5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 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.
7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Dear Fellow Redeemed:
Jesus has just warned His disciples about the importance of them not causing their brothers to sin, and forgiving them when they do. The disciples feel a heavy burden in this moment. They don’t know how they will accomplish what Jesus is asking of them. What they need to hear from Jesus in this moment, is that God is powerful enough to accomplish everything they need. He reminds them of one of the tiniest things: a grain of mustard seed. It doesn’t look like much. On its surface one wouldn’t expect much of it.
That’s how the disciples have been feeling about their faith. You’ve felt this way before, haven’t you? You know the weakness of your faith. Especially when it comes to something like forgiving, all of us have struggled. People can hurt us badly. They can disregard our feelings, hurting us without even knowing it. And they can do so quite intentionally, leaving us feeling helpless and angry (we do it to them, too, by the way). And then we have Jesus’ words from just before our text: If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
You can imagine why the disciples are begging of Jesus, “Increase our faith!” How is it all going to be possible otherwise? They know themselves. They know how their sinful nature operates, how it embraces seething anger. This is how the devil wants you to feel about it too. When someone has wronged you, he wants you to feel it’s your privilege to harbor anger against them, to walk around with it, clutching it like a prized possession. The last thing you want to do is let go of it. You want that person to suffer because of what they’ve done to you. You feel justified in it. It’s yours. You don’t even want to hear Jesus say, you must forgive him. It’s too much. The disciples are recognizing this in themselves when they say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
But the grain of mustard seed that Jesus is talking about, is greater than it appears. That tiny grain has great capability. It becomes a large tree for birds to nest in. Jesus wants them to see that there is a comparison that can be made between that tiny seed, and the faith of which they’re presently unsure. That faith that appears small and weak is powered by God Himself. What limit can there be to it, then?
Just think of what God’s power accomplished in the work of these disciples. After Jesus said to St. Peter just before His ascension, Feed my sheep (John 21:15), they had taken the the Gospel into homes and hearts in which no one would have predicted it could go. God was powering the faith of these men so as to bring about unimagined produce.
That’s the point Jesus is making in the first part of our text. It’s as if the disciples have asked, “Will God provide the power in our faith to accomplish what you have asked of us?” Of course, the answer is yes. The faith that God provides and through which He works is powerful enough to accomplish it beyond our imagination.
But having accomplished it, the disciples will face their next challenge: remaining humble in the face of it all. When Jesus talks about a servant’s duty in the second part of our text, it may be harder for us to understand his point than it was for His disciples. You aren’t used to having servants, and times are so different now. One of the points Jesus makes is that it isn’t customary for a servant to be thanked for his work. Another is that having worked all day ploughing and with the sheep he is still expected to prepare his employer’s meal before eating his own. These are things we might raise an eyebrow at, but they wouldn’t have. It was the way of things under those circumstances.
Jesus’ aim is to make his disciples see that God is making use of them in His kingdom despite their frailty, despite their sins. They are privileged to be in that particular employ. They will never have accomplished so much that God is indebted to them. It will only, always be the other way around. They are like servants of that time who have been given a charge, and made able by their employer to be successful in that charge. They will work to the best of their ability to be faithful in it. But in the end, they will only have done what it was their duty to do.
In the end of our text, Jesus says, So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” The word unworthy has also been translated “unprofitable”. This might give us a better understanding of what He means. We sinners aren’t delivering some sort of great value to God that obligates Him to us. We’re only doing what He has told us to do, and enabled us to do - nothing more could we have done than what He has enabled. It is only in His mercy that He has spared us from punishment and put us to work in His kingdom.
And, interestingly, we’re not meant in this case, to see God as the employer. This isn’t like the parable of the vineyard. Jesus starts out saying, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? So this is different from some of the other parables. He is giving an example in which the disciples should see themselves as the servants, but the employer in the parable represents how things work in this world. The employer in the parable provides wages or a living situation based on the servant doing the work that is required. The illustration serves the point that Jesus is trying to make to the disciples, of their need of being humble, though the Lord will enable them to accomplish great things. It certainly isn’t any different for any of us. We’ve already talked about our failure in always forgiving our neighbor from our heart; and that’s just the beginning of our unfaithfulness. Our sins have put a great burden on our necks that no amount of our effort could ever remove.
But if God isn’t the employer in Jesus’ illustration, what would it be like if He were? He is the one of Whom the Psalmist writes: He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him (103:9-11). That faith that He provides in us (that can feel small to us sometimes, that can feel weak and vulnerable; it is a faith in His mercy that gives to us. It doesn’t pay an earned wage, but mercifully provides forgiveness for our sins. God mercifully provides forgiveness in Christ’s blood for your sin of being unmerciful and unforgiving. He forgives the sin, and He gives power through your faith, to go forward, putting off that sin, forgiving as you have been forgiven. God is the employer whose love caused Him to meet His employee’s unrighteousness with the sacrifice of His own Son that atones for it. His blood has paid your price.
God is powerful enough to accomplish everything you need. You are right to follow the disciples in asking, “Increase [my] faith!” It is this trust in His mercy in Christ’s blood that saves you. Through it, He uses you for the good of His kingdom as well. You might have trouble seeing this. You might be in a situation in your life in which you say to yourself, “What am I able to contribute to God’s kingdom at this point?”
We’ve been talking a lot about Bible reading and prayer these first several months of the year, as part of our Everyone Together program. This hasn’t been because we don’t think you have enough things to do. It is for the very purpose of addressing in your lives the disciples’ request from our text: “Increase our faith!” That request is a prayer, isn’t it? It should be your daily prayer as well. The Bible reading is the means through which the Holy Spirit brings about that request. The Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15). That’s one of the passages from the Catechism that confirmation students are taught as foundational for their lives. The Scriptures make you wise for salvation because through them, the Spirit strengthens your faith. Through that faith that may not seem like much, God brings you into His kingdom and make you useful in bringing others there as well.
Let us pray: Lord, you have enabled in us what was apparently impossible; to be counted among those in your eternal kingdom despite our sins. Increase our faith, that we might remain with you, and that we might be useful in accomplishing great things for the benefit of others. In Christ, Our Savior, Amen.
O God, You make the minds of the faithful to be of one will: Grant unto Your people that they may love what You command and desire what You promise; that among the manifold changes of this world our hearts may always be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever.
You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
St. John 16:5-15
[Jesus said,] “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”