Little Faith: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Seventeenth Week after Pentecost
Seventeenth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 17:5-10
1) This Sunday is “World Communion Sunday,” a chance to intentionally break bread in solidarity with diverse Christian communities all over the world. And as it turns out, this week’s passage provides an opening for thinking about Communion from a distinctive, illuminating angle…
2) In this section of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem, to the cross and the empty tomb, and he is teaching his followers along the way about the life he has in mind for them.
3) Last week we heard Jesus exhorting us to increase our neighborly generosity and respect, and in the passage between last week’s reading and this one, the exhortations - and the challenges - continue: Take care not to stumble - and woe to you if your stumbling causes someone else to do the same! If someone sins against you, forgive, even if you have to do it seven times a day… No wonder the disciples, hearing these apparently stringent demands, plead with Jesus for help: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).
4) The idea that the disciples have “little faith” is an ongoing theme in Luke. In the midst of a storm on the sea, Jesus asks them, “Where is your faith?” And in the midst of their everyday worries, Jesus exclaims, “You of little faith!” (Luke 8:25; 12:28).
1) Heroic deeds (giving up possessions, forgiving continually) demand heroic faith - or so goes the disciples’ reasoning. We need a bigger, stronger faith - please give it to us! But Jesus’ response makes clear that this line of thought isn’t on the right track.
2) It’s as if Jesus says: No, you don’t need a bigger, stronger faith. Even the tiniest grain of faith - think of the seed of a mustard plant, an infinitesimal speck - is enough to do things far more astonishing than the way of life to which I’ve called you. To make this point, Jesus chooses a colorful, outlandish image: mulberry trees have extensive root systems, and they don’t grow in the sea!
3) On the contrary, Jesus continues, what I’m calling you to do is something much simpler and more practical; it doesn’t require an outsized faith. In fact, what I’m asking you to do - to share, and to forgive, and to love one another - is the most fruitful way of all, the most liberating of all, and so in a deep sense the most “natural” to you as a child of God made in the image of God. Viewed from this angle, this isn’t about being a hero; it’s about being human. It’s being who you truly are. Accordingly, it doesn’t need some sort of exceptional, bigger, stronger faith than the “little faith” you already have. The Way of Life you were made for is more basic than that, more graceful, more ready-to-hand. Even the tiniest speck of faith, even less than a speck, is more than enough!
4) And then Jesus takes another step, digging down one more level. The idea that I need a bigger, stronger, heroic faith in order to live the way Jesus calls us to live contains within it another idea: it puts the spotlight on me, on my faith, on whether or not I have the exceptional strength, the excellence, the skill to pull off a life of exceptional devotion. And lurking in the background, like a shadow, is the temptation to think that if I do pull it off, if I do exhibit this bigger, stronger faith, I will have demonstrated my worth, my heroic status. But this, too, is a line of thought on the wrong track - and so Jesus turns to a quick parable.
5) The parable’s upshot is that when we do the right thing, we are discharging a duty, not doing God a favor or earning brownie points. We aren’t performing our way into righteousness, or demonstrating our brilliance. Rather, we’re merely doing “what we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10). Likewise, when we love one another - say, by sharing resources or offering forgiveness - we don’t therefore deserve a pat on the back, much less a plaque with our name embossed in gold. We’re just doing what human beings do, children of God made in the image of God. Think of how genuinely humble, mature people typically respond to accolades: I was just doing what had to be done…
6) And so it is with the life of faith, Jesus insists. We shouldn’t think of these actions - sharing and respecting and loving and forgiving - as bigger, stronger feats of excellence requiring a bigger, stronger faith, and thereby proving our status and worth. God loves us already as God’s own children; our status and worth are already secure (trusting in that is what our little glimmer of faith is for!). Accordingly, these actions can be reframed simply and powerfully as “things children of God do” - nothing more, and nothing less. Signs of genuine servanthood. Love for its own sake, not some ulterior motive.
7) The Greek word translated “worthless” in verse 10 (“We are worthless slaves!”) literally means a person to whom nothing is owed; “unmeritorious” is another possible translation, awkward but closer to the sense here than “worthless.” When someone does something admirable but then protests, I don’t deserve any special praise for that, or, You don’t owe me anything in return, or I just did what needed to be done - that’s the meaning Jesus has in mind.
1) In the end, then, this isn’t a passage about the disciples’ lack of faith - rather, on the contrary, it’s about clarifying that the life to which Jesus calls us doesn’t require some sort of super-faith. That way of life may initially be difficult, but in the long run, it’s actually the most fruitful, liberating, and “natural” way of all. Building up one another in love is who we truly are. Try living this way, Jesus says, and you’ll see: it’ll feel like coming home. This is the Good News of the Gospel! You don’t need a bigger faith - you just need to lean in to your little one, and do what God created you to do. Go and love and serve!
2) What does this have to do with World Communion Sunday? Well, for starters, Christians often think of Communion primarily in terms of something we receive: the body and blood of Christ, or symbols of Christ’s love and presence, or what have you. But this week’s reading opens up the possibility of conceiving Communion primarily in terms of giving, of serving each other at the table, helping to provide Christ’s love and presence to the wider community.
3) Some churches have the option of choreographically embodying this idea during Communion, passing the bread and cup to each other. But even in churches where this isn’t possible, the same idea can still be emphasized: for Communion’s basic act of giving, even when performed by a pastor or priest or elder, is a model for all disciples in our relations with one another and the world. Jesus serves us at the table - precisely so we can go and serve. Jesus puts it this way: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27). Imagine celebrating Communion in this spirit!
4) And when we follow Jesus’ lead in this regard, we aren’t demonstrating our special status, our super-faith, our holier-than-thou holiness. We’re simply and powerfully doing what human beings do, which is to say, what children of God do. And when we share, respect, forgive, and love, bringing our “little faith” beautifully to life, we’re doing “what we ought to have done” - and doing it for its own sake!