There are a couple of messages in Jesus’ words we’ve heard today that may puzzle us or even disturb our souls. Just remember, when the Bible does that to us, we’re growing.
I feel the need to preach this sermon backward relative to the text. By first exploring what Jesus said about the slave who had just come in from the fields, I think we can better understand what Jesus said about faith and its tremendous power.
Slaves of God
I initially don’t like the example of the slave coming in from the field. First of all, the idea of slavery is foreign to us now, so it’s hard to get into the right frame of mind to hear the example. Slavery was not uncommon in Jesus’ day, however, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus used the relationship as a metaphor.
The real source of my reaction, however, stems from the self-assured American in me. The line of questioning starts out okay: How would you handle your slave? Would you just let him plop down at the table before he finishes his last task of the day, which is to feed you? We as hearers of the story are in a position of power, a position any ambitious American seeks.
Jesus was setting us up, though. In the end, he flipped the story on us. Suddenly, we are the slaves, subservient to God. Even if we do everything we are supposed to do as God’s creation, we can at best say at the end of our lives, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Those of us living in a world where we equate our success with our own genius or hard work may flinch at such a message. It strikes at our egos, at our sense that we can climb the ladder in God’s kingdom through sheer hard work. It is a message designed to humble us, to remind us of God’s infinite vastness and power and our inability to match him in any way.
When we find ourselves appropriately humbled, we’re at a point where we can at least begin to hear what Jesus had to say earlier about faith.
The Source of Faith
The disciples had been hearing some hard words from Jesus. He had warned them about the extreme danger of being the cause of other people’s sin. He also had talked about his powerful demand that we learn to forgive those who offend us, particularly if they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if one of them were to sin against us seven times a day, and then repent, we would be called to forgive that person seven times a day.
The disciples clearly felt they weren’t up to the task. “Increase our faith!” they cried out. Jesus told them they first might want to find faith.
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—that’s a very tiny seed—”you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Faith is faith, Jesus was saying. It has great power.
It has great power not because of anything we do, but because of what God can do. Our faith is largely a matter of trusting in God’s power and plan. As far as the uprooting of mulberry trees, which have very large root balls, Jesus was using hyperbole. Mark and Matthew record Jesus teaching a similar message when he described a kind of faith that can move a mountain to take a swim, too.
Jesus’ point was not that the faithful would make great landscapers. It was that the faithful know anything can happen where God wants it to happen. He can change us into people who do no harm, people overflowing with forgiveness. He can change the world into what he would have it be. And we can participate in all of that by aligning our wills with God’s will.
As far as great miracles are concerned, sea-going mulberry trees and mountains are nothing compared with what Jesus ultimately did on the cross. The power of God crushed death; the gates of heaven were flung open to what previously could not approach God, unholy, sin-stained humanity. Christ’s resurrection and the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today prove it to every generation.
Ultimately, our faith is about believing that what is wrong will be set right. Maybe the transformation happens in part now; certainly it happens in full at the end of time.
Pray On This
There are some things I would like to see uprooted and flung away now. I lift these up as a prayer:
Blindness to God’s plan. May the scales be flung from the eyes of those who cannot see Jesus because of the world’s distractions.
Greed. A sense that we have to have all of ours, whatever we think “ours” is, before we consider what others may need. May that sense dissolve.
Self-interest. It drives both parties of the U.S. government right now, and it frightens the rest of us into thinking we have to behave in similar ways. Someone, please read Philippians 2:4-11.
Meanness. I know, it sounds kindergarten-ish. “Stop being mean.” There sure are a lot of people in the world who seem to delight in cutting remarks and deliberate antagonism of others, though. May God rip away the meanness we find in ourselves.
That’s just the start of a list. What would you add? And do you believe your desires are aligned with God’s?
If so, have faith, and with God’s power working in you, you might make a difference.