There are many experiences that might lead one to ask for increased faith. A diagnosis of a life-threatening condition is certainly a sufficient test of faith to lead one to ask God for the capacity for greater trust. Anyone who has witnessed violence, ruin, or misery might be impelled, like the author of the first reading, to cry out for God’s attention. (Hab. 1:2-3) Any number of other reasons might cause a person to pray for stronger faith. I’m sure you can think of many such reasons.
In today’s Gospel reading, the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith; the request was occasioned by a truly terrifying experience.
Our Gospel reading today is a short excerpt from a longer teaching about the temptations to sin that can be caused by material wealth. The parable in last week’s Gospel reading illustrated the way in which love of money can make one spiritually and morally blind. Jesus addressed that parable to the crowds who followed him. Then, he turned to his disciples and gave them more detailed instruction in private.
In the private instruction given to the disciples, Jesus said, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” (Lk. 17:3-4)
Jesus created a truly terrifying situation in which his disciples were commanded to forgive as often as a transgressor apologizes. If not an impossible task, ready forgiveness is certainly undesirable; our culture teaches us to hold a grudge, be resentful, and do our best to get even with those who offend us. Jesus said that one should forgive freely and often. It’s not surprising, then, that the apostles asked for greater faith.
After commanding a practice that is onerous at best, Jesus tells a parable about a servant who lives up to conventional expectations. In the parable, the servant performs chores around the farm, then serves dinner to the householder. The NABRE translation of the explanation of the parable is unfortunate; it says, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'” (Lk. 17:10) In this context, the word translated as “unprofitable” means “owed nothing.” The moral of the story is: when you have done what you have been commanded to do, say, ‘We are owed nothing; we have merely fulfilled our responsibilities.’
As a description of the sort of forgiveness that Jesus commands, the parable says that we are obliged to forgive, to do so routinely, and not to consider granting forgiveness to be an act of extraordinary virtue. Jesus said that an authentic faith requires one to be reconciled with others in the same way that God is reconciled with the world.
One might reasonably ask whether or not one truly wants this kind of faith. Despite the personal costs involved, the apostles asked for more faith, the depth of faith required to fulfill Jesus’ command to universal forgiveness.
After the terrified apostles asked for greater faith, Jesus said, “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.” (Lk. 17:6)
Take a few moments to think about the kind of faith that could uproot a mulberry tree and transport it into the sea. That’s a compelling image. If you had that kind of faith, what is the mulberry tree that you would like to uproot and cast into the sea? Would you like to uproot the people or circumstances that interfere with your happiness? Would you like to uproot your moral weaknesses or failings? Are you the altruistic type who would uproot poverty, or injustice, or war from the world? Are you willing to give some thought to the mulberry tree that God wants you to uproot from your life? If so, Jesus says the tree that God wants to uproot is your lack of forgiveness.
According to the parable, a good servant is one who fulfills her or his responsibilities and expects no recompense or recognition for doing so. A good servant is not owed anything but, rather, owes something to others. All of the social ills we love to complain about are the result of the conviction that one is owed something by another. Violence, injustice, conflict, and the like are the expressions of a belief in entitlement. Being a disciple of Jesus means that we know we are owed nothing but, rather, we owe forgiveness to one another.
Jesus likened his disciples to faithful servants who act responsibly and expect no recognition for fulfilling their responsibilities. What kind of person do you imagine yourself to be? God thinks of you as being forgiven and forgiving.