A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (October 2, 2016): Luke 17:5-10

Luke 17:5-10

17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
17:6 The 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.
17:7 “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’?
17:8 Would 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’?
17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
17:10 So 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!'”


A Question or Two:

  • Why do the apostles ask to have their faith increased?
  • What do they really mean?
  • Why does Jesus refuse, and instead tell them a little story that seems to have nothing to do with their request?
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

This little scene ought to be a favorite of Protestant Christians, especially Lutherans.  Jesus seems to demonstrate that πίστις (translated as “faith”) is an absolute, eschatological state, not a thing or a substance that can be increased and measured.  If so, then faith is more clearly a divine gift, and not a human product.  Lutherans should love this.

At least, if that is what Jesus means.

That is not so clear.  At least not to me.

I like the “Lutheran” reading.  I think it is helpful.  I think it catches things that are theologically important.  It keeps the focus on the grace of God, and keeps theology from becoming a contest of competitive piety.   I like the “Lutheran” reading.

I’m just not sure that is what is going on.

For one thing, the word πίστις grows into its Lutheran meaning in the 16th century.  In the 1st century, especially in a Jewish text (like Luke, for instance), it seems wisest to choose “faithfulness” as the default translation, and use it unless forced (yes, forced) to do otherwise.

So then the question is: Can Πίστις (faithfulness) be increased?

Do not answer this question too quickly, or too easily.

Protestant understandings of “faithfulness” as some kind of “work” done to impress God crowd into the interpretive picture and cloud our vision, I think.  Jewish notions of faithfulness are different in several ways (and Jesus IS Jewish).

A dear friend and colleague who is Jewish told me a story about a shopkeeper.

The shopkeeper told his rabbi that he was unable to observe the Sabbath.  His business served a Gentile clientele, and his family depended on the income earned on Sabbath.  The rabbi heard his anguish.  He asked if he worked all day long on the Sabbath.  “Oh no,” replied the man, “I only keep the shop open until noon.”

The rabbi then asked if the shopkeeper spent the rest of the day working at something else.

“Oh no,” replied the man, “after I close the shop,  I rest.”

“So this Sabbath you rested nineteen hours?  Maybe next week you can rest for twenty hours.”

It is tempting to read this as an “increasing of faithfulness” story, with the rabbi answering the question that Jesus refuses.

It is tempting, but that seems to me to misunderstand both the story and the scene out of Luke.

The rabbi is not encouraging the shopkeeper to be more athletic in his observance, or more pleasing to God.  Instead, he is recognizing that πίστις already exists and that God’s Mercy governs the whole situation in any case.

And he recognizes that Sabbath rest is a gift from God, not an implacable demand.

When the apostle Paul wove grace and faith around each other, he was not inventing a new and merciful understanding of God.  He was giving voice to a deep and warm Jewish trust in the God whose unspoken Name identifies the Mercy Attribute, the Attribute that chooses, welcomes, and forgives the chosen people.  To be sure, Paul’s linking of the working of this Mercy Attribute to the resurrected life of Jesus is a new link.  That newness is not a surprise.  Jesus was Paul’s contemporary, not Abraham’s.  But Paul argues that Mercy has always been God’s modus operandi.  The rabbi agrees.

So this little scene in Luke is more complicated than it first appears.

We still have to figure out what the disciples might have been asking.  Perhaps they were just fools.  They surely are clowns in the gospel of Mark.  But this is Luke, and they are not quite so buffoonish.

What might they have thought they were asking?

The request, in Greek, is Πρόσθες ἡμῖν πίστιν.  The usual English translations are fine, though they do little to clear up the potential meanings.  

We have already noted the complications with πίστις.

What about Πρόσθες?

They could be asking to have πίστις increased, as it is usually translated.  But the verb could be mean that they were asking to have πίστις “placed to” them, which could mean that they were asking God to give them the capacity to be faithful at all.  In that case, πίστις is a sheer gift, even if it means the activity of faithfulness.

Which leaves open the possibility that Jesus is being asked to attribute faithfulness to the disciples on the basis of God’s grace and not their athletic holiness.  And that starts sounding like a request out of the 16th century again.  Maybe those two decisive centuries have more in common than I had initially imagined.

And πίστις is still more complicated.

Yes, it means both the trust of “faith” and the activity of “faithfulness.”  But since the activity of faithfulness in a Jewish text refers to the life-giving practice of doing Torah, πίστις also names living like a Jew and not like a pagan.  That could mean all sorts of things, I suppose, but most importantly it means living a life that points to the God who loves Creation rather than living a life that points to and serves self and greed.

And that means that πίστις teaches you to remember the words of the prophet Amos, with all their sharp awareness of how we protect our privilege at the expense of people without wealth or power.  Πίστις would be revealed in people who live as if Amos meant what he said.  Our protection of our own privilege separates us from each other and (therefore) from God.  Amos makes it clear: we are either in this all together, or we are not in it at all.

And πίστις could also therefore mean that the disciples are asking for the gift of learning how to live as a Mensch.  That may not sound religious enough, or confessional enough, or pious enough, depending on your ideological take on all of this.  But πίστις refers in Greek not just to trusting, but also to being trustworthy, just as δικαιος refers not just to “being righteous,” but also to “being reliable.”

Once again this begins to cause trouble for some narrowly Protestant theologies, those that insist on a radical (and distorted) separation between God and humanity, between our status before God and our life with each other.  Such narrow theologies usually call one side of this separation “salvation” and the other “sanctification,” and then proceed to see “sanctification” as some kind of sinful attempt to “become God.”

Fine.  We are not God.  No one supposed that we were.

Πίστις by its very etymological nature links our life and God’s gift of life.  So maybe the disciples are simply asking for the gift of living the life they were meant to live, in all its richness, without any of the trumpet-blowing that seems to attend so much of our religiosity.

That would be a request worthy of a Mensch.

I would pray that prayer, I think.

And that business about the mustard seed, that all-purpose symbol of pagan profligacy, maybe Jesus’ words simply mean that living like a real human being is a gift available to Jews and Gentiles alike, which would (in fact) not surprise Paul or Jesus.

And maybe that makes sense of the little story about the slaves who just do what they ought to do.  There is no trumpet-blowing here, either.  Living like a Mensch is not a competitive sport, it is simply a matter of actually living together.

That would be a very good thing to pray for.


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