or, rather, is he encouraging them not to worry about the smallness of their faith? Greek grammar or no, Jesus’ answer seems to be a mixed one.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, the closest followers of Jesus reveal their own “mixed” level of faith. On one hand, they have left homes and jobs and families in order to follow Jesus. It has not been easy, as they have encountered hostility from many who oppose Jesus (Luke 11:53; 13:31; 16:14). Still they have stuck around, even for this final journey toward Jerusalem, even when they receive a warning from Jesus himself that he is going to be crucified. Through the centuries, there have been numberous examples of this kind of faith in every congregation and community.
At the same time, we see turmoil and fear in our world, so we can empathize with the disciples when faith wavers. When the wind roars and the waves batter their boat as they cross the Sea of Galilee, even as Jesus sleeps beside them, they are overwhelmed by terror. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asks, after calming the storm (Luke 8:25). Later, he chides their limited trust in God. “If God clothes the grass … how much more will [God] clothe you — you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28).
There is a message here that we often miss: Being close to Jesus, being in proximity to Jesus does not guarantee unwavering faith.
Still, examples of faithfulness abound in Luke’s Gospel, suggesting that faith is not defined as having intellectual certainty, nor acceptance of proper theological constructs, nor even (necessarily) by people who consider themselves to be closest to Jesus. Faith manifests itself in many ways, by a variety of people.
Faith is persistence in reaching out to Jesus (Luke 5:17-26) and trusting in Jesus’ power and authority (7:1-10). Faith is responding with love to forgiveness received (7:44-50), not letting fear get the upper hand (8:22-25), and being willing to take risks that challenge the status quo (8:43-48). Faith is giving praise to God (17:11-19), having confidence in God’s desire for justice (18:1-8), and being willing to ask Jesus for what we need (18:35-43).1
I can think back over my life and see examples of great heroic faith in the face of fear, moments of very tiny amounts of faith when all seemed lost, and other times when that same small amount of faith grew into something magnificent–as if the mulberry tree in the back yard had indeed uprooted itself and replanted itself in the Mediterranean.
Jesus closes his four-part teaching moment with a couple of parable-like questions, both of which anticipate a negative answer: “Who among you … ?” and “Do you thank … ?” (Cf. Luke 11:5-7; 15:4).
His teaching draws from the role of a servant in the first century agrarian household. Note the similar (but different!) illustration in the parable of the watchful servants (Luke 12:35-38). In that case when the head of the household (Greek kyrios) returns from a wedding banquet, “he will fasten his belt and have them [servants] sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” In our passage, Jesus seems to suggest that those who would be leaders (the apostles; note Luke 17:5) would do best to view themselves as ones who serve.2
Instead of worrying about the size of our faith, perhaps we, like those followers of Jesus in the first century, should think less about how much faith we have and just get on with the business of living out our obedience to Christ’s commands. Depending on our age and abilities, we may find ourselves able to do very little, or at least much less that we used to be able to do. And then we recall the words of our Savior that remind us that the one who is faithful in even little things is also faithful in greater things.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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