“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” - Mother Teresa
Sometimes, as we read the Bible, Jesus doesn’t say or do what we think he should. He’s not the Jesus we think we know, and he doesn’t fit our pigeonholes, our little boxes. In Luke 17:5, some of his disciples say to him, “Increase our faith!” (NRSV). It seems like a reasonable thing to ask; after all, I want more faith, don’t you? But instead, Jesus starts talking about “worthless slaves” and not expecting thanks (vs. 7-10), and just generally being kind of a jerk.
The first time I read this passage, I wondered, “What’s going on?” I think the disciples probably wondered too. As I studied it more, though, I asked myself why they wanted “more faith”? And instead of giving them “more faith,” Jesus says, “Here’s an idea: Shut up and do something with the faith you already have. You should already have enough faith to make that mulberry tree over there jump into the sea.” (17:6, paraphrased).
Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels have Jesus talking about moving a mountain (Matt. 17:20, Mark 11:22-23) but Luke just has him talking about a poor, scrawny little mulberry tree. Mulberry trees only grow to about 5-6 feet, so this is not a big oak or maple tree like some of us are used to; some people have Christmas trees bigger than that. It’s much smaller than a mountain but how many of us really believe we could move one?
The earliest disciples believed faith wasn’t something we achieve, it was something God gives us (Rom. 10:17). But we can still develop our faith through spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, devotion time, worship, and acting out our faith. Retired UMC Bishop Will Willimon talks about “doing faith until you have it.” That means, if you don’t think you have enough faith to do something, if you’re afraid, go ahead and do it anyway. Faith is like any other discipline, like a muscle; it’s strengthened through “practice,” by exercise.
My guess is that the disciples probably wanted “more faith” in order to perform miracles or to perform bigger ones. But Jesus wanted them to be servants. We have faith so we can serve. Baptist pastor Steven Cole points out that the idea of “more faith” exalts man, not God. But true faith exalts God and exhibits itself in obedience. New Testament scholar John Nolland says it like this: “We exist for him, not he for us.” True discipleship isn’t flashy, it’s very ordinary, which is good because it means ordinary people can do it, people like me.
The “great commandment” says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37b NRSV). If everything is what’s required, then it’s impossible to exceed the minimum and there’s no reason to expect a reward. Paul wrote to the Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1 NRSV). The KJV renders that last part as “your reasonable service.” When we think we’ve done and given everything, that’s the time to do and give more.
Disciples, then and now, are like the characters in “The Wizard of Oz.” We have enough brains, enough courage, enough heart, and enough faith. What we need is the will. There’s a prayer that goes like this: “Lord, I don’t ask for a faith that would move yonder mountain; I can take enough dynamite and move it if it needs moving, but what I do need, Lord, is enough faith to move me!”
John the Baptist quoted the prophet Isaiah: “‘Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:5-6 NRSV). Our call is to get out there and put our faith to work and rearrange the landscape. Let’s move trees, level mountains, fill in valleys, but—most important—let’s move.
“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.’ . . . 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 17:5-6, 9-10 NRSV.)