If You Had Faith
If You Had Faith
Since the beginning of Chapter 15 Jesus has been surrounded by a crowd of people. Tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus and instead of sending them away, to everyone’s surprise, Jesus was welcoming them. This brought the Pharisees into the crowd and for the last two chapters Jesus has been addressing the crowd, going back and forth between his disciples and the Pharisees. What he says to each is just as applicable to the other. Ultimately, it’s all about the cost of discipleship. It’s about his call to repent and to believe—to turn away from every old loyalty and source of security and satisfaction and to turn to Jesus in faith. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the King. And even though he’s not what most expected, he’s come to inaugurate God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ call is a challenging one. In fact, it’s an impossible one. The Pharisees were openly hostile to Jesus, but even his disciples struggled just to understand what it was that Jesus was calling them to do. In a sense, the difference between the disciples and the ordinary Jews and the Pharisees was just a matter of degree. They all trusted in their Jewishness: in their set-apartness, in their circumcision, in their diet, in their sacrifices and priests and temple. They were insiders; everyone else in the world was an outsider. They were God’s chosen and the people of his kingdom; everyone else was on the outside and probably deserved to stay there. They were waiting for God to send his Messiah to rescue them: to vindicate the Jewish people for their faithfulness and to smite and damn the gentiles and the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners—all the unclean people, all the outsiders.
But instead, Jesus is sweeping aside everything they held dear. He forgives people without sending them to the temple to offer sacrifices. He embraces unclean people—the sick, the dead, the immoral, even gentiles—and welcomes them into his kingdom. And to make matters worse, he condemns Israel with his stories and parables. The father welcomes home his lost, prodigal son, but he rebukes the faithful older brother for being angry about it. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus rebukes Israel for being so sure of her place in the kingdom while refusing to share her God-given blessings with the nations, with the poor, with gentiles.
After rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus now turns back to his disciples and gives them four sayings about discipleship—about what it looks like to be his disciples. These are more challenges; they’re things even the disciples are going to struggle with and that you and I continue to struggle with. As we look at what Jesus says here I want you to remember the two things that tie them together. The first is the challenge: Jesus calls his people to live out his grace. Again, that’s the challenge and, as we look at what Jesus says about it and if we’re honest with ourselves about our own lives and struggles, we’ll recognise that Jesus gives us an impossible challenge. But that’s where the second theme comes in: that’s faith. Faith is what makes the life of grace possible.
Look with me at the first part of Jesus’ challenge in 17:1-2.
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.
The human heart is set against God. It’s our fallen nature and it’s why Jesus came: to bring reconciliation and to restore. There are always going to be people who are opposed to God’s plan and to Jesus; there will always be sinners in this world. As Jesus said this to his disciples he may have been casting his gaze back at the Pharisees still in the crowd. But, he says, far be it from you to get in the way of God’s plans for reconciliation. And here he may have looked instead to the tax collectors and sinners—to the poor, to the sick, to the unclean, to the outsiders that Jesus came to restore to the kingdom. The Pharisees had rejected them and barred them from the kingdom and thought they were doing God’s work. Jesus’ disciples should know better.
Brothers and sisters, there’s something here for us too. It’s not just setting bad examples or giving false teaching that causes others to sin. That’s bad enough. What Jesus is getting at here, however, is the attitude of the Pharisees—an attitude opposed to grace and an attitude that’s therefore opposed to Jesus and what he came to do. Jesus came not to condemn, but to redeem. He didn’t look down his nose at sinners. He didn’t look down his nose at outsiders. Instead, he offered them forgiveness of sins; he offered them healing; he offered them restoration; he welcomed them into the kingdom. Now he calls us to follow him in that mission. And yet how often do we look down our noses at sinners and outsiders? How often do we condemn the people walking in darkness when we should be shining the light of Christ into their lives and inviting them out of the darkness? How often, by our very attitude, do we drive people away from Jesus instead of drawing them to him? How often, by our attitude and actions, do we discredit the name of Jesus in the world and give sinners reason to reject him? How often, like the older brother, do we condemn the prodigal and rebuke the father for welcoming him home? How often, like the rich man, do we ignore Lazarus, the poor man sitting at our very doorstep? This is what Jesus is talking about. Jesus calls his disciples to embrace sinners and to make known to them his offer of redemption. If we profess that Jesus is Lord, if we call ourselves people of his kingdom, this is the way he expects us to live our lives.
If we don’t live our lives this way, he offers one of the most graphic images of condemnation in the New Testament: It would be better to be cast into the sea with a millstone around our necks. Grain was ground between two large round stones. The upper one had a hole in the middle into which the grain was poured as a donkey or an ox turned it. Imagine a stone like that dropped over your head as a collar and then being thrown into the sea. And yet Jesus says that this would be a better fate than that which faces any of us who would undermine the kingdom of God and drive sinners away from Jesus.
As if that’s not challenging enough, Jesus moves on in verses 3-4:
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
First, yes, there’s a place for rebuke in the kingdom. Jesus welcomes sinners, but to follow Jesus also means repenting—turning aside from everything opposed to his kingdom. We’re even called by Jesus himself to rebuke the sin we see amongst ourselves. But the key point here is that we seek not the condemnation of others, but redemption and reconciliation. If someone sins against you and repents, as disciples of Jesus our natural disposition should be to forgive. Again, we should be people who are focused on, centred on, even obsessed with reconciliation. Even if your brother or your sister repeatedly sins against you, seven times today and seven times tomorrow, forgiveness should continue to be our natural inclination.
This isn’t an easy thing. Our natural inclination is to focus on ourselves. When someone does us wrong, our natural inclination is for compensation or even for revenge. In fact, this inclination in us is so powerful that it often causes to twist the meaning of forgiveness. We think we’ve forgiven simply because we haven’t taken revenge. Someone hurts us and we choose not to strike back. Instead we simply write them out of our life. Many people think of that as forgiveness. Friends, it’s not. People in our culture—even Christian people—throw around slogans about how we don’t need hurtful or negative people in our lives. If someone does you wrong or even if they’re simply unsupportive, we’re told to let them go—we don’t need people like that in our lives. But, brothers and sisters, Jesus tells us just the opposite. We’re called to actually seek reconciliation with those people, to befriend them, to love them, even to sacrifice for them.
We’re to follow the example of Jesus. St. Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. Sin—any sin—is a serious offense against the perfect holiness and perfect love of God. He created us to be his friends, but we rejected him. Imagine God choosing to set aside his anger at our sin, but then turning his back on us to go on his way. “I don’t need them,” he says, “they’re just going to cause me grief. They’ll take me for granted. They’ll reject and hurt me again.” Imagine him no longer being angry with us, but still leaving us subject to sin and death. But that’s not what he did. That’s not love. In his perfect love, God—the wronged party in all this—humbled himself, became one of us, and died the death we deserve—paying the price of our sins against him—that we might be restored to his loving friendship. God has shown us his favour even though we deserved his condemnation. Friends, that’s what grace is: unmerited favour. Grace is what Jesus has shown us and now he calls us to manifest grace in our lives with others. He calls us to show grace to our husbands and wives, to our children, to our friends and families, to strangers, and even to our enemies. He calls us to seek reconciliation in our own relationships just as he has sought reconciliation with us.
Again, this is hard. In fact, it’s an impossible challenge if we’re going to do it on our own, which is why we see so many people—even Christians—seeking vengeance on their enemies, cutting loose friends and family members who have hurt them, and sometimes living their lives wallowing in bitterness and anger over past hurts. Short of divine help, this is an impossible calling. And this is just what Jesus gets at next. Look at verses 5-6:
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “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.
“Your call is impossible, Jesus! But we do want to follow you. Please, increase our faith. That’s the only way we can do it.” The disciples were starting to understand the kingdom, but they understood because they understood what faith meant to Israel. Our problem is that our understanding of faith today has been shaped more by theologians on one hand and cultists on the other, so that we’ve almost forgotten what faith means in the Bible. We often think of faith in terms of belief in certain important doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, or the authority of Scripture. Don’t misunderstand; these are things we should believe as Christians, but this isn’t primarily what faith is about in the Bible.
On the other hand, many Christians have also been influenced by false teaching on the nature of faith. Verse 5 and it’s talk about faith casting a great tree into the sea—or in some of the parallel passages, casting a mountain into the sea—are favourites of teachers in what’s often called the Word of Faith or just “Faith” Movement. Their concept of faith is rooted in a pagan metaphysical philosophy from the Nineteenth Century called New Thought. In that movement faith is understood as the force of thoughts or words that can shape and change our reality when spoken with conviction. Several early Pentecostal teachers were influenced by this movement and its teachings have since spread throughout that movement and into other sectors of the Church, where it has been dressed in a veneer of biblical or Christian terminology, but it’s the same pagan philosophy. Whenever you hear people teaching the “power of positive thinking” or the idea that we can make things happen or claim things from God by speaking words of faith, run away. This is a pagan notion of faith, not a biblical one. In its crassest forms, this “faith” teaching stresses that we can bring about, literally, whatever we want through the power of faith—if you truly want to cast a mountain into the sea, all you need is sufficient faith. Even in its watered down forms, this sort of teaching stresses faith as means of obtaining and getting things, whether it’s wealth, health, happiness, or just the basics of life.
But what does Scripture tell us about faith? Why is faith what the disciple ask for when Jesus gives them these impossible demands—when he calls them to live with grace in the midst of a hostile world that will oppose them at every turn? This is exactly what faith is in the Old Testament. By faith Abraham trusted and followed the Lord’s lead as he left his family and all his sources of security and travelled to an unknown land. By faith he offered Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord, even though it meant the end of everything he’d been promised. Throughout the Prophets, the Lord called his people to trust him in faith—to stick with him and to live as kingdom people—even when the world was falling apart around them as they faced conquest, exile, and death. Through Isaiah he exhorted them:
If you do not stand firm in faith,
you shall not stand at all. (Isaiah 7:9 NRSV)
Later he says to them:
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
“One who trusts will not panic.” (Isaiah 28:16 NRSV)
The theme of the book of Habakkuk is that even when the Lord’s people seem to have lost everything and when judgement has come, “the just shall live by faith” (2:4). That is, the Lord’s people will be known because they continue to live in faith as his people. While the unfaithful spent centuries oppressing widows, orphans, and the poor, the just were known by their faith to their covenant obligations to justice and mercy. While unfaithful priests and prophets preached peace when there was no peace, the faithful called the people to repentance. When foreign armies were camped around Israel the unfaithful turned to compromising alliances with pagan kings and trusted not in the Lord, but in horses and chariots, but the just lived by faith—they trusted in the Lord and obeyed his commands even when it didn’t make sense.
In the Bible, the true Israel is known by her faith as she follows and trusts the Lord and especially so in the face of crisis, persecution, and judgement. The Lord’s call to his people has always been an impossible call in human terms. This is why his people have always been marked out by their faith. Only by faith can we follow God. And so now, in the New Testament, we see Jesus establishing a new Israel centred in himself and just as the Lord called Israel in the Old Testament to do the impossible in faith, Jesus now calls this new Israel to do the impossible—to walk as living witnesses to his grace—and he calls us to live this life in faith: forgiving others, showing love and mercy, and seeking reconciliation and redemption. With faith it’s possible. This is why the disciples ask for greater faith.
And yet Jesus’ response is interesting. The “Faith” teachers tell us that if things aren’t happening, we need bigger faith. If you’re still poor or still sick, your faith isn’t great enough. And yet Jesus says the opposite. It’s not our faith that accomplishes things; it’s the God in whom we put our faith. I like the way Tom Wright puts it: “It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the creator God, the God active in Jesus and the Spirit, then the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will give you access to power like you’ve never dreamed of.” Now, that doesn’t mean that by faith we can manipulate God to do whatever impossible thing we want. What it does mean is that by faith in him, God will empower us to do the impossible things he asks and requires of us—like forgiving seven times over every day and doing so happily and ungrudgingly. By faith, God will transform our hearts and give us a desire to seek reconciliation, to love the unlovable, and to proclaim the lordship of Jesus to a hostile world.
Jesus underlines this in verses 7-10. These are verses we ought to remember whenever we start thinking that we’ve managed to follow Jesus on our own power. These are verses we ought to come back to any time we start thinking, like many of the Jews did, that God owes us something because of our faithfulness. Jesus 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.’”
We don’t live with slaves as part of our everyday existence as they did in the Frist Century, but we should still be able to see Jesus’ point. A slave doesn’t earn Brownie points with his master for doing his duty. In the same way, we don’t earn Brownie points with God by following Jesus. Remember, it’s only faith—which means only by God’s power—that we follow him in the first place. We can’t claim the credit ourselves. Again, we live a life of grace—of undeserved favour. Jesus is addressing his disciples, but he no doubt had one eye on the Pharisees. They were convinced that they’d earned a special place in God’s kingdom because of their faithfulness. That was one of their biggest mistakes. And the disciples weren’t immune to this thinking either. Just think of the disciples arguing over who was the greatest of Jesus’ disciples. No, when we’ve done what Jesus has called us to do, we need to acknowledge that we could not have done it on our own. Instead of patting ourselves on the back or, worse, lording what we’ve accomplished over others or using it to call down favours from heaven, we need to give thanks to God who made it possible.
The other thing Jesus stresses here is just how ordinary these utterly impossible things should be for kingdom people. Seeking reconciliation, loving our enemies and doing good to them, being generous with others even out of our poverty, forgiving the unforgivable—these are all things that seem impossible to us, and yet Jesus is saying that they should be as normal, ordinary—even in a sense as hum-drum—in our lives as the daily work of a slave was in Jesus’ world.
We need to ask: Are things like forgiveness, love, and mercy as ordinary in our lives as going to work or making dinner? If we’re following Jesus, love and mercy ought to be as natural to us as breathing and eating. Most of us aren’t there, if we’re honest. For most of us the idea of forgiving without holding at least a little bit of a grudge, of loving our enemies, of not looking down our noses at sinners are all a stretch—and a big one at that—let alone all these things becoming second nature to us. But that’s okay. Jesus knows we can’t do. And so he calls us to live by faith. Small faith or big faith, the God behind our faith is the same. We rely on him and not on ourselves to walk as kingdom people. This is what it means to be Easter people who live the new life of Jesus in this world. Yes, Jesus demands the impossible, but he also gives us his very self to empower us to do it. In our baptism he washes us clean from sin and pours his Spirit into us, replacing our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. And here he invites us to his Table. Here he reminds us that we are, despite our flaws, kingdom people. Here he feasts with us and gives us strength to follow him, not just bread and wine, but the spiritual food of his body and blood, reminding us that we are part of his body. Brothers and sisters, it is not we who live, but Jesus who lives in us.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for the grace you have shown us in Jesus. Thank you for the new life you have given us by his death and resurrection. We’ve heard his call to live that new life and we know that it’s impossible in our own power. Give us the gift of faith, we ask, that we might trust your Spirit to transform and empower us to follow where Jesus leads. Give us the mind of Christ, that love, grace, and mercy might become second-nature and that the world might know Jesus through us. And through him we pray. Amen.