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!’”
Translation: The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." And the Lord said, "if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, who comes in out of the field, will say to him, 'Come immediately and sit down to eat'. But will he not say to him, 'Prepare something which I might eat, and fastening garments, serve me as I eat and drink, and after this, you will eat and drink'? Does he not have grace to the servant because he did the things commanded? And you also, when you have done all the things commanded you, you say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We are obligated to do what we have done.'"
Background and situation: Following his two parables about wealth in chapter 16, Jesus says to his followers:
"Occasions for stumbling (skandalon) are bound to come but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It 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. (17:1-2)
What is the scandal and who are the "little ones"? Considering that Jesus has just told a story exalting the poor, crippled, blind, and lame (14:12-14), three stories about the lost being found (15:1-32), and two parables about the use and mis-use of wealth (16:1-31) and one might fairly conclude that "little ones" are the destitute poor (ptochoi), the hopelessly lost, and sinners generally.
God has a special concern for "the little ones," those who, in their very "littleness" and fragility are like unto the one who died and was raised. Try to come between them and Jesus, put up any kind of "stumbling block" (skandalon) in their path, and you might as well consign yourself to the depths of the sea.
3Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And 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." (17: 3-4)
Prosexete. "Listen up!" In regard to "sinners," you are to forgive and keep forgiving. What's more, this is a continuing action--seven times, which means "completely," each and every day.
In other words, "moral rightness" is hereby rejected as a measure for one's place in the community. You can be "right" all day long, and the other fellow can be "wrong" all day long, but that is no longer a standard by which a person's place in the community is measured. "Good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong" are not defining categories in the reign of God.
Luke 17:6 has a parallel in Matthew 17:20. (Luke 17:2 has a parallel in Matthew 18:6-7 and Mark 9:42.) Luke 17:7-10 is unique to Luke. Jesus had been talking to the pharisees in 16:19-31, but in 17: 1, he's back talking to his disciples. This section of Luke features several occasions where it appears Jesus is speaking to one group in earshot of another.
Increase our faith!:
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." And the Lord said, "if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
Two things: First, Luke uses the word "Lord" twice. The apostles appeal to the Lord, and the Lord replies to them. Because he is "Lord," he can be addressed in time of difficulty. Likewise, what he says is authoritative.
Second, Luke switches from "disciples" to "apostles," meaning, in my view, that these remarks are primarily addressed to the current leaders of the church at the time of Luke's writing, c. AD 85.
As the apostles realize the centrality of the "little ones" in God's reign, and also the allure of money, they recognize that it is indeed true that "occasions for stumbling are bound to come." In spite of the difficulty, they are to embrace the "little ones" and strive for reconciliation with "sinners" in the community. This is to be accomplished through on-going forgiveness (17:1-4).
You can see their problem. Jesus has just told them that, in the reign of God, the whole program of the world is up-ended. Forgiveness is the order of every day. The moral categories which are so important to us are completely set aside. Our whole agenda of worthiness and striving is radically subverted. It is not in the virtuous that grace is found, but, rather, in the weak, the fragile, and the "little ones".
"Increase our faith," say the apostles. They are troubled by the upside-down way of God. They cry out for more faith in order to handle their unease, a request which indicates that they still don't get it. The reign of God is not about us increasing anything.
We don't need "more." In fact, if anything, we need "less." We need less striving to get "better," and less addiction to the moral categories of this world. Even better would be to get rid of those spiritual imposters completely, which is what God did when God, paradoxically, sent Jesus for the lost, which Jesus did by becoming lost himself.
The gospel itself is a skandalon. Through the death and resurrection of the Lord, all human striving is cancelled out. We experience this as a "scandal." We believe in striving, after all. We believe in trying to become bigger, better, and stronger. We do not understand power made manifest in the weakness of the cross, and we don't particularly like it either.
This is why Jesus does not increase their faith. In fact, faith counts for less than the apostles think. Only a smidgen of it--less than they have now, most likely--and the extraordinary would seem commonplace.
The "answer" is not an "increase" in anything--not even faith. As Robert Capon puts it, "When it comes to faith, they don't have to be winners." The gospel is not at all connected with moral or spiritual success. Capon:
It is not as if we have a faith meter in our chests, and that our progress toward salvation consists in cranking it up over a lifetime from cold to lukewarm to toasty to red hot. We cannot be saved by our faith reading any more than by our morality reading or our spirituality reading. All of those recipes for self-improvement amount to nothing more than salvation by works...
But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, who comes in out of the field, will say to him, 'Come immediately and sit down to eat'. But will he not say to him, 'Prepare something which I might eat, and fastening garments, serve me as I eat and drink, and after this, you will eat and drink'? Does he not have grace to the servant because he did the things commanded? And you also, when you have done all the things commanded you, you say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We are obligated to do what we have done.'"
Jesus again strikes at the idea of reward. We don't get rewarded for good behavior--not even spiritual good behavior. The whole idea of "reward" is, itself, a skandalon. We don't get paid back for being swell boys and girls. Our virtue does not obligate God.
You apostles are just doing your job--no more, no less--and even if you screw that up, which you undoubtedly will, I'll keep on accepting you and accepting you and accepting you--totally and completely, every single day--just as I accept all the "little ones," and all the lost.
The Mulberry Tree, Vincent Van Gogh