A Noble Request
In an oft-quoted passage of scripture (Luke 17), Jesus’ disciples approach Him with a noble request: “Show us how to increase our faith,” they say. As far as requests from the disciples are concerned, this one’s pretty good! I mean, just a few chapters earlier, they’re arguing about which one of them is the greatest, so I’d say they’re making some progress.
The response Jesus gives them is absolutely priceless. It is equal parts encouraging and disarming. “If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed,” He says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘may you be uprooted and thrown into the sea’ and it would obey you.” That sounds like fantastic news! Who hasn’t heard at least one sermon on this passage in their lifetime?
We look to this passage for encouragement that a little bit of faith can accomplish big things. But it’s the next thing Jesus says that I find particularly puzzling:
“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’? No, he says, ‘Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.’ And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7
Why, when the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, does He tell a story in which He tells them to think of themselves as unworthy servants? Seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? I believe Jesus is trying to make a point here concerning the connection between faith and obedience.
Doing Our Duty
The disciples have a great attitude, but I think they’re also making a very common mistake. They think that faith is a quantifiable commodity, and naturally, they want more of it. But if the tiniest bit of faith holds the power to send the deepest-rooted tree tumbling into the ocean, then the Lord must not be as concerned with the amount of faith I have as I think He is. I believe Jesus is pointing to an important truth in this story about the servant: He is less concerned with the amount of faith we have, and more concerned that we obey Him.
I recently took a position as the director of a small campus ministry at The University of Kansas. So far, most of my time has been devoted to meeting with students in small-group Bible studies. Naturally, I would like to see the ministry grow, flourish and add to its numbers. Who wouldn’t? I would like to see a hundred…two hundred…no, a thousand students flocking to our meeting every week to hear the gospel, and I would like the Lord to increase my faith that such a thing not only can, but WILL happen. Who wouldn’t? This is a noble request.
But as Jesus so adeptly points out, my job is not to drum up enough faith to make things happen the way I want them to happen. My job is to serve Jesus. Obedience is my duty. I want to see my ministry grow, but all the faith in the world doesn’t matter that much if what The Lord is really asking me to do is to simply have lunch with an international student and get to know him. It only takes a mustard-seed-sized amount of faith to obey that instruction, but the outcome of obedience vastly outweighs the outcome of a substantial amount of misguided faith.