“Nothing But A Cop-out!” (Luke 17:1-10)
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 6, 2019)
In our Gospel reading today, we hear the apostles of Jesus pray this simple prayer, “Increase our faith!” Sounds pretty basic and fundamental doesn’t it? Many would agree that there could not be a more appropriate prayer for anyone who claims to follow Jesus. After all, faith is essential to being saved. We are saved by faith alone, right, not by works lest we boast,” the apostle Paul writes (Eph 2:9).
But given the context in which the apostles make this request of Jesus to increase their faith and Jesus’ very stern reply to them, we really need to question if this is an appropriate prayer or not. After all, Jesus responded to their prayer with this rather terse, and I might add, harsh statement: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
I don’t know about you but I have never really thought of a mustard seed, or any other kind of seed, as having faith. I mean, I’ve planted a lot of seeds over the years and I never saw one that was a sentient being. Large or small, it might have life in it, but it has no heart or mind that is capable of faith. You plant the seed into the ground and it does its thing, whether it is a big seed or a tiny seed. It grows into a plant, mustard or otherwise.
And then, on top of this, saying to a mulberry tree to uproot itself and go into the ocean and then it does. Who has ever seen that? We don’t even see Jesus doing such a thing. If it occurred it would indeed be a real miracle. Just imagine it! It would be a wondrous sight to be behold that’s for sure!
The outlandish and hyperbolic nature of what Jesus said is the whole point. The apostles’ request for Him to increase their faith is so over the top it is actually not appropriate at all.
If you want a big mustard plant, you don’t need to find the biggest seed you can. You don’t need to add one or more seeds to it. God has designed every little mustard seed to bring forth the same big plant.
By the same token, for you and me to pray for Christ to increase our faith is a wrong prayer. Faith, like the mustard seed, is the creation of God. Scripture says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing the words of Christ” (Ro. 10:17). And again, “Faith is not your doing it is a gift of God (Eph. 2:9). Faith is not something we gin up or create within ourselves. If God creates faith, then, faith can do what God designs it to do. It doesn’t need to be added to or increased.
The problem dealt with in our text is not one of quantity but quality. The apostles literally ask Jesus: “Add to us faith.” It came in response to Jesus telling all his disciples, “If your brother sins, against you seven times in a day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Forgiveness is tough work, especially when it comes to repeat offenders! The apostles knew and felt this. I mean, who could do such forgiving? No matter how contrite the person who sinned against you appears, if they do it again and again, how in the world do you forgive them? Aren’t you just encouraging them to hurt you again? They need to learn a lesson, don’t they? How are they going to learn not to do it if you keep forgiving them? It doesn’t make sense! Neither does it seem fair!
Accordingly, feeling the almost impossible nature of what Jesus was asking, the apostles pleaded, “Add to us faith.”
Such a request, however, is nothing more than a cop-out, an excuse to not do something. It is actually an attempt to avoid a responsibility, or in this case, an expectation Jesus had of them. Jesus did not say to forgive is a choice. He said, “forgive him.”
So, when the apostles asked to have Him add to them faith, they were in essence giving themselves an out to forgiving. “Oh, we just can’t possibly do that. To forgive that habitual sinner is just too hard to expect of us. We need more faith to do that, Lord. We’ll just have to wait until You give us more faith.”
If a disciple of Jesus thinks he/she needs additional faith to do what is simply expected by his Lord, then it’s just a cop-out to do nothing. He doesn’t really trust His Lord Who gave him his faith in the first place. Faith is not something that is of a limited quantity that can be added to or taken away from. Faith is what it is. It can accomplish what it is created to do by its Creator. Weak or strong are simply modifiers of faith invented by those who want to make excuses for their lack of doing what is expected or their unwillingness to do what is commanded. “O, make my faith stronger, then I will do what you ask, LORD!” Cop-out!
So Jesus references a scenario all His disciples can easily relate to. He says, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.' "
If you are hired to do a job and you do it, should you expect a bonus or a promotion or some big award from your boss? We would all agree such an expectation would be outlandish, right! If your teacher assigns you some homework and you do it, should you expect your teacher to throw you a party for doing it? Silly, right!
God in His grace and through His Word gives us faith to trust in Him and His Son Jesus for our life, our salvation, for everything. Accordingly, when He gives us something to do in faith, ought we expect Him to celebrate us or compliment us for doing it? If He commands us to do something that will require that we simply trust in Him, should we then insinuate that He is just expecting too much from us by asking Him to give us more faith?
Faith is nothing without its object; that is, what faith clings to. But if I ask for an increase in faith, it reveals the object of my faith is actually my faith. That is idolatry not real faith. It is to have a false god. True faith, faith that can cause a tree to jump into the sea or mountains to move, is faith that has as its object Jesus Christ, true God and true Savior. It’s willingness to do whatever the Lord asks is not because it is stronger than someone else’s faith but it is because it is anchored in the LORD and in His strength… His grace…. His promises… His doing. It trusts that if He expects me to forgive the one who sins against me a thousand times then He will enable me to do so with the same power that enabled Him to forgive me a million times.
A desperate father once came up to Jesus, imploring Him to heal his son. Jesus said to the poor father, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23,24).
This father had it right! It is not a matter of how much or little faith one has. It is a matter of faith or no faith. In our O.T. text we hear the LORD say, “the righteous shall live by his faith” not by “great faith” or “strong faith.” Faith properly anchored in Jesus heals, saves, and does what the LORD asks His humble servant to do. Such faith knows that it is not faith at all, it is Jesus who heals, saves and causes the mulberry tree to jump into the sea!
Many would and have called the apostle Paul a man of great faith. But I ask you, was his faith greater, bigger, of much more substance than yours or was it that Paul, by God’s grace, simply walked and lived by the faith the LORD gave him?
Listen to his own testimony of faith. There’s no cop out here seeking more faith. There’s simply a humble confidence in the LORD. Paul wrote: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” (2 Tim. 1:8-12)
Faith does not look to itself. It does not desire to be something spectacular. Faith does not look to be added to so that it can do what God expects of it when He gave it to us. Does He not know how much faith is sufficient? Faith simply says, “I am an unworthy servant. I only do what is expected of me.” But what faith does do is hold on to Him who is Spectacular and does the unexpected; that is, Jesus Christ. After all, the LORD, Jesus Christ did not sit down to be served but He sacrificed His life to save you and bring you life.
Do you really need more faith… big faith? You have a really big, immensely gracious God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who has accomplished all you need for salvation and life. In all humility trust Him! Amen.