Sunday 6th October 2013 – 27th Sunday Year C

27th Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk  17,5-10

We should be grateful to Luke for recording this episode. The disciples of Jesus approached him, acknowledging the weakness of their faith. There seems to be no previous reason for it, so their confession is unexpected. Jesus shows no surprise, and does not rebuke them, but he takes the opportunity to educate them on the enormous power people possess when they trust God. No matter how weak their faith may be, it is capable of achieving the impossible. The images used by Jesus are striking. People who trust in God can even uproot a tree and plant it in the sea. Jesus then tells a parable to help us to understand the kind of faith he wants from his disciples. Faith is not about trying to believe what you have not seen, nor affirming something you have not experienced. Faith is about being attentive and obedient.

The strength of the believer lies in total obedience, like that of a slave who seeks no wage and does not even expect his master’s thanks. We should serve and seek no reward. If we owe obedience to someone, we cannot expect gratitude. If we believe in God and are ready to do his will without looking for any reward, we will see impossible things happening. The faith that Jesus wants from his disciples is nourished by constant service of God in little things. That is the kind of faith Jesus wanted for those who asked him to increase their faith. Knowing what Jesus asks of us, are we still willing to ask for more faith?

At that time: 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!  6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, `Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.  7 “Will any one of you, who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, `Come at once and sit down at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterwards you shall 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 is commanded you, say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”

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I. READ: understand what the text is saying, focusing on how it says it.

The text belongs to a brief statement of Jesus on everyday life. Addressing the apostles (Lk 17:1), he warns them not to scandalize the weaker brethren, (Lk 17.1-3a), and urges them to forgive without limit those who have offended them (Lk 17, 3b-4). It is precisely this insistence on fraternal forgiveness that prompts the apostles to ask for an increase of faith. Faced with such an unreasonable and exaggerated demand, (to forgive someone who has wronged you seven times in one day), it is not surprising that the apostles recognize that they are weak in faith (Lk 17:5). It requires faith to pardon the aggressor who asks for forgiveness. The offence may seem greater than our capacity for forgiveness.  It should be noted that this is a new concept of faith that underlies the request of the Apostles: the person offended believes in God if, and when, he or she is able to forgive the offender.

The answer that Jesus gives goes far beyond this concept of forgiveness as an act of faith. It focuses on the power of faith, not in its effects. Jesus explained it, in a few words, using a powerful simile: if we had faith the size of a very small seed, it would be enough to transplant trees in the sea. With even a minimum of faith, we could do the impossible and reforest the sea (Lk 17:6).

In order to substantiate and explain the similarity he resorts to another more elaborate example, but one that does not fit in very well with the theme of faith. It does not speak specifically about belief, but about service. (Lk 17,7 -10 ). The servant, even when he does what he was commanded, is not free from serving his master. When a service is performed it is followed, not by a reward, but by new orders to be carried out. The master does not have to thank the servant for what he did in the first place. To capture the meaning of the parable, we need to take into account the reason why Jesus told it and also the amazing power of even a little faith. The servant who has faith and trust in his master should serve without expecting recognition or salary. Here what is being asked is to forgive the brother who has offended.  It is what is being asked of the servant. It is the test of his faith and he should expect no reward. He is only a servant who does what he ought to do.

Understood this way, the teaching of Jesus indicates very clearly that we must always be willing to forgive, and this requires more faith than we have. Faith is the only real and permanent service we owe to the Lord. He does not have to thank us when we do what he commands us, because we are only poor unworthy servants.

II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life

Are we not struck by the fact that one day the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith? How could it happen that those who had left all to follow the Lord, now suddenly realize they still did not have enough faith in him? Those men who shared their everyday life with Jesus, listening to him more than anybody else, obeying him more radically, suddenly noticed one fine day that their faith was insufficient. Being faithful disciples does not always mean being better believers, and this may well be true also in our case.

The apostles discovered how little faith they had when they heard that they had to forgive the brother who offended them “seven times a day” (Lk 17:4). They did not feel able to trust a God who imposed such a hard obligation on them, to forgive their offender seven times in the same day. In all this it is instructive to see that their lack of faith did not separate them, even for a moment, from their Lord.  They continued to follow him even though they were unable to believe fully in him. They turned to him with the request to increase their faith.  They did not give up just because they did not have enough faith. And they recognized how little faith they had, in their inability to forgive.

They did not abandon their Lord with the excuse that they did not trust him enough. They stayed with him and asked him to increase their faith. He taught them a lesson, that to forgive one’s brother is an exercise of faith in God.  The offender may not deserve forgiveness, but God always deserves our trust and confidence. Forgiveness means leaving the offender in God’s hands, even if he or she has not put things right.

If we put our trust in God, then forgiving those who have offended us would be less painful. It would become an occasion of joy for us. We would enjoy God’s help, if we have already experienced it previously. The apostles learned, too, that those who are offended do not ‘owe’ forgiveness to the offender, but to God. Forgiveness is the task of believers and faith is a trusting relationship with God. If it is up to the offender to ask for forgiveness, it is up to the one offended to have trust in God and grant that forgiveness.

It is interesting and comforting that Jesus was not at all disappointed that his disciples admitted to not having enough faith. He challenged them, instead, to have courage and trust his word.

Using a bold image, Jesus taught his apostles to depend more on the power of faith than on their acknowledged weakness. Even a little faith would be enough, he assured them, to plant trees in the sea. Our personal incredulity, or the weakness of our faith in Jesus and his message, need not prevent us from going out to the world as believers, if only we realized that Jesus continues to count on us, even though we are people of little faith. He will transform us into his apostles.

To be good apostles, we do not need to be great believers. All we need is to have enough faith to attempt to do the impossible. Instead of condemning his disciples for their little faith, Jesus encouraged them to value more the little faith they had. He gave an example of the power people have with even a little faith.  People who trust in God find that faith knows no limits, even though their faith may be limited. Those who know the limits of their faith need not impose limits on their imagination. They can attempt the impossible if they trust in God.

Jesus was not worried about being accompanied by poor believers, people of little faith. He will not be surprised either, if he finds that among those who follow him nowadays, there are still some of little faith.  It hurts him, however, if we continue to be shy, timid and inactive. Having only a little faith is not sufficient excuse for not trying to do impossible things, such as transplanting trees in the sea. If it is good to have even a little faith, but it is not good if we are unwilling to take the risk of living by faith. What is still missing from our faith if it is not even as big as a mustard seed? If God works miracle for so little faith, why are they in such short supply in our lives? Why are there so few surprises?  Why do we never seem to do the impossible?

Jesus does not seem to worry that his closest friends have so little faith. But he requires of them that their faith be authentic. What he asks for is blind obedience. With the example of the poor servant, Jesus tells his apostles the kind of faith he expects from them. The servant can expect no reward for doing what he was commanded. Similarly, believers must not delude themselves into thinking that they should get what they want, just because they obey their Lord and Master. Perhaps the most common reason for the weakness of our faith is that we do not get the rewards we hope for.

We want God to reward our faith and our service, and we serve in the hope of receiving what we need. Jesus points out that the servant who returns to his master’s house, having done his duty, is still a servant. The mandate fulfilled does not entitle him to a salary or a reward. One who is bound to total obedience should not expect reward or recognition. The servant’s reward is to have a master to serve.

Living our relationship with God as if we were entitled to gain credit for our service, obeying only when we hope to ensure that our prayers are heard, doing God’s will in the hope that then God will do our will  – these are attitudes that suggest that we have no faith, neither weak or strong. Jesus accepts the little faith of his disciples, but not disobedience which is the absence of faith. Jesus points out to us today, as he did to his apostles, that when we want something from him, he will not limit himself to asking if our faith is small or large. He will ask if we have faith, in other words, if we live in God’s presence like the servant in the house of his master, doing what we ought to do.

The faith which consists in obedience saves us in our helplessness without insisting that we have to be strong believers. Obedience in faith allows us to recognize our weakness without losing hope. We do not work miracles or witness them, not because we do not have enough faith in God, but because we are not good obedient servants. If we want to be apostles we should ask the Lord for faith, even a little faith, to be his servants. Then, like Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, we will see impossible things happening, when we begin to really serve God. It does not require great faith. Let us have more trust and serve the Lord better.