Faith As Small As A Mustard Seed

Ordinary 27C

Luke 17: 5 10


Jesus is now talking to his close circle of disciples - the Apostles.

The section Verses 1 — 10 comprises 4 sayings, i.e. Verses 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, 7 — 10.

The Jerome Commentary tells us: "It is difficult to locate any catchword or motif that unites the three (or four) sayings and the parable of this section, unless it be the common themes stretching throughout Luke's Gospel:

  • God's concern for the lowly
  • Faith in the hidden presence of the kingdom and
  • Man's need for redemption.

Some are like proverbs — short pithy sayings which contain their own meaning. They are remnants of the early Church's "verbal catechism", and St Luke has taken them and made a unique lesson.

  • In Verses 1 and 2 Jesus said that in the fellowship of believers, disciples are to be responsibly considerate of one another. If not — it would be better if a millstone were fixed around their neck and they were thrown into the sea!
  • In Verses 3 and 4 Jesus declares very dramatically that if someone sins against you: you must still show consideration for that person — first by correctly rebuking them, then by forgiving as many times as it is necessary!

We move on now to this week's reading.

Some Notes On Our Text

Verses 5 and 6

After listening attentively to our Lord as he gave them some pretty heavy material to take in it's no wonder "the Apostles said to the Lord: "Increase our faith." In other words: "How can we hope to do all this without a gift of extra faith?"

We note that here we have the terms "Apostles" and "the Lord". Luke clearly has in mind not only Jesus and his immediate followers but also the risen Lord of the Church and the Apostles as leaders of that Church. In verse 5 they are feeling the burden, the heavy burden of that leadership. (Craddock on Luke)

Our Lord gives a most assuring response: "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you."

Craddock helps us "unpack" this immensely rich sentence.

The Greek language has basically two types of "if" clauses: those which express a condition contrary to the fact ("if I were you") and those which express a condition according to fact ("if Jesus is our Lord"). The conditional clause in verse 6 is of this second type; one could translate it "If you had faith [and you do]. " Jesus' response, then, is not a reprimand for an absence of faith but an affirmation of the faith they have and an invitation to live out the full possibilities of that faith. Even the small faith they already have cancels out words such as "impossible" (a tree being uprooted) and "absurd" (planting a tree in the sea) and puts them in touch with the power of God. That Luke has "sycamine tree' (a kind of mulberry) instead of "mountain" as in Matthew and Mark in no way alters the message: faith lays hold of God with whom nothing is impossible, and it is God who empowers the life of discipleship.

So Jesus is saying: "What you need is not more faith, but the right kind of faith — faith which is prepared to unfold, grow, and reach its full potential". Notice, with this "right faith" you can work wonders by a word.

Stuhlmueller adds a helpful perspective to this explanation. He writes in his commentary on Luke:

When the Apostles asked for faith to perform wonders, Jesus replied that the kind of faith which would usher in the messianic age was the humble interior spirit of accepting God's Word (symbolised by the mustard seed). With this faith the universe "would have already obeyed you" in a wondrous way, as the last part of verse 6 should be translated.

We are compelled yet again to draw attention to our Lord's frequent emphasis on the importance of accepting, valuing, nurturing, dwelling on, and beholding God's Word within us. That is a necessary prerequisite before any task in his Kingdom can be accomplished. Later, of course, he would give himself for us as our communion with the Word (the Last Supper).

Verses 7 and 10

Our Lord then outlines a short parable from which we list some key points:

  • There is a warning to Church leaders that they can never stop and rest in the belief they have worked enough. Luke emphasises total dedication throughout.
  • The world's idea of success is to lord it over others. Jesus' way is the reverse: servant based.
  • They wanted faith that would blow away all uncertainty and doubt. Jesus insists they start with the faith they have and let the power of God unfold!
  • There is no place or time at which the disciple can say — "I have completed my service - now I want to be served for a change."

Cox, in The Gospel Story, sums it up:

This parable is probably only a fragment of an instruction on the danger of pride, arising from their power to work great miracles, and the conversions they will make in their future labours. It is based on the state of slavery then common in Palestine. They must not think of themselves as great rabbis, like some of the Pharisees; they must humbly serve like slaves.

In Conclusion

  • Leaders need to remember that they are the servants of the servants of God.
  • All members of God's household need to remember that they come under the same instructions.
  • Jesus was yet to drive home with absolute force the lesson that they must serve as he had come to serve.

With them we can ask the Lord "Let our faith increase."

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