The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” the Lord said, “you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
“Which one of you having a slave tending sheep or plowing will say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat‘? Instead, will he not tell him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, get ready, and serve me while I eat and drink; later you can eat and drink‘? Does he thank that slave because he did was was commanded? In the same way, when you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, ‘We are good-for-nothing slaves; we’ve only done our duty‘“
Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 17:5-10, HCSB)
I’ll be honest with you; sometimes it’s hard to digest the things Jesus says. This is one of those times. When Jesus starts talking about slaves, I have to check my own presuppositions and really try to understand what He is telling me. For one thing, I know that Jesus is not condoning slavery or advising the apostles to own slaves. That would be ridiculous. The Savior did not come to make us slaves on this earth. However, as Paul reminds us in every one of his letters, we are slaves of God in Jesus Christ because He “bought us with a price.” We gave our lives to God at the moment of salvation. In exchange for Jesus’ righteousness, we handed over our broken, sinful lives. We gave God our failure for Jesus’ success. Jesus wants us to know that obeying God after salvation should look like we were God’s slaves.
More incredible than the analogy to slavery that Jesus makes here, to me at least, is the reason for Jesus’ statement in the first place. Jesus uses this analogy as a supporting argument in his response to the apostles’ request, “Increase our faith.” It is clear from Jesus’ initial response that He isn’t concerned with the amount of faith His followers have. He is concerned with the focus of their faith. Are we seeking God first? Is God our refuge and our strength? Are we loving God with our whole heart, soul, and strength? Jesus tells the apostles, “If you have faith [in God] the size of a mustard seed you can say…” The implication that is missing from Jesus’ response is that the apostles have misplaced their faith. If they had even the smallest amount of faith in God then they would not be concerned with its size. God is infinite, and faith in Him can accomplish an infinite number of things.
Jesus uses the analogy of slavery to solidify a crucial point with regard to faith in God. Faith in God is obedience to God. If you have faith in God, your faith is in a perfect, infinite, and loving Creator. To disobey a command from someone you “supposedly” believe to be infinitely more wise and loving than you is to reveal your own narcissism and to arrogantly claim before God that, “I can do better.”
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
and your ways are not My ways.”
This is the Lord’s declaration.
“For as heaven is higher than earth,
so My ways are higher than your ways,
and My thoughts than your thoughts.
For just as rain and snow fall from heaven
and do not return there
without saturating the earth
and making it germinate and sprout,
and providing seed to sow
and food to eat,
so My word that comes from My mouth
will not return to Me empty,
but it will accomplish what I please
and will prosper in what I send it to do.”
Isaiah 55:8-11 (HCSB)
Jesus is the Word-made-flesh. God “sows” the seed of His Word among His people “making it germinate and sprout.” Human beings “sleep and rise—night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows.” We do not understand how God works through His Word among His people, but it “will not return to [Him] empty…it will accomplish what [He] please[s] and will prosper in what [He] send[s] it to do.” Therefore, obedience to God is obedience to His Word, and His purposes for His Word. Faith is obeying Jesus.
“Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments:
Do not commit adultery;
do not murder;
do not steal;
do not covet;
and whatever other commandment—all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.”
Paul of Tarsus in Romans 13:8-10 (HCSB)
Obedience is love. According to Paul, and according to Jesus, to obey the whole Law is to obey two simple commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
We keep asking Jesus to increase our faith. He is telling us to love. We keep wanting God to make us more like Him, and He keeps urging us to act like Him. Faith is obedience to God. Obedience to God is loving Him and His people. Loving Him means accepting His Son, taking His righteousness as our own when we give Him our unrighteousness, and then walking in His righteousness through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Loving other people means denying ourselves, thinking of the needs of others as more important than our own, and ministering to “the least of these,” to those “in need of a doctor.”
There’s no spiritual switch to flip on with faith. Just start trusting that God knows best and start acting as if that were true. Faith is loving obedience to God through being the body of Christ in an unbelieving world that needs a Savior.