And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you. – Luke 17:5-6
This is one of those verses we point to when we talk about faith. That even the smallest bit of faith could accomplish great things. Though it is true, in the context, I believe Jesus was pointing out a much more practical aspect to Christianity.
We often look for deeper truths or more spiritual activity, while missing the very basic, practical aspects of Christianity. In this passage, Jesus was laying out some very basic elements of Christian living, only to be interrupted with the disciples request to have their faith increased. Jesus responds by saying, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.” Then, He gets back to His practical Christian living discussion. It was almost as though He was saying, “The simplest of faith can accomplish great things, but how are you living it out?” After all, James reminds us that, “… faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). Faith compels us to action.
The next verse begins with the conjunction “but.” He contrasts the simple faith with some practical action. So what was Jesus emphasizing we do?
The chapter starts out with Jesus explaining that there will be offenses in this world. Our response to those offenses are opportunities to display our faith.
Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. – Luke 17:3-4
This is what I like to call “rubber meets the road” Christianity. Where Christian living goes from a mere metaphor to reality. We are never more like Christ than when we forgive someone who doesn’t deserve the forgiveness. In this passage, Jesus brings a challenge that if someone offends you and comes to you repentant and asking for forgiveness, that we ought to forgive. That seems simple enough. It seems like an obvious Christian response. But then Jesus says that if he offends you seven times in one day, and comes to you in repentance, you are to forgive him. Most of us would respond with, “If he was truly sorry, he wouldn’t keep doing it.” I think of the old adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Jesus calls His followers to a higher standard. It is not our job to judge the heart, but to respond with a forgiving spirit. This is how God forgives us. As we sin against Him day after day, many times with the same sins, God forgives. He now calls us to forgive likewise.
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32
After the disciples interrupted Jesus by asking Him to increase their faith, Jesus contrasted faith with action. He spoke of great faith as something relatively simple. If you have a little faith, like the size of a mustard seek, you can do great things. Then, Jesus uses the conjunction “but,” as if to say what would follow was greater. Often we get distracted with the mystical aspect of the faith when the opportunity to display our faith is right in front of us. So Jesus gave a story of a servant who does everything that is expected of him. Anyone would make the assessment that he was a good servant. However, Jesus points out the fact that all he did was that which was his duty to do. Therefore, he was an unprofitable servant. The first trait that should be obvious in the Christian life was forgiveness. Here the second trait of a follower of Jesus is servant-hood. Christians should be first class servers. It is simply our duty. It is, in fact, how we serve the Lord.
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. – Matthew 25:35-40
Don’t get distracted
Faith is important. It is so important that without it, we cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6). However, it is easy to focus on the aspects of the Christian life that are subjective while missing the opportunities to objectively display it. Faith should lead us to action. We are called to suffer and forgive, yet how many Christians hold grudges and are taken by bitterness? We are called to serve, yet how many Christians are willing to drop what they are doing to meet needs? Instead, we argue about importance and position. These are opportunities to display our faith.
The disciples often got distracted by these things. Peter asked if seven times was enough to forgive and Jesus responded with 70 times seven (Matthew 18:21-22). Other times the disciples were arguing about position and who was going to be at Jesus right and left hands (Mark 10:35-37). Instead, Jesus often repeated the theme that the greatest is not the one who is served by the most, but the one who serves the most (Matthew 23:11). Rather than focusing on “increasing our faith,” maybe we should increase our walk, by faith. Maybe then, we will see God increasing our faith. Hebrews 11 displays a whole list of people who’s faith led them to action. It was an outward display of their inward faith.
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? – James 2:10