“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you'” (Luke 17:5-6, ESV).
Before I delve into the above verses, I want to set them in their context. Jesus delivers this teaching on faith immediately after expressing to the apostles that temptations to sin will surely come, but woe to that person from whom they come (Luke 17:1, ESV). Then Jesus speaks one of his harshest warnings in all of scripture by saying that the person who causes any of these little ones to stumble would be better off tying a millstone about his neck while casting himself into the sea (Luke 17:2, ESV). Clearly, our Lord will deal with anyone who causes another to stumble into sin.
At this point, I think it is abundantly clear that Jesus commands the apostles’ attention. On the heels of his millstone imagery, Jesus exhorts the apostles to “pay attention to yourselves” in regards to sinful actions done between them (Luke 17:3). He commands them to forgive the penitent brother even if he sins and repents seven times in a day. In crystal clear terms, Jesus says, “you must forgive him” (Luke 17:4). Immediately after these words on forgiveness, the apostles exclaim to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5, ESV). At the heart level, I get what the apostles are saying; however, it needs to be unwrapped a little bit in order for the Spirit to reveal what he wants to say through this passage.
To recap, Jesus informs his apostles that temptations to sin will come in Luke 17, verses 1-2. He delivers those words in a manner that removes all surprise or ignorance from the apostles. Next, Jesus addresses the problem of the delivery of those temptations. It is here that our Lord turns his attention to human relationships. No matter how one slices it, the warning leveled against anyone who causes another to sin is downright serious. Because Jesus’s metaphor speaks loud and clear, he commands his apostles to “pay attention to yourselves” (Luke 17:3, ESV)! When he commands them to forgive a brother who sins and repents repeatedly (seven times in a day), the bar is high and nearly unattainable (Luke 17:4, ESV). The Lord means business, and the apostles know it and feel it. Thus, they ask him to “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5, ESV).
From the apostles’ perspective, they need Jesus to give them more faith for two reasons: 1.) to be mindful of their actions causing others to sin; and 2.) to forgive a brother who sins against them repeatedly and repents each time. On the surface, the apostles’ request sounds reasonable. It is not always apparent to others and to me how my behavior impacts them. More faith is the answer from the apostles. When it comes to forgiving a brother who sins against me repeatedly, and repents every time, then that clearly requires more faith. At least, that’s what the apostles think, believe, and voice to Jesus. Our Lord responds to their request to increase their faith with the mustard seed parable in Luke 17:5-6. This is not to be confused with the mustard seed parable in Matthew 17:19-20, which occurs in an entirely different setting and context.
When Jesus brings to a close his teaching on sin and forgiveness, the apostles recognize deficiencies within themselves. They see their need, which is good. Where they stray is by misinterpreting their need. Here’s what I mean. The apostles interpret their need in living out Jesus’s command to be mindful of their behavior and forgiving their brother as not having enough faith. They believe that their portion of faith is too small for the task; therefore, the apostles think that a bigger portion is necessary in order to obey Jesus. The Lord perceives this error within the apostles, which launches him into the mustard seed teaching (Luke 17:5-6, ESV). This parable does not correct the fact that the apostles recognize their need. Instead, Jesus’ teaching serves to illustrate to them that it is not the amount of faith that matters, but the quality or the character of it in their lives.
Before I wrap this up, here is our Lord’s response to the apostles request to “increase [their] faith”: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6, ESV). In his divinity, Christ knows, understands, and perceives all; therefore, he knows the best examples to reference from creation in order to convey his point. If the amount of a believer’s faith matters to the Lord, then he would have used a different example than a mustard seed. In fact, almost any example from nature is bigger or more powerful than a mustard seed: a mountain, lightning, tornado, the ocean and more. Instead, Jesus uses the mustard seed to underscore the apparent lowliness of this faith; however, it’s more than powerful enough to cause a mulberry tree to be planted in the sea. Once again, Jesus stresses the quality of one’s faith rather than the quantity of it.
The apostle Paul may or may not have had this particular teaching of Jesus in mind as he penned the first letter to the Corinthians. Regardless, Paul’s, Spirit-breathed words convey the apparent lowliness of God’s people, and the apparent foolishness of God’s ways, in the eyes of the world: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29, ESV). In this passage, Paul uses three words to characterize God’s work in his people and the church: weak, foolish, and lowly or despised. Something tells me that today’s church may have a problem hearing this message. Nonetheless, weak, foolish, and lowly are apt descriptors of the mustard seed faith that Jesus uses in Luke 17:5-6.
There are times when I think that I need more faith in order to obey the Lord, or to accomplish something in his name. Initially, such a view sounds harmless, but after awhile, I’ll find myself desiring more than what I have because I falsely interpret a perceived deficiency like the apostles. In my flesh, I’ll compare myself to other faithful men and women like Elijah or Moses or Mother Theresa. I’ll pine away over how my faith is puny compared to those spiritual giants. The Lord does not use me like them. Here are a few questions to consider: 1.) Do I trust God with the saving faith that already resides within me by the person and work of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14, ESV)?
2.) Do I recognize that the saving faith residing within me has been gifted to me by the Lord (Eph 2:8-10, ESV)?
3.) Do I believe that the saving faith within me is sufficient to accomplish the good works God prepared in advance for me to do (Eph 2:8-10, ESV)?