Lamentations 1:1-6 | Psalm 137 | 2 Timothy 1:1-14 | Luke 17:5-10
“Increase our faith!” the apostles say to the Lord. Is it because they have seen Jesus heal so many times and heard him proclaim that faith has made one well? Is it because they don’t want to end up like the rich man across the chasm from Lazarus, suffering in death? Or is it because in this chapter of Luke, Jesus has just told his apostles not to be a stumbling block to others and to forgive continually those who are repentant? For all of these, YES! We can’t be healed, have eternal life, and empower and forgive others on our own: help us, Lord Jesus. “Increase our faith!”
Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to the mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”
The disciples look around at each other. It doesn’t sound like Jesus is granting their request. They have asked their faith to be increased, yet Jesus implies that they have no faith at all. That’s got to be a little awkward, and when things are awkward, the air seems to close in around us, our clothes fit weird, and we start looking for the nearest exit. If we can’t dismiss it or laugh it off, we want find the door.
But Jesus isn’t done.
“Think of your slave,” he tells them (presumably they all either had a slave or at least knew how the system worked). “Don’t you expect them to do their work without reward, without a ‘thank you’? You, also, are to do your work, and nothing is owed to you.”
Now in our minds we hear Jesus telling us we are worthless slaves. We’re not laughing. We’re ready to dismiss him and walk out the door without further thought. Or, we could sit in the discomfort a while.
Courtney Martin, considered “one of (today’s) most insightful culture critics,” emphasized discomfort in an interview I listened to recently. She said that discomfort is important and that it’s most often a “call to get back in relationship.”
So I find it interesting that Jesus goes from making us uncomfortable to talking about a master-slave relationship, which makes us even more uncomfortable. But this is Jesus talking, God incarnate. If God is making us uncomfortable, there’s probably something to it, something “of which our conscience is afraid.”
Our conscience, our inner voice sends us warning sirens that Jesus is telling his apostles, and therefore us, that we don’t have faith . . . because if we did, miraculous things would happen. Our conscience doesn’t like hearing that we are worthless slaves. Our inner voice is screaming to run the other way at the notion that we’re not good enough, worthy enough, or capable of doing enough to please God. And God won’t even give us thanks, anyway, since we don’t deserve it. Our conscience fears that which threatens us.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said many brilliant things during the DuBose lectures in Sewanee last week, some so brilliant they went right over my head! (I blame the lack of coffee during the first lecture.)* In the second lecture, Williams spoke about how we as finite humans encounter God, the infinite Divine. If I followed right, he referred to the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard who said that the “passion of human reason longs to encounter that which we cannot conquer or control.” Williams emphasized this point that “our mental processes search what we cannot overcome, namely the God, the Divine.” It sounds to me like they’re saying we can’t help ourselves in our yearning for God, who will always be more than we can handle. Most strikingly, however, Williams said, “Humanity seeks death of divine logos because we can’t stand it,” and this, he said, figures significantly in how German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to say that the cost of discipleship is that the disciple “must either die or kill Jesus.”
Lest you think this is completely unrelated, again consider our discomfort at Jesus’ response to the apostles. Is Jesus really threatening us or our ideas of us, our illusions of the world as we create it, even our illusions of ourselves? In the presence of Christ, Williams says we panic; at once we are being asked who we are, and we are being called by Christ. We thought we knew how things worked, who we are and what we’re doing, but in the face of God, we find ourselves being asked, “Who are we to think that faith is ours to possess? What kind of relationship is Christ calling us into?” Everything we think we know can be shattered in the face of God, breaking open to what is really real, to what is true.
In this moment of discomfort, God is calling us into relationship through Christ in God’s own terms. The measure of our faith doesn’t empower us to work miracles: even a little “faith enables God to work in (our lives) in ways that defy ordinary human experience.”** Rather than focusing on increasing our faith, we are called to see ourselves as people of faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.
And what of our relationship to God as slaves? Maybe this comparison above all inclines us to want to destroy the Jesus before us. Our associations of master-slave relations have generations of stories to tell, most of which are incompatible to a sense of confident thriving in the world. How can one have a positive sense of self in complete subservience and submission to another?
Our associations and understandings of God as master are not the same as God as Master. Jesus reveals to us who God is. Williams said, “Jesus is God communicating. …Jesus makes us know what we didn’t know.” He reveals to us rather than remind us. Williams described it as a great “scandal,” that God “appeared in suffering, failing humanity, without power and in weakness.” But that’s what God had to do to reveal God’s overwhelming power. We couldn’t and can’t be forced into relationship with God; we get to choose it willingly. For God to express powerful, unconditional love, God had to be manifest in nonviolence, be helpless, be entirely for other. The divine is so much for other (for us), that it destroys the power of my illusion of being solely for myself.
The illusion of myself for myself alone is what dies in the presence of Christ if I accept the outpouring of God for me. That I would do this willingly, endlessly, without reward, and without demand might look and sound like servitude, but the reality in Christ is that it is mutual love grounded in grace. There is no question about who is Master and slave in this relationship, but the relationship is entirely redefined in the person of Jesus. We can give ourselves completely to One who gave of Oneself for humanity. That God is so selflessly for us speaks to the immense value of grace and the worth that imparts to our lives in relationship with God. We can scarcely conceive of such selflessness and grace. We might even fear it enough to kill it, as we did on a Friday so many years ago and as we do each time we turn away from or deny God.
The apostles are rather silent after Jesus speaks to them, but we know they kept following him; we do, too. We keep encountering uncomfortable moments, because if we think about it, we are always encountering God. These moments of discomfort are invitations to pause and discern where God is in the moment and what illusions are being shattered. This act of discernment of our holy discomfort is necessary so that we become accurate assessors of what is real and what is helpful. With practice, we become more adept at seeing whether what we want is aligned with or is in tension with “God’s dream” for the world.
And our vision is clearest when our focus is set on Christ.
* Quotes from the lectures are derived from my lecture notes
** R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Gospel of Luke,” p. 322.