Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Luke 17:5-10

How Much is Enough?

It’s late in the metaphorical day for Jesus here in the seventeenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. He is journeying toward Jerusalem. He carries in his heart the weight of the great act of love yet to come. He’s tired. And like you and me, or at least like me, when Jesus is tired and stressed, he gets a little testy.

Hence the nonsense with the mulberry tree.   

To be sure, Jesus has gotten testy – even righteously angry – on many occasions in the gospels. Usually at people who are clearly missing the boat: Pharisees. The rich and powerful who are oblivious to the needs of others or even actively oppressing and exploiting them. But here, Jesus gets a little snarky with his disciples, his students, his nearest and dearest, followers who count themselves his friends.

The story begins with the disciples approaching Jesus with a seemingly reasonable request:  Lord! Increase our faith!  It’s an understandable request.

But Jesus responds to the disciples’ request with a touch of irritation — the phrasing in Greek suggests that he’s being outright sarcastic here – and he tells them that if they had faith as small of a mustard seed, they could command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and replant in the sea…and it would obey.

He then asks them whether a slave would be so cavalier as to demand a meal with his master, or special praise for doing his basic household duties. Jesus wasn’t in the habit of speaking unkindly about slaves or people of low status. He was, in truth, in the business of turning hierarchies and power structures on their head, so why does he resort to conventional social structures to make this point to the disciples?

Throughout the gospels Jesus reserves his harshest criticisms for the proud and saves his most biting satire for the folks who need to be brought down a peg. Maybe Jesus the Teacher is sensing that the request was kind of … brown-nosing.

That might explain Jesus’ downright bizarre image of the horticulturally impossible. Imagine it: A mulberry tree suddenly uprooting itself, flying through the air, and then replanting itself in the sea.  I wonder if Jesus was gently, playfully poking fun at the disciples’ ongoing preoccupation with flashy signs and wonders as a measure of true faith. They’ve been asking for an upgrade in supernatural powers, at one point suggesting it sure would be nice to be able to call down fire from heaven every time someone turned them away from their home.

But the signs and wonders performed by Jesus and described in the gospels always had a point. They were always constructive. They healed and they liberated. They multiplied; they fed; they blessed. His signs and wonders restored and comforted. They pointed to the mission of Jesus and the purpose of the Kingdom he inaugurated. And today these stories remind us of our own call to heal and to liberate; to multiply and to feed; to bless, to restore, and to comfort in Jesus’ name.

Maybe Jesus was reminding his disciples that faith isn’t manifested in flashy magic tricks, or pointless, self-congratulatory displays of power, or even in destruction and uprooting, but in daily acts of faithfulness—those quotidian acts of obedience that grow the kingdom, one carefully tended little mustard seed at a time. You have enough, Jesus seems to be saying, to do what I have invited you to do.

It’s helpful here to contrast this bizarre idea of uprooting a mulberry tree with the work of the servant who tends sheep, works the land, plants seeds, makes dinner.  I wonder if Jesus isn’t telling the disciples that if they have enough faith to be faithful, then that is enough.

After all – faith is a gift. You and I don’t have any business telling God we don’t have enough, when God always gives us enough to be faithful. God has always supplied enough faith. Enough faith for you and me to be useful, to serve in the ways that are needed.

Maybe the mistake the disciples make isn’t so much in asking for more faith, but in thinking they don’t have enough, in thinking God’s gift to them was insufficient. How easy it is to think we don’t have enough! These guys were in the very presence of Jesus and still they wanted more!

But then, we’re not so unlike the disciples. How often do you, do I tell ourselves: “If I only had more faith, I could…” do something important. Do something impressive. I’d never struggle with doubt. I wouldn’t be so scared. I’d finally be appreciated. I’d finally know I’m right. It would finally all make sense.

Monday was the feast day of Thérèse of Lisieux, whose famous “little way” has inspired generations of Christians to honor God by being faithful in the little things….by taking this faith thing one step at a time.  Thérèse talked often about the smallness of her own faith. But she never questioned God’s goodness or fairness in giving her what she had. She never demanded more because she knew she had been given enough to be faithful. She’d been given enough to obey.

          God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized, she said, so in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.

Thérèse (who indeed became St. Thérèse), Peter and Paul, Mary Magdalene, Teresa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela, you and I—we all serve the same master.  And that master has given us all the faith we need.

Because faith is not something to measure in quantities. It’s an adventure, a journey. Faith is putting one foot in front of the other and walking toward a future we do not see yet but trust God is fashioning. Faith is heading out the door each day looking for opportunities to be God’s partner and co-worker in the world. Faith is imagining that every challenge you and I face is an opportunity, a chance to grow as disciples, to grow like the mustard seed into something much bigger than we can ever imagine.