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Refections on the Gospel, Week before October 6, 2013

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Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The 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. 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’? 8Would 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’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’”

What I am Learning:

Christians have been arguing over the meaning of "faith" for a long time.

I suspect that many Christians would understand the disciples to be saying this:  "Jesus, help us to fully agree with you intellectually and not have any doubts."

A person trained in the theology of the protestant reformation understand the disciples to be saying: "Jesus, give us the gift of trust in your love in the midst of our doubts."

Of the two, I would go with the second any day because the first makes "faith" into just one more "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" requirement for God to love us. But then the problem remains: When have do we believe enough?

The reformation answered this question by saying that faith and doubt are not opposites, but that faith is a gift of God in which we trust God's love for us. So the question of whether we trust enough is no longer the issue -  God's gift can be trusted, God's love is secure and we are secure in it.

We can relax into God's love and acceptance of us, then!

All this being said, this is not the issue in the text, or at least not exactly.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus has been hitting three topics very hard in the last few chapters:

  • Everyone is welcome into God's way of mutuality
  • God's way of mutuality includes economic equality
  • People with privilege in the Roman domination culture won't give up their economic and power advantages easily

In other words, Jesus' vision for the kingdom (what we call God's way of mutuality) is really, really different from the way things were in some practical ways. The movement from how things were to Jesus' vision for the world seemed so difficult, the disciples were understandably overwhelmed. Despite the overwhelming nature of this change, the disciples had the faith to ask for more.

According to Malina and Rohrbaugh, "faith" in this passage refers to being loyal to Jesus: They are asking to be a part of Jesus' family despite the overwhelming challenges. It seems their willingness was enough.

He answers with a very powerful image from the first century: faith as a mustard seed.

As the Romans took away people's family farms through their economic policies (by getting people into debt and then foreclosing on them) people would seek work on those same farms. It seems that some of these folks would take a few mustard seeds in their pockets and sow them in the ground. Mustard plants were a noxious weed that became a symbol of resistance to the Romans and cut down the yield from the crops.

How would the disciples deal with the overwhelming odds against God's way of mutuality emerging in the midst of the Roman empire?

He invited them to realize that they do not need to use "brute force" methods against the Romans. Rather Jesus' movement would take root like mustard seeds in the fields - until the whole landscape is transformed by them.

Because we don't need to find a lever big enough to change the whole world at once, we don't have the excuse not to act in the ways we can. We are each one small seed, almost invisible to the larger world. But when each of us makes our small contribution God changes the world. This is what he means by the "unprofitable servant" sentence. He is saying that it's time to get to work.

We so often despair at the bad news in the news that we fail to do what we, and only we, can do. Because we are loved, we can dare to participate, as a loyal and beloved part of Jesus' family, in the mustard seed resistance to domination until everything is put to right - including economic justice.

Jesus is saying to us:  "Sow yourselves, little mustard seeds, and trust that God is changing the world."