Year C, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, 6 October 2019
Trinity Church on the Green
I will admit from the get-go that today’s Gospel makes me uneasy.
First, there’s the mustard seed. We all know this one, right? The tiny mustard seed, that’s only 1 or 2 millimeters in size, that can grow into a large and unruly bush. Tiny efforts can produce big results. Watch out, that almost sounds like a prosperity gospel pitch! Jesus seems to promise the disciples that by having a teeny, tiny, mustard seed sized bit of faith, that magic and miracles can happen. One’s best guess is that Jesus gestured to the mulberry tree as it just happened to be the closest prop at the time – and Jesus, in the moment, dreamt up a random, unlikely scenario, that it could be uprooted and planted in the sea. Somehow, I doubt any of us here have ever done our landscaping by our faith alone. Yet we all know this maxim, and perhaps some of us have even had it used against us. I recall that, during our last move, I cleaned out a container of mustard seeds from our kitchen spice cabinet – not because I ever use mustard seeds in recipes, mind you, but because I had been to countless retreats and other churchy events where the theme was “Just have faith the size of a mustard seed!” I had been given such a mustard seed each time, so I had accumulated many, many mustard seeds – I’m not sure my faith increased – my mustard seeds did, and alas, they eventually went in the trash bin.
Ok, ok. Luke’s Jesus is not being literal, or talking about magic, we know that he is speaking through metaphor.
But then, Jesus goes on to admonish the disciples, while talking about problematic slave and master dynamics. I find this part of the passage especially jarring, and I can only imagine how it sounds to people of color to hear it suggested that the disciples, and we in turn, should see ourselves as “worthless slaves.” You will note that “slaves” is what is printed in your bulletin, but Deacon Kyle and I decided he would substitute “servants” in his proclamation of the Gospel, especially as the original word can be translated either way. As we live in a country in which the aftereffects of a dehumanizing and deadly system of slavery are still experienced by far too many, we must use great care – one could easily hear this and experience it as a tipping point.
So what is the good news in this passage? What is Jesus really teaching us about faith?
At the very least, Jesus is saying that faith can’t be quantified. He seems to think that the disciples’ request for him to increase their faith is misguided. Jesus answers not about quantity, but about sufficiency: he affirms the power of faith.
Jesus then introduces the problematic second metaphor: that of a slave who works without expectation of special treatment. Again, one can hear this in a most negative way, that an obedient disciple must do as they’re told, and that they are worthless. This borders on spiritual abuse.
One helpful note is that other translations of this passage don’t use “worthless.” The word used instead gets translated into “unworthy,” which is a little better. In fact, we use “unworthy” to describe ourselves in our liturgy as we come before God’s table each week.
As problematic and difficult as it is to hear Jesus speak about the slave and the master, Jesus is describing a real work relationship that existed in the context of his society and time. Let’s instead use a work relationship from our context. Do any of us deserve congratulations for merely showing up at our jobs? Should we be rewarded for doing the bare minimum of what is expected of us? Jesus seems to say no. The relationship between the slave and the master in Jesus’ time was expected to be of mutual accountability and expectation, the way it should be between any one of us and our employer or employee. We do our jobs, we get our tasks done, and we receive our paycheck in return. We don’t get a party or a ticker tape parade simply for showing up to work Monday to Friday. Similarly at home, we probably don’t get rewarded or even thanked each time we do the laundry, or the dishes, or our homework. The same goes for faith: we are to serve Jesus with no expectation of a reward. In fact, it might seem that the more we work for God, the more work we will get! The work of faith often includes many thankless tasks.
And faith is action! In Hebrew, faith is a verb. The Hebrew word for faith is a verb, therefore it is an action word. In English, it’s a noun: one has faith. In Hebrew, one DOES faith. One LIVES OUT faith. To understand faith in this way then is to understand it as a way of life. We are to serve God out of a sense of duty and delight. To question whether one has enough faith is missing the mark. Instead, what each of us has is enough, even if it only seems like a tiny, measly, mustard seed sized bit. Jesus tells us that by serving God, by living out our faith, we will find our faith strengthened. The good news is that faith can now be understood as cheerful, hopeful, trusting, strong even in weakness – not because of the believer, but because of the God we believe in. Whether we can feel it ourselves or not, Jesus’ message to us today is “You already have the faith you need. Now go live it!” Faith, Jesus tells us, is a matter of duty within relationship. Faith, Jesus tells us, is not something that we can do alone. Faith, Jesus tells us, is lived out in interactions between two or more people.
There is a wonderful quote of G.K. Chesterton: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Living a life of faith is doing so not seeking glory, thanks, or praise. Instead, living a life of faith is always an act of great love. Even by serving in the most simple and mundane ways, we show great love. Our Christian journey is to learn not to expect to be thanked but to give ourselves away for others, doing acts of faith and love in obedience to God.
So, the faith we have is enough. How will we live it out this week?