- Lamentations 3:19-26
- 2nd Timothy 1:1-14
- Luke 17:5-10
A long, long time ago a wise person once said: “Do or do not. There is no ‘try’.” Today’s Gospel reminded me of these words, spoken by a Master named Yoda to a young man named Luke. The young Jedi apprentice had been ready to give up. His X-Wing was stuck in the Dagoban swamp, and with it, his only hope of getting off the planet to save his friends. He had looked at that big ship and thought: “No way. I can’t possibly use the force and pick that thing up. It’s too heavy. But I will ‘try’”, he tells Yoda. But the Master says in response that there is no such thing as “try”. Just do it. Or don’t do it.
Luke still does not understand what Yoda is trying to tell him. And so he “tries” to lift his ship out the swamp. And of course he fails. Discouraged, Luke just starts to walk away. But Yoda, this short, scrawny little elf of an old man, just *sighs*, gestures, and telekinetically lifts this twenty-ton spacecraft out of the muck.
By now you’ve probably realized that I am making a Star Wars reference. If not, I will credit that to cultural differences or poor upbringing. I use this example because, despite being fictional, this is a very poignant and meaningful moment in the film. At least, it is a poignant moment in a movie series about planet-killing space stations and laser swords!
Star Wars was inspired by mythological, Biblical and other religious stories such as the one in Luke 17. Like Luke, Jesus and his disciples are facing many challenges. They have had considerable success, gathering quite the following among the people. But most of these followers are the poor, sick and outcast, and they have to be taken care of. They also have lawyers and pharisees challenging them at every turn, and the Judean and Roman authorities are certainly breathing down their necks.
And even at this stage of their learning, the disciples are still not entirely sure what Jesus is all about. From their perspective, he has said many surprising things, speaking about loving one’s enemies and forgiving those who would do them harm. He has taught radical compassion and healed the the poor, sick and even sinful. He has offered hospitality to non-Jews. Even more concerning, he has made cryptic statements like “the son of man must suffer many terrible things.”
Faced with the immensity of their tasks ahead, and a creeping doubt, they thus ask Jesus to “increase their faith.” I do wonder what exactly they are asking for here. Do they want Jesus to perform a miracle? To prove, somehow, that he is indeed the Son of God, and that all he has said is true? Had they not really understood the last parable, the one that Judy preached on last week? The rich man thought coming back from the dead would convince his brothers to repent. But they were not convinced by the prophets, so why would they believe him? Jesus’ point is that no matter how many miracles he performed, this would not inspire true faith in him as the Son of God. Faith is not the same thing as belief through evidence. You either choose to have faith, or you don’t.
But today the disciples’ request is not to “give them faith”, but to “increase their faith.” They claim to have faith, but now they think they need more of it. Perhaps they need more encouragement, more confidence, maybe even more evidence. This all fits a basic pattern of the Gospel, where over and over again people keep asking Jesus to give them reasons to believe that he really is the Son of God.
Clearly, even now, the disciples have not grasped the full meaning of the parable, and are misunderstanding the nature of faith. Jesus, as expected, rebukes them. This time, though, he alters his phrasing to match their own, talking about the quantity of faith. He bluntly states that it only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to tell a mulberry tree to go into the sea. Now, I can’t imagine any instance where we would need to put a mulberry tree in the sea, but this is Jesus’ pithy way of saying that the power of faith is not in the amount of it that you have, but rather the quality. If it is true faith, just a little of it can do a lot!
Luke Skywalker’s mistake was that he understood “the force” far too literally. He was thinking in terms of the physical forces, which are bound by certain laws. Therefore he thought the bigger the object, the stronger he had to be, or put another way, the more force power he needed to possess in order to pick up his spacecraft with his mind. But that is not how the force works! You either have control over it, or you don’t. To control it requires a clear mind, confidence in yourself, and…dare I say it, faith in the force. One must trust that with the force, you can lift anything. Faith is trust that anything is possible through God.
That is not so say that it’s easy. As Christians we can have moments of skepticism or doubt about the truth of the Gospel. If you are like me, you have constantly questioned whether God is truly there amid all the suffering we see around us. Lately this suffering has been right in front of us, with all the anxiety and despair that has crept into Hong Kong. It’s painful to watch as hope and trust gives way to cynicism and paranoia. But faith can involve worry and doubt. And we should be able to be skeptical or critical of the Gospel, while also hanging onto to faith.
Faith is not something we have more or less of, nor is it always appropriate to describe it as “strong” or “weak”. The worry here is that if we do so, we start thinking of it as something material that we can exchange or accumulate, like currency. Some Christians like to use phrases like “you should have more faith” or “be more faithful to God”. But what they really mean is that you should “believe” this or that, or you should “do” this or that. What they means is that having a strong faith means belonging to our church, not that church, and agreeing with what we say, not what they say.
In the U.S. there are some televangelists who will go on camera, and they will pray intensely. You know they are praying intensely because they will contort their faces to it looks like this. As if it’s possible to “pray harder” and generate more spiritual power by straining your facial muscles. They will say things like “Oh Jesus, you are our steadfast rock, our ship through these turbulent waters. You will save those who truly have faith…and to show you our faith we should, we should. No, you! You should…should send us…send our church…a check for two hundred dollars! This makes faith something material that we accumulate and exchange for God’s love and grace.
The second part of today’s Gospel does not seem related to the first, at least not in the literary sense. Suddenly you go from a cute aphorism to a longer, more difficult metaphor—one that actually makes people uncomfortable today. This text and others like it were once used to justify the institution of slavery in my country. But we need to view it historically. Jesus was not arguing in defense of slavery, which did exist during his time period. Rather, he was using this contemporary example as a metaphor for how we should relate to God. If understood that way, then there is a strong connection between the two parts of today’s Gospel. Like the servants coming in from the field, our faith in God does not earn us any special privileges. It does not bring us any further reward. Faith is its own reward. God simply wants us to have it and He wants us to let it guide us in positive ways.
And it’s certainly true that our faith can lead us down the wrong path. Christians have done unspeakable acts in the name of faith. We do this because we don’t take the time to think about what having faith really means. Some, I worry, still think of faith as pure force like Luke Skywalker did. As mental, emotional and physical energy. Thinking in this way moves us not toward peace, but causes us to violently confront those we think of as enemies, whether they are politicians, policemen, school children or foreigners. But that is not true faith in God, but faith in something less than God. That is ideology and idolatry.
Faith is not blind loyalty, fear or cowardice. It is, as Paul tells Timothy, a spirit of love and self-discipline. And once we understand this, it becomes OK to finally use words like “strong” or “weak”. A strong faith is actually one that resists the temptation to show personal strength, to lash out at those who threaten us. A weak faith is one that gives into that temptation. What we have to do is let go of that desire for strength. That means letting go of our will and accepting God’s will.
What God asks from us is not something for ourselves and according to our own works, but according to His own purpose and grace. And this is what makes faith difficult, because His purpose is not always clear. It involves waiting quietly for God to reveal Himself, for God act first, as Lamentations 3 tells us. That space, where we wait quietly for God, is the place of true faith.
Now, it is not a passive space. We don’t just sit there and do nothing. But what we do is take the time to listen for God, through prayer and meditation. In doing so, and by exercising true faith, we make room in our hearts for God to speak to us about how we can meet any challenge. And how we can do so through peaceful and loving action. Sometimes this can involve small acts of what we might call defiance, which can seem forceful. And that’s true for any action! But the difference is that such actions come through faith in spirit, not faith in brute force.