Praying for Faith

This coming Sunday is the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we considered the necessity of forgiveness in the life of a disciple. Today we move into the Sunday gospel reading proper and consider why the apostles make the request: “Increase our faith”?

Does their request indicate that one can have more or less faith? If one remembers that pístis (“faith”) is also translated as “trust” then our own experience is that indeed we can trust to different degrees. But what was it that indicated their faith was somehow lacking?  Jesus commissioned them and sent them out with power over demons and diseases (9:1-6). They preached and healed; went about without any supplies of their own. They had trusted God for their necessities. They trusted God to heal the sick and cast out demons. They trusted God and proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God. Why do they now ask for more faith? Did they need more faith to stand up to temptations to sin? To cease from causing others to sin? To rebuke those who had sinned against them? To forgive one another? Perhaps moving mulberry trees (or mountains as in the parallels) into the sea is an easier act of faith than moving us to “rebuke” and “forgive” people who have sinned against us.

Culpepper (Luke, 322) writes on this verse: The disciples’ plea in this context conveys the recognition that on the one hand faith is a dynamic process and one can grow in faith. On the other hand, the disciples ask that the Lord add to or strengthen their faith, thereby recognizing that faith is not just a matter of their own strength. In both of these aspects, Luke’s concept of faith is similar to Paul’s who writes of righteousness as being revealed “through faith for faith” (Rom 1:17) and declares that we have been saved by grace through faith and that this it not of our own doing (Eph 2:8).

I think that our growth in Christ is nearly always a movement from faith to faith (rather than only from unbelief to faith). While the faith I have today is similar to the faith given at baptism, it is also different. As we grow in our intellectual and physical skills and abilities yet remain the same person, so too, who we are today is both spiritually the same and different from who we were as an infant. Either way we are loved by God.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to (this) mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.  One might expect Jesus to well receive the request for more faith, but the response seems to imply that the disciples do not (yet) understand the real nature of faith. The saying is grammatically complex in Greek.  The first part of verse 6 is a construct that implies the disciples indeed have faith, but the second part of the verse contradicts that positive assessment with the implication that the disciples have not yet scratched the surface of the real nature of faith.

The disciples assume that they have faith and they will need more to accomplish what Jesus has taught in vv.1-5.  Jesus seems to be saying they don’t even have faith is the smallest quantity (hence the reference to the mustard seed). The point is not that they need more faith, but that they need to understand that faith allows God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience.  This saying is not about performing extraordinary miracles, but that with even the smallest of faith, God can help them to live by his teachings on discipleship.

Image credit: G Corrigan, CC-BY-NC 2.0

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