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6 October 2019
Luke 17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 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.
Luke 17:7 “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’? 8 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’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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!’”
The teachings here seem rather disparate (even vv. 1-4 contain two distinct issues). The NRSV has the general heading “Some Sayings of Jesus” and that seems accurate. The various sections are proverbial in tone, so that the meaning is intrinsic to each rather than found in the surrounding context.
As a result, the verses chosen for today combine traditions. Vv. 5-6 are also found once in Mark in the context of a fig tree (Mark 11:20-23) and twice in Matthew (Matt 17:20; 21:21). Our version in Luke seems to be a conflation of the two (compare the trees, mountains and seas). Why anyone might want to plant a mulberry tree in the sea in not immediately evident! Vv. 7-10 are unique to Luke and without comparison elsewhere. The wide setting in Luke is his emphasis on hospitality and on faith.
It might be possible to think that the first section expresses the difficulty of faith felt by the disciples and, in the second section, Jesus is made to respond by saying the challenge is well within reach!
Kind of writing
The first scene is proverbial in the form in an anecdote, sparked by the request of the disciples. The second scene is really a parable—but a peculiar one for Luke. Unlike the parables in Luke 15, there is no joy, no laughter and the teaching is in tension with the teaching of the Prodigal Son, where the father rejects slavery as the appropriate mode of relationship. While that latter teaching stands, the present parable must be in response to a situation of complacency or over-confidence. Humility (a true assessment of one’s self, not the same as humiliation) is certainly a theme of Luke’s (see the second set of verses in the next section).
Old Testament background
Look, the one whose desires are not upright will faint from exhaustion, but the person of integrity will live because of his faithfulness. (Habakkuk 2:4 NET)
I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”; I said in my consternation, “Everyone is a liar.” (Psalms 116:10–11 NRSV)
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. (Psalms 37:5–7 NRSV)
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honour; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Psalms 62:5–8 NRSV)
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” (Psalms 31:14 NRSV)
New Testament foreground
On Faith: And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:45) He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25) “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31–32)
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. (Romans 3:27)
On Humility: For he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; (Luke 1:48) He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. (Luke 1:52) For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
When they came to Paul, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. (Acts 20:18–19)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.” (Romans 1:16–17 NET)
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1Corinthians 13:2–3)
Verse 5 Faith as a noun or adjective is frequent in Luke (Luke 5:20; 7:9, 50; 8:25, 48; 17:5–6, 19; 18:8, 42; 22:32) and also as a verb (Luke 1:20, 45; 8:12–13, 50; 16:11; 20:5; 22:67; 24:25). “Increase” in English has the same nuance as in Greek: it means to add to something that is already there.
Verse 6 Cf. Matthew’s version: He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20). In Luke, the mustard seed was already mentioned to create a contrast between small beginnings and great growth. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches. (Luke 13:19) Transplanting a tree into the sea is hyperbole to get across the message (the action as such seems rather futile).
Verse 7 Servant is a major category occurring frequently throughout Luke (x 26). The opening question expects the answer “no one”, because in the context, masters do not serve their slaves! There is a tremendous contrast with chapter twelve in Luke: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. (Luke 12:35–38) It is a good reminder that the partial insights of single passages need to be read in the light of other teachings elsewhere in the Gospel.
Verse 8 In effect, when you have done the basic requirements, don’t think that is anything extraordinary. The extra required in Christians is captured in another passage in Luke: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32–36)
Verse 9 The very next story deals with gratitude towards the Lord himself.
Verse 10 The word worthless occurs only twice in the NT. The other occurrence is alarming: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 25:30)
Pointers for prayer
1. Faith can move mountains…well it can certainly get us moving. Recall a time when you were full of self-doubt, skepticism about a project, or lacking trust in God. What was that like? Contrast this with times when you believed in yourself, or in the value of a project you had undertaken, or when your faith and trust in God were strong. What kind of faith have you found enriched your life?
2. Faith is like a mustard seed—small—and sometimes we may be tempted to wait till our faith grows. Part of the message in the gospel is to use the faith we have, even though it may be small. That is how we grow in belief in ourselves and in God’s presence in our lives. Does your experience back up this?
3. It is nice when what we do is recognised and acknowledged, but the desire for recognition leaves us vulnerable It is not always forthcoming. It can be helpful if our main motivation in doing something is the value of the action itself. Have you experienced this?
4. Love is a free gift. What is given lovingly is not given because of a claim. What is your experience of the freedom of love, given and received?
God, the rock of our salvation, whose gifts can never fail, deepen the faith you have already bestowed and let its power be seen in your servants.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
The cry of the disciples to the Lord, “increase our faith,” resonates very much with us today. Is being a person of faith harder today than it has ever been? In one sense no: previous generations too had to struggle. But today has its particular challenges. For the most part, public discourse is against faith in general and against church in particular. It would be easy to lose heart. Just holding on to faith would be enough, not to mention growing!! We grow in faith by desire and by practice—desire for God and the practice of prayer. The times call us to focus on the heart of the Christian project—Jesus and the Gospel—and on the heart of discipleship—love and service.
“Lord, increase our faith!” Open our hearts to your presence in our lives.