BIBLE READINGS:††† 1 Timothy 2:1-7†††† Luke 17:5-10
Why do the disciples ask Jesus to increase
their faith? Is it because they are trying to earn God's favour? And isn't this
something we all do - constantly striving to earn the love and favour of our
friends, our families, and of God.
In the reading we heard from Luke, Jesus tackles this issue, but he comes at it from a rather unexpected angle. There doesnít seem to be anything wrong with what the disciples are asking. ďLord, increase our faith!Ē Who among you has ever prayed to God to give you more faith? Seems like a perfectly good thing to do.
Although we didnít hear it, this request had a context which makes it seem all the more like the only reasonable response. Jesus has just been giving them a talking to about the very high standards of behaviour expected of them. He says that if they do or say things which cause other people to stumble in their discipleship, then theyíd be better off being thrown into the sea to drown. And he goes on to say that when other Christians sin, we are to be straight with them and call them to account. And then he says that if another Christian does the wrong thing by us and then asks our forgiveness, we are to forgive them, and we are to go on forgiving them even if they do the same thing seven times a day and keep asking forgiveness again.
So it is when faced with these
sort of superhuman expectations that the disciples throw up their hands in
exasperation and say, ďLord, increase our faith!Ē
But Jesus is rather dismissive of their request. ďIf you had faith the size of a small seed, you could tell a great tree to go jump in the lake and it would.Ē Now we usually react to this response by hanging our heads and feeling inadequate. But thatís not what Jesus is trying to get us to do. When he says if you had enough faith you could move mountains, his point is that you donít and you canít. And that that is not about to change. He is saying you donít need more faith; that faith is not something you can build up extra reserves of to enable you to do miraculous things. Faith is not a thing that you can have measurable amounts of, more or less. Faith is something you do. Just get on with living with integrity and loving one another and stop trying to measure your performance on some sort of faith meter.
But then he turns the idea back on itself and uses an illustration which seems rather confusing in the circumstances, because it doesnít seem to be about faith. He points to the example of a person who owns a slave and how you donít go out of your way to shower the slave with gratitude every time they do their job. So it is with us, he says. When we have done all that God requires of us, we should just say, ďWe are only slaves, and we have only done our job. Nothing special.Ē
Now we are really much into owning slaves in Australia Ė so maybe some more up to date images might help. How many of you have ever rung up the water company just to thank them for keeping the water supply coming to your taps? Why not? Is it because we are ungrateful? Or is it because we have a right to expect that they will do what they are paid to do and we are entitled to just take it for granted?
Or for those of you who are married. You donít make a special point of thanking your partner every week for not having an affair with someone else, do you? You may well be thankful that they didnít, but if you were needing to say it all the time, it would probably be more an indication of insecurity and distrust than of loving gratitude. You have made commitments to one another and you both have a right to expect those commitments to be honoured. If your partner kept thanking you for not having an affair, youíd probably be offended at the implication that you might become an unfaithful and untrustworthy person at any moment. Jesus is saying the same thing. In following Jesus you make certain commitments to God. You are not owed any special thanks or favours simply for doing what you said you would do and fulfilling the normal expectations of any Christian.
Now the connection to the question about acquiring more faith is not obvious, but what Jesus is doing is not so much discussing the question as unmasking the motivation behind it. We think that the tough demands of accountability and forgiveness are the hard part of what Jesus has to say, but Jesus is turning it back and saying that the reason we find that so hard is because we are really having even more trouble with something else: the basic nature of our relationship with God. We know the truth in my head, but we havenít yet grasped it deep in our bones. The truth has yet to set us free, because our knowing of it is too superficial.
What Jesus is exposing here, is our false belief that we can earn Godís love and grace, and that we have to. Even though we might understand the theology of grace, in the inner workings of our lives where our basic motivations and expectations operate, we are still striving harder and harder to try to please God and earn Godís love. We are still driven by an expectation that nothing good is ever given for free, but that good things only come to those who prove that they deserve them. And part of our sickness is that the standards we imagine we need to achieve just keep getting bigger and bigger and more and more unattainable. Yesterdayís accomplishment becomes tomorrowís minimum expectation and the love and acceptance we crave seem always like the carrot on the stick, just out of reach, but close enough that we can keep deluding ourselves that with just a little more effort weíll have it in our grasp.
And the double edged message of Jesus in this passage is just about the hardest thing in the whole gospel for us to hear, and yet it is at the very heart of the good news. On the one hand, Jesus is telling us that we are absolutely right. The standards required to please God and earn Godís love are unattainable. They are always out of reach. If we gave every ounce of strength and determination and understanding we will ever have in our lives, we could still do nothing more than our basic duty as Christians. We could still never exceed the basic expectations of faithful discipleship. We would still be just another worthless slave who has done nothing more than our job and has done nothing worthy of special rewards. And that half of the truth leaves us still desperately hungry for the love and affirmation we crave deep in our bones. All our striving is in vain. The joy and freedom of knowing we are loved and cherished and valued continue to elude us.
But that is not all Jesus is saying. By unmasking our desperate striving and confronting us with this bad news, he is pointing to something else. He is preparing us for the gospel, the good news, even though he is acknowledging how much difficulty we will have accepting it. He is telling us that our efforts to earn Godís love and grace are not the gospel at all. In fact they are a classic form of pagan religion. They are little different from sacrificing a lamb to the gods to ensure good crops. They amount to an attempt to purchase Godís favour, to pay the price that will put God in my debt and oblige God to give me what I have earned.
But the gospel which Jesus embodied and to which Jesus is pointing here is nothing like that. Godís love and favour are given to us as a free gift, and given to us in reckless abundance. Whether we do anything God asks of us or nothing God asks of us, God loves us and cherishes us and offers us more joy and security and freedom than we could ever imagine. There is nothing we can do that could make God love us more, and nothing we could fail to do that would make God love us less. And if there is any earning in the relationship at all, it is that God has paid such a huge price for us, has made such enormous sacrifices for us, that God has earned the right to our love and gratitude and commitment. It is not that we ever have to earn Godís.
But we find this good news so very, very difficult to accept. Something in us resists that good news - a lack of humility and a fear of trusting. Because accepting this gospel means letting go of control over our own destinies and we donít like letting go of control. As long as we have to earn Godís love, we am still in control of the relationship. If God is obliged to reward my efforts, then we can double our efforts in order to extract double the blessing. We can keep God responding to our efforts instead of putting ourselves at the mercy of Godís love and grace. And even though we are doomed to never be good enough, this distortion of the relationship encourages us to be self-righteousness and arrogant because even though we can never get good enough, we can out-perform others and look down on them and feel that at least God might reward us for the best effort.
But if Godís love and grace are sheer gift and not something we can earn and control, then we must stand empty-handed and vulnerable before God. We am utterly dependent, and unable to gain what we most need by our own efforts. We must put our trust in God, knowing that God does not owe us anything and that nothing we can do will make any difference to God loving us and caring about us. This is a terrifyingly vulnerable place to stand.
But the truth is that all our efforts to earn Godís love are prove futile anyway. Clinging to control of the relationship does not meant that the relationship will produce what we hunger for. Quite the opposite. All it does is shut us off from the experience of Godís love and grace. God has never stopped loving us, but we turn our backs and do not allow that love near. As long as we are driving ourselves to ever greater efforts to earn it, we are not free to just open our hands and accept the gift that is offered us. As long as we try to control and measure and extract approval from God by our own efforts, we are unable to just sink into the waiting arms of God and drink deeply from the wellsprings of grace.
When we stand up in a moment and recite an affirmation of our faith, it is not in order that we might impress God with our sincerity. When we pray for the world it is not earning us extra points for our effort. And when we hold out our hands to receive the broken bread, it is not in the expectation that it will prove to be some kind of spiritual drug to build up our faith and enable us to perform at a higher level. We do these things because God has sacrificed everything for us and poured out love and mercy and desire and grace on us in lavish abundance, more than we could ever comprehend, more than our hungering hearts could ever consume. And we do these things so that we might write the gospel story into our hearts, that we might act it out and so come to know, deep in our bones, that it is only as we release our controlling grip and stand empty-handed and vulnerable and trusting before God, that we will enter into the joyous freedom of those who know themselves beloved and drink deeply from the wellsprings of mercy and grace.