5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Luke 17:5-10, NRSV)
Disciples tell Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Why? Really—why?
And the word used was “apostles” not “disciples.” Meaning these are sent ones going out on the Lord’s business, not following ones still learning their Lord’s business.
So what makes disciples, now apostles, want such a thing when 8 chapters earlier Jesus has already called the twelve together, has already given them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and has already sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal?
And actually, they’ve already used this power and authority and have already told Jesus about their stunning success with the same. Which begs the question, “Haven’t they sufficient faith already?”
So, what’s going on here?
What makes disciples tell Jesus, not ask Jesus, but tell Jesus—“Increase our faith?”
Perhaps our answer is found in these four verses that come immediately before the demand is made.
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.” (Luke 17:1-4, NRSV)
Wow! Jesus tells disciples to forgive and be forgiven and their immediate response is, “Super-size our faith!”
So it seems that even when ones have power and authority given by Jesus, to order the demonic around, cure, heal, and proclaim the kingdom, that when told by Jesus to forgive and be forgiven—these same ones seem completely impotent and incompetent.
And don’t we get it? For when it comes to forgiving and being forgiven, doesn’t it sometimes seem that tossing a mulberry tree into Lake Wobegon might come easier for us? Because isn’t forgiveness, authentic forgiveness, really hard work? Especially when it comes to forgiving those who sin against us.
Think about it. What’s do you think and feel when someone sins against you?
- Stick it to me? Really? I’ll stick it to you ten times over!
- Hit me? Really? I’ll knock your block from here to eternity!
- Gossip about me? Really? I’ll never trust you again, and I’ll encourage others to shun you, never to trust you either! I’ll tell others of your gossiping betrayal forever.
- Rob me? Really? I’ll rob you out of house, hearth, and home!
- Ding my car? Really? I’ll key yours and pour sugar into the gas tank!
- Hurt me? Really? Vengeance is mine and you have yet to see the hurt I bring! Remember Pompeii?
- Lie to me, undermine me, cheat me, and I’ll command God to damn you to hell!
Isn’t this the way with us?
When faced with this business of forgiving and being forgiven, getting that mulberry tree into the sea is looking easier isn’t it?
Small wonder when it comes to this forgive-and-be-forgiven-business that Jesus essentially says, “Stop, don’t live this way! It’s scandalous! For when my littles ones see my sent ones living like this then they start living this way, too. Rather than pull them into your unhealthy, unforgiving gunk, cinch a millstone around your neck and be flung into Davey Jones’ locker!”
Thanks be to God for that is not the final word on the matter.
And aren’t we thankful that we are given another option, albeit it not an easy one, to live into the forgive-and-be-forgiven business. In this option Jesus essentially says, “Be the slave you are in me. You, unworthy slave, for whom I freely died, be who you are in me. Haven’t you been forgiven everything? Nothing is left unforgiven, is it? No sin remains—none remain—not even the ones you see as small or large, menial or scandalous. And should any of my other slaves sin against you, forgive them, for I am the master of you and you do as I command.”
Jesus says, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”
First, “you must rebuke the offender,” and then, “you must forgive.”
And “rebuke” is not to berate, lambast, belittle, and demean through some wounded wrathful rant. “Rebuke” is not to bear any resemblance to the conduct of the participants in the first 2016 U.S. Presidential Debate. Oh no, “rebuke” is to say to the other one, “You sinned against me, and it hurts.” And if the other one is penitent and asks for your forgiveness, you are duty bound to offer it. “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”
This isn’t a matter of who is right or who is wrong, of who is the clear winner or clear loser, of getting all the pundits to declare a debate winner.
This is a matter of seeking an authentic repentance that reconciles.
This is totally about seeking a reconciling repentance that regains a sister or brother, and we must be reconciled to these kinfolks for they are made our close kin not by our own efforts but by those of Jesus.
So what happens when this sibling is penitent, seeking our forgiveness? What does it look like?
Is it like saying, “Well, Uncle William, I just don’t know. You ripped me off when Aunt Geraldine’s estate was divided. You’re a stinker. Consider this a probation of sorts. First, you show me how sorry your really are, maybe work to make it up to me, then I might cut a forgiveness deal with you.”
Or is it like saying, “Sure, Dad. I’ll forgive you but swear never to walk out on mom and us again. Because if there’s even one more time, I will never forgive you—ever. My statute of limitations for forgiveness only lasts for so long. Fool me once, Dad, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Perhaps it’s like saying, “I have a right to behave this way. You hurt me. And I have forgiven you, but I haven’t forgotten, so I’ll never, ever open up to you again. I don’t ever want you near me or mine. You’re forgiven—now get—scram—never return.”
Isn’t that how it often goes with us? Isn’t it true that instead of offering a merciful space of forgiveness, we offer instead a rigid series of conditions that forges relational shackles and chains designed more to bind than to set free?
And just like that—into each of these spaces we’ve crafted comes Jesus saying, “Forgive. Be like the Energizer bunny, when it comes to forgiveness, keep going and going and going! And do it unconditionally for that is how I forgive you.”
Jesus presses his case saying, “If someone sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns and begs for forgiveness, forgive them.”
And Jesus presses us hard, applying this command to us as we’re being cheated out of our inheritance, as our spouse is being unfaithful, as the family farm moves closer to auction for the money set aside to catch up the mortgage is spent for a new boat and motor, as the friend who is given our confidence spreads it as juicy gossip all over He said-She said County.
In these cases, and in those cases entering our minds even now, we’re commanded to forgive, to not be a millstone, to not let our unforgiveness become a stumbling block for others.
And since Jesus expects this kind of forgiveness out of us, by comparison, doesn’t telling that damned mulberry tree to uproot itself and sink into Lake Wobegon suddenly seem far easier, far more real, far more believable?
And for this unbelievable work of forgiving into which Jesus presses us, isn’t the most honest prayer, by far, “Increase our faith.”
After all, who can live into such a life of forgiveness?
Who, indeed, apart from the help of Jesus?
And Jesus, in and of God’s infinite mercy and grace does help, for Jesus is the answer to our prayer.
Think of Jesus saying to us, “Slaves, my slaves. Listen. This is my Word, hear it and live it. This is my Body. Take and Eat it. This is my Blood. Take and Drink it. It’s shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance.”
Is the Meal, the Lord’s Supper, only a memorial through Bread and Wine, or is it a special set-apart-space where the Source of all mercy, grace, and love comes into us, and comes into us to empower us & others, strengthen us & others, enliven us & others, upholding us and others, and forgiving us & others through Jesus’ own flesh and blood? Don’t we receive power in this Meal to forgive and be forgiven?
As we ponder that thought, think of Jesus continuing to say, “Slaves, my slaves. Your sin. The sin of others. All sin is forgiven. Forgiven are others, forgiven are you. Nothing is here now but loving forgiveness. Nothing is stopping you, so forgive as I have forgiven. This is your duty and delight, always and everywhere, and by the forgiveness of others you proclaim my death until I come again. Be brave. Loosen that cinch and drop the unforgiveness, that super-sized millstone you’ve cinched around your neck. Lift your head and use that small faith seed to forgive those things done against you, ‘in thought, word, and deed,’ no matter how large they loom around you, no matter how small the seed seems. It is enough, already it is enough. For in truth, Slave, already all sin is forgiven by me, having been sunk deep into my flesh, nailed to the mulberry tree of my grace, and drowned in the depth of mercy that is me. And that mercy, my mercy, is alive in you.”